Writing While Sad

Now that I’m finished with my Twelve Week Article, I’m back to blogging my own thoughts about the writing process. Much to my surprise, the most popular posts on my blog aren’t about actual writing or writing advice. The most frequently read posts are the ones about my own emotional struggles with writing. When I write about feeling shamed by criticism or trapped by the anxiety that comes with perfectionism, those posts seem to resonate the most with readers. Sometimes people tweet me or comment on the blog to let me know that they’re glad they’re not the only ones who feel X about their writing.

I would be a more productive writer if I could keep my writing emotions from my life emotions and vice versa. Sometimes life stuff happens that makes writing difficult, including breakups, breakdowns, and other travails. My emotional life always leaks out all over my writing life like battery acid. Life stuff creates feelings of anger and sadness that well up and infuse my writing. Writing with less than perfect emotions sometimes feels like struggling to wade through wet concrete. Some days, I’m too sad or too angry to give even a single, solitary fuck about writing.

For a long time, I didn’t think it was possible to write when dealing with an emotional tsunami.  I'd stop writing entirely until I got the emotional stuff under control. However, I’ve learned that it is precisely when I’m sad or angry that I need to be writing the most. In fact, during a particularly recent sad writing day, I managed to work through a major problem with my twelve week article. We can write despite sadness or anger. [This, of course, is not to say that anyone should be focusing on academic writing when dealing with grief or depression. I’m just talking here about having the serious blues.]   

What I’ve found is that writing with big emotions requires practice to ride it through, much like meditating with big emotions requires the same kind of practice.

Natalie Goldberg, of course, is the person who likened writing to Zen meditation in Writing Down the Bones. She encourages writers to make writing a practice in the same way that a person makes a sitting meditation into a practice.

I’ve been meditating for about five years now. I am never thrilled to sit for meditation. I try to talk myself out of it every morning. I have plenty of excuses. It takes too much time. I’m busy. It’s boring. It’s not a crucial part of my day. An occasional meditation practice is just as good as a regular practice. I’m hungry. Meditation would be better with coffee. I have too much email.  I’m too emotional. I’m not in the right mood. It’s too hard. I’m too sad. Anger is sure to fuck up my meditation completely.

My sorry excuses to avoid meditating are the same excuses that I make to avoid writing. I know when I’m manufacturing flimsy excuses. What’s important is that I don’t give into them. So, I make myself meditate even though I don’t want to. In the same way, I make myself write even though I don’t want to. I sometimes feel huge emotional tidal waves, but now have enough trust to know that they’re going to calm down if I just acknowledge them.

Meditation is so much like my writing. I’m getting better at it, but still struggle with it. My emotions threaten to derail me completely. My attention wanders. I think too much. I blame myself for thinking too much. I blame myself for blaming myself for thinking too much. I remember that I’m supposed to be paying attention. I feel guilty that I can’t. My breathing is too fast and shallow. I’m ashamed that I can’t seem to get it right. And then I readjust, let go of judgment, and start over. Write. Breathe. Feel. Write.

Writing while sad or angry is often a repetition of my mediation practice. I don’t want to, I’m not in the mood, but I do anyways. I’ve long since abandoned trying to convince myself to care about my writing when I really do feel too sad or angry to care. The caring comes later. What’s important is to just recognize and accept that I’m going to have to do a little bit for meditation or writing even though I feel rotten. And the meditation practice and writing session might suck. But the important part is in doing it despite emotional yuck.

[Photo: Ceiling of one of the chapels at the Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City, 2015.]