Trying to juggle your writing with a job, a family, a home, all while trying to keep your health and your mind together? Well, it’s not easy. It’s not for the uncommitted. And it does take its toll.
I’m going to be brutally honest with you. Sometimes this writing life becomes too much. The demands of everything around me can swell to a point where I become physically, mentally and spiritually drained. I feel like an old sponge; strangled dry and left crinkled, shrivelled and grey amidst a pile of unwashed dishes.
My writing career will be at a point where it needs me to focus. It needs me to work hard, to mentally knuckle down, to fully commit, but my day job is short-staffed and pressuring me to put in more hours.
Okay, I tell myself. I can do this. I just need to dig deep and push forward until I get through it.
But don’t forget the house renovations. They’re also at a critical point. I must finish that retaining wall before the next heavy rainfall. No problem. I can do this. I just need to dig deep and… oh, and a close friend is going through a rough time and needs to… oh, and don’t forget you promised your family you’d organise next week’s… oh, and yeah, it’s been a month since you had that daily spiritual time you promised yourself. And what’s that? The toilet is leaking… the car has a puncture… the cat just spewed up a rat.
That’s me face-planting the floor in exhaustion and, despite my face being squashed into the carpet (what’s that? Dirt? Yes. Yes, I will do the vacuuming… sometime), I want nothing more than just to lay here, doing nothing, forever.
My father taught me many things. And, in all honesty, many of them have screwed me up.
When things are tough you need to man up. You need a stiff upper lip. You need to knuckle down, push on and prove yourself. “Hard work never hurt anyone” was one of his many pearls of wisdom. So now, when overburdened by a project, I lock and load, and throw myself into it until it’s done… except my capacity is finite, and the projects are not.
Sometimes I can develop a bit of a martyr complex. I can hold an unhealthy understanding that to be overwhelmed and drained by one’s dedication to a project shows that one is committed, purposeful and a real man. When I’m totally wrung out by life, I want others to be struck by my almighty strength of endurance as I press onward. But of course, nobody is. Everybody has their own shit they’re dealing with. For others to understand what a great martyr I am I have to start moaning about it, but unfortunately this: a) makes me a whinger; and, b) is not sucking it up like a real man should. (There’s my dad’s voice again.)
So, having fallen into this trap once or twice (a month), I’ve come up with some insights.
1. It’s okay to rest.
Not only is it okay, but rest is essential for good physical and mental health. Rest is the counterbalance of stress and if we are going to work hard, it is vital that we offset that with restorative breaks.
We live in a society where we are taught and encouraged to measure our lives by achievement, wealth or position. Therefore many of us have become mentally conditioned to feel that we always need to be working harder, longer and stronger. But I challenge you to step back, forget what the world is telling you and acknowledge the unspoken worth of rest. Turn off society (or at least society’s marketing) and find yourself some real peace and calm.
Give yourself permission to rest. Give yourself the right. Recognise it as HIGHLY important. Schedule it into your life. I know you may have a voice in your head that screams “I don’t have time for this! I need to write that application, pour that concrete, visit great aunt Mildred, hit those KPIs…” Don’t listen. Take control of that voice. You are the boss of that voice and have every right to refute it, otherwise, it will drive you into your own early grave (and probably won’t even care if it does).
And by rest, I don’t mean binge-watching Netflix, hammering away at a video game, or laying in bed dozing all day. I mean refreshing, fulfilling rest. Go for a walk, do a jigsaw puzzle with a friend, read a book in a forest, drink a glass of wine while swinging on the kid’s swing in your city park and laugh at the seagulls. Rest is different for different people, but we all have genuinely healthy activities that renew our spirits. Dare to find yours. Recognise it. Value it.
2. Remember the fun.
Why did you start this burdensome project? Was it because, at some time or other, this task gave you joy? Was it once fun, but somewhere along the way it became a chore?
When I was in grade 12 I studied art. I loved it. I would arrive at school early to paint and, at the end of the day, I was often working so late the cleaners had to kick me out. I even had one good friend who would come and get me for my other classes as I was prone to becoming oblivious to the passing of time. I loved my art, but it never stressed me. Why? Because I never had any plans to do anything with it. I painted for the simple pleasure of it without any ambition or desire for recognition. It was an activity undertaken for pure fun.
Sometimes, as a writer, I lose sight of the pleasure of writing. I desire to achieve something with it, and this, unfortunately, means it often attracts stress. There are pitches to write, loglines to wrestle, networks to uphold, editing to nut out, all with the knowledge of looming deadlines and the gnawing awareness that the years of my life are slowly passing me by. In these times I try to remember my time doing art at school and how fun and carefree it was. I then look at my writing and dig under the layers of stress I have dumped upon it. There, at its core, is still the original joy of why I write in the first place. I just have to sometimes stop and rediscover it.
Perhaps, if something is stressing you out, it’s time to put the joy filter on your glasses and look again at what you’re doing. Stop every once in a while and remember why you are doing it. Stop and take the time to rediscover the joy. Don’t allow the business and sensible side to steal that away from you.
3. Share your suffering.
Nobody likes a whiner. And for this reason, we often hold back with admitting when we are struggling. However, it is one of the joys of being in a community, even for us introverts, to be able to verbalise, cry and release our stress in the safe company of others. How often do we say we respect the honesty of others, and yet are reluctant to honestly admit to those around us when we are struggling?
This is an area I really struggle in. Often when burdened, I’m not always clear in my own mind as to what is going on, and therefore find it hard to start the conversation. However, when I’m a complete mess and have driven the loved ones around me mad, I’ll finally burst with pent-up emotion. Why couldn’t I have done that earlier? I dare you, and myself, to sometimes say: “I don’t know why I feel this way, but I do. Do you mind if I just talk it out with you?”
Here’s a great idea: call up a friend. Tell them that you’d like to buy them dinner, and in exchange ask them to simply sit and listen to you talk things out. They’re not there to offer solutions or advice. Their role is just to listen and perhaps ask a few questions – and enjoy a good free feed.
4. You are not the voice in your head.
I am amazed at how often, when I examine my struggles, how many of them have grown out of trying to appease some concept in my head. So much of what I do is ruled by the values I learnt from my father, even though I can see how unhealthy a lot of them are.
The truth is, we all have voices in our head telling us how and why we should do or feel the way we do. Some of these we have adopted out of a healthy choice, but others we have picked up along the way, often without realising it. Some of them are completely contradictory to the values we want to hold, and yet they still bark at us with their megaphones.
For me, it was a great day of breakthrough when I realised my father’s voice was telling me how to be the perfect version of him. What?! I don’t want to be the perfect version of him, I want to be the perfect version of me! And I’m the one who gets to decide just how I want that version to be.
That day I realised I can stop and challenge these internal voices. I can say NO! You do not represent a value I wish to hold, and I reject you.
These voices are not silenced overnight. For me, it is an ongoing journey as I keep discovering more statements from these voices that need questioning. But next time you are made to feel guilty, or worthless, or a failure by an internal voice: stop; question its validity; and then dare to tell it to f**k off!
Of course, it’s nice and easy to write all this down in a few neat little paragraphs, but it’s a different thing in real day-to-day life. I get that. Just because I’ve realised these things doesn’t mean that my writing life now moves forward completely free and easy. However, every time I hit one of these slumps, I grow a little bit better at dealing with it.
The fact of life is that burdens will always arise and try to flatten us, but the better we get at dealing with the struggles of today, the better equipped we shall be for the challenges of tomorrow.