Writing Through Emotional Roadblocks

My writing practice had ground to a total and complete halt.

The transitions that I wrote about last week upended my life to such a degree that all of my self-care practices fell apart. I found myself unable to follow any of the writing advice I preach to other people. I vaguely remembered my writing practice, but it seemed like something I had done years ago, hazy and yellowed with age. I couldn’t imagine undertaking a huge project like a dissertation or keeping up with a weekly blog. Answering emails and Facebook messages required a superhuman strength that I could not muster.

Apathy consumed me. Shame crushed me. Guilt steamrolled me.

I didn’t so much fall into a burning ring of fire as I fell into a seemingly endless black hole of guilt and shame. The longer I didn’t write, the more I didn’t want to write and the more that I felt that I couldn’t write. I started thinking about giving up on writing altogether and pursuing simpler life goals. Learning to crochet, perhaps.

Something drastic needed to be done.

 I tried to review in my head all of the reasons I’d ever wanted to try writing regularly on the internet. I tried to remember what had prompted me to want to start a blog and keep working at it. I tried to remember why I wanted to write and publish articles. I tried to remember that at one time, I’d wanted more than anything to be a writer.

Largely because I’d dropped the ball, my writing group had fallen apart. No one was writing anything. I made zero attempt to try to resolve this problem, even though I had been the leader. Finally, Writing Buddy came to the rescue (again!) and resurrected our struggling group. When we finally met after a few months of inactivity, we discovered that in the absence of social writing, we had accomplished very little. I remembered that without community, writing was impossible. We agreed to start meeting weekly again and submitting our writing to each other for feedback and accountability. We aren’t all writing articles this time. Some members are working on dissertation stuff. Some are writing articles. Me, I’m just trying to get back in the habit of posting a blog post every week.

I consulted the great writing teachers and tried to remember what they taught about writing. I consulted Natalie Goldman and read what she had to say about writing as a meditative practice. I started re-reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well again. I re-read Anne Lamott’s essay on the shitty rough draft. I needed all the inspiration I could get.

I re-read some of my favorite authors in hopes that their words would inspire me. I tried to remember what it was about reading that I loved. I remembered the times I’d read phrases so beautiful that I’d cried. I tried to remember how I’d imitated my favorite authors’ styles, in the hopes of replicating even a glimmer of their brilliance.

I forced myself to read all my previous blog posts, particularly the ones in which I talk about writing as a practice or where I grapple with issues of shame. I tried to picture what I would say to me if I were my writing client. I tried to remember to be kind and compassionate. I pictured giving the non-writing me a big hug. “Oh, sweetheart,” I’d say, “Let’s just take one tiny step forward.”

I started a Bullet Journal again to hold myself accountable to my writing practice. I made a page to track my daily writing practice and write down goals. I scheduled writing time. I wrote down the rewards I’d give myself for sticking to my writing practice.

And I still didn’t want to write a single word.

I thought more about why I didn’t want to write anything. I realized that didn’t want to write because of huge emotional obstacles that I refused to address. I came to understand that until I faced the emotional roadblocks, I would not and could not take any real steps towards writing again.

Identity is currently my biggest emotional roadblock. I’m trying to figure out who I am as a writer with my new job. I completed my PhD in history largely because it allowed me to write. I got to be a historian first, writer second. Now in my new job as a victim advocate, writing is not a part of my job at all. I’m also suffering another kind of impostor syndrome: the fear that no one will take my scholarship seriously because I don’t work in academia. I have no idea if I’m actually still a scholar or if I’m faking that part, too.

Several new issues in my new job have caught my interests: police legitimacy, mandatory arrest laws, criminal justice reform. Just when I think I’d like to do some research about them and learn something about them, I remember that I’m not a criminologist, sociologist, or anthropologist. I’m a historian of 20th century Latin America who has zero experience with the subject of crime and victimization. I don’t feel confident that I could write real articles about the criminal justice system or my work that would be taken seriously.

The second emotional obstacle is related to the first and will come as no surprise to even the most infrequent readers of this blog: shame. By not writing, I’m sabotaging the possibility of my own success. I wrote about procrastination and shame here. I re-read that post and realized that its still true. I’d rather write nothing than take a big risk that my writing will get rejected because I’m not a “real” scholar.

The third and possibly most difficult road block was that working on my research reminded me of my already painful exodus from academia. I liked my research. I still care about my research. Nevertheless, working on my old academic research for “fun” feels like pouring lemon juice on a paper cut. The pain reminds me of how my academic career ended before it had even begun. Working on my research brought up every crappy feeling I’ve ever had about academia plus feelings of rejection on top of it. Small wonder that I didn’t want to write anything.

I acknowledge all of these roadblocks and wrote in my journal about them. I gave them some room to be, processed them, and cried about them. Then I started trying to figure out how to be a writer again.

I set the absolutely tiniest of goals. I’d write for fifteen minutes a day. Even meeting that tiny goal left me exhausted by my own productivity.  I had to force myself to sit down every day and write.

I’d forgotten how incredibly hard it can be to do something just for the sake of doing it. I wanted to feel rewarded and gratified by writing. Even on the days that I did write, I didn’t feel enamored of my writing or of my writing practice. Practice isn’t something that we do because we want to. We do it because its a practice.

I won’t pretend that my writing practice became somehow effortless. It continues to be a struggle, as does working through all of the shitty emotional stuff.

But I’m writing. Slowly, but I’m writing again.

Photo: Water plants in bloom, Denver Botanic Gardens, July 2016.