Writing Through Transition and My New Story

If you read the blog regularly (or not), you may have noticed that the blog has been on a temporary vacation. I even missed its first birthday. I’ve taken more time off from blogging than I anticipated, mostly because I’ve been going through some major life transitions.

I got a shiny new non-academic job in a field in which I never expected to work.  I’ve been convinced for some time that although I love being a historian and a scholar, I wanted to work outside of academia. Getting the job meant some new beginnings, but also some bittersweet endings. I finally said goodbye to any hope of an academic job and life. As much as I didn’t think that I was meant to be a tenure track academic, it still hurt to let go of the parts of academia that I liked: research, teaching, and writing. I’ve visited all of the five stages of grief multiple times.  I’ve experienced stabbing jealousy when I’ve heard that friends and colleagues have landed great academic jobs in places I want to live. I’ve cried a lot. Besides the sadness of letting go of academic hopes, I’ve found transition out of academia difficult. I received lots of rejection letters and often didn’t even receive interviews for jobs for which I thought I was the perfect candidate. I’ve wondered if my PhD ruined my life.

My new job is at a non-profit devoted to victim advocacy. I’ve only been there a few weeks and can’t tell yet if I’m enjoying my job. I’m adjusting to the world of non-profits. I’m overwhelmed by the newness of it all and the sheer amount of new things I have to learn. I’m reminded of my first semester of graduate school, the one where I was convinced that I was simply too dumb to take graduate-level classes. I’ve had to adjust to a whole new set of expectations and cultural norms in my new job. I can no longer sit at home and write about culture in my pajamas all day; I have to dress up and go to an office. I work directly with some pretty traumatized people who need help in ways that I don’t know how to address. I now have co-workers, rather than academic colleagues. People sometimes ask me about my background and how I got into my new field. I’m still trying to come up with a good answer. I try to avoid mentioning my PhD, as it counts for very little and often doesn’t seem relevant.

I’ve also had to adjust to living in a new city. I don’t know anyone here. I liked living in Latin America and I miss Mexico terribly. I liked living as an ex-pat and having an exotic story to tell people. (”Well, see, I live in Mexico…”) My current city is okay, but doesn’t thrill me. I’m living in a different country than my beau, which has been hard on all kinds of levels. I speak Spanish so much less than I used to and I miss it. Everything seems new and different and scary. I haven’t felt quite this vulnerable in a long time.

In the middle of so much change, my writing practice ground to a halt. I’ve got two articles and a book manuscript that somehow haven’t written themselves while I’ve been dealing with the rest of my life. I abandoned my writing group. I stopped writing daily. I found it hard to think lofty, analytical thoughts in the middle of such overwhelming transitions and life changes. I found myself back in that guilt and shame cycle that always happens when I don’t write. I knew that I should be writing, but couldn’t find any energy or motivation to do so. What started as guilt turned into shame as I reasoned that if I was a really good writer, I wouldn’t let major life changes deter my writing. You’re not a real writer, the voice of shame whispered in my ear. I hung my head and conceded that it was right.

The situation was untenable, so I did the unthinkable: I decided to take a break from academic writing and forgave myself for doing so. The guilt and shame lifted enough for me to see that my decision was the right one despite the fact that I felt that I was breaking all of my own rules. I decided to practice some self-compassion and speak gently to myself rather than continue my self-recriminating monologue. “Self,” I said, “You need to take care of you right now and that’s okay.”

But even sans an official writing practice, I still felt the writing itch. I had things to say that weren’t getting said. I decided that the only thing I could do during the transition was write as much as I could in my journal.

One of the things that I’m really struggling with is that I don’t know what my story is anymore. For a long time, my story was “I’m getting a PhD, etc.” I’m not sure what to say now. Where am I going? Why am I going there? I don’t really know anymore.

I used to think that life was about long periods of stability punctuated by short periods of uncertain transition. I’m revising that idea now. I’ve started to think that maybe life is all about transition. Journal writing has helped me start to make sense of the latest chapter of my life, both how it connects to the previous ones and how it might connect to future ones. Writing through the transition has made it slightly less threatening. I’m more able to accept that its okay not to know exactly where I’m headed at the moment.  

There’s also the promise of writing a new ending to my story, one that I want to be hopeful and positive.  Where do I want to go from here? Who do I want to be in the world? Why do I want these things? How do I want my story to end? There’s power in writing our own endings to our life stories, giving us meaning and direction when everything seems crazy.

Writing is far more powerful than we think.

My journal entries lately have been focused on validating my own feelings. Yes, this transition is hard. Yes, it feels crazy. Yes,it’s terrifying. Yes, I feel incredibly vulnerable. I write about how its okay to have these feelings and that they’re all incredibly normal. I’m still in transition and realize that I’m going to be feeling out of control and vulnerable for a little bit longer. I’m trying to get my writing practice (particularly my blogging!) back in line to provide me with some stability though all of this rough stuff.

I’m hoping to get back to blogging more regularly now. I’ve got a lot to say and a new story to write.

[Photo: Clear Creek, Wheat Ridge, Colorado, 2016.]

Handwriting Comes from the Heart

My blog mostly focuses on the weird complexities of academic writing. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how and why the act of journal writing has influenced and improved my academic writing.

I’ve been keeping journals since I was a kid. Although self-knowledge was not my goal when I started keeping a journal at age ten (I just thought it sounded cool), my journal writing practice has transformed my life. My journal, which began as boring and simple dispatches about my day, has grown as I’ve grown as a person. In the past few years my writing has become much more raw, honest, and deep.

As someone I admire greatly used to tell me, “Writing on a computer comes from the head; handwriting comes from the heart.” I love the act of writing by hand with an actual pen on paper. I wrote in cheap spiral notebooks with even cheaper ballpoint pens for years. Sometime in the last five years, I decided that my inner thoughts were worthy of a beautiful journal and important enough to record with a fountain pen. My current journal writing tools include a Paper Blanks journal, a Lamy fountain pen, and Noodler’s ink in purple (Le Coleur Royale).  

Friends. [Antigua, Guatemala, 2013]

Friends. [Antigua, Guatemala, 2013]


My emotional life affects my writing life. If I’m sad, my sadness leaks out all over my writing life like so much battery acid. Anger has much the same effect.

Writing is by far a more pleasant experience when not accompanied by bouts of existential angst.  Writing through rough emotions is often uncomfortable and unpleasant. I never want to write when overwhelmed emotionally, but I’ve learned how. I’m capable of producing academic writing even in the middle of an emotional shitstorm.

For years, I avoided recognizing and feeling emotions, particularly the ones I considered "negative." I preferred to think about emotions in intellectual terms, defining them and analyzing them for their underlying meaning and significance. Feeling them was out of the question.

My journal has taught me how to stop thinking about emotions and how to start feeling them. Writing in my journal connects me to exactly the kind of emotional stuff that I’d rather ignore or bury underneath a frantic burst of faked productivity or a giant brownie that I swallow in chunks without really tasting. My journal writing expresses small, but powerful truths about my emotional life:

“I’m so angry right now.”
“I’m so sad I can’t believe it.”
“I’m drowning in shame.”
“I feel rejected.”

My journal writing would win me no prizes for beautiful prose. The writing is messy. Sometimes I forget to punctuate. The ideas don’t always hang together. However, my journal reflects the messiness of my life as I live it. I’m absolutely me, reveling in the full spectrum of my emotional life.

Writing about hard emotions has taught me to validate and accept what I’m feeling without trying to change it. So often in life, we don’t often get the kind of emotional validation we need; one of our greatest needs is to know that others understand how we feel. We often also deny ourselves self-validation, scolding ourselves for feeling X or denying that we feel Y. My journal is a place for absolute emotional honesty. The feelings don’t have to make sense. I just need to get them out and on to the page. Just writing about how I’m having less than perfect emotions allows me to them aside for long enough to get some other kinds of writing done.

When I return to academic writing, the emotions are still there. Writing about them in my journal doesn’t make them go away; feeling them lets them flow through and move on when they’re good and ready.

And then I’m ready to write, feel, and write again. It’s like a heartbeat.

[Photo: my journal, pens, and ink go where I go. Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, 2012]