Getting through transition requires us to cultivate resilience. If we’re not focusing on cultivating resilience, we’re probably cultivating resistance to change. Resisting personal transitions and life changes often leads to even greater emotional upheaval. However, getting through transition often requires that tricky art of “leaning in.” Yes, transition is often hideously uncomfortable, but it’s getting comfortable with discomfort that will get us through.
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.
As some readers might have noticed, I’m posting erratically these days. Two months ago, I started a new non-academic job as a crime victim advocate at a non-profit organization. The jump has been daunting. I don’t feel like I’ve landed or have my two feet under me. I am, yet again, in transition (or perhaps the transition never stopped?). My writing practice is suffering, but I’m working to get it back on track. In the meantime, here’s how things are going:
I’m hoping my new job combines big ideas about the world with a commitment to social justice and helping people. As a historian, I’m still focused on helping people tell their stories in their own words. Much of my new job involves listening to people tell me about their lives. Many are sad stories about people living ordinary lives until some extraordinarily terrible thing happened to them. People are often crying when I meet with them. I’m learning to sit with people in their moments of greatest pain and trauma.
I continue to suffer from impostor syndrome, which I wrote about here. I now tell people that I’m a victim advocate, but what I really mean is that I’m an academic historian with no training in human services masquerading as a victim advocate. I’m still not quite sure how to talk about my PhD. When I do talk about my former life as an academic, I’m careful to say something about how I have a background in historical research or that I’m a “recovering academic.” People seem understand my Peace Corps and non-academic experiences more than my academic credentials. I sold myself to this particular organization as a person interested in solving social problems, rather than someone with expertise and experience in this particular field.
I’m struggling to learn the criminal justice system. It is every bit as complicated as anything that I studied or wrote about in graduate school. I haven’t explored it too much, but there’s a whole new body of literature on victimology that I never knew existed. I’ve tried reading some of it, but social science literature often feels over my head and I don’t understand it. I desperately wish that I could take a victimology class. Or classes. I’m trying to read as many books about victimology as possible, but often times don’t have any idea of where to start. I’m reminded of my first few semesters in graduate school when everyone around me seemed to be discussing abstract theories in jargon-laden language. I often felt like I was simply too dumb to be in graduate school. I didn’t realize until much later that my fellow students weren’t smarter than me, but rather that they’d just read more books and internalized specialized academic lingo. I’m hoping that learning the ropes of my new job is a similar process. However, I’ve also learned that reading twenty books about X is not a universal problem solving strategy.
I’ve discovered that victim service providers are firm believers in maintaining personal boundaries, 40 hour work weeks, and self care practices. After years of working too many hours a day on academic projects and having my work turn into my life, I find the idea of maintaining firm work and life boundaries and devoting time to self-care almost subversive. I took Friday afternoon off and felt supremely guilty about it.
Despite all of the newness, some parts of my job feel familiar and draw on transferable PhD skills. For example, searching databases for police records with clunky database software is not unlike searching a historical archive with clunky database software. Each police department has its own rules about documents, whether or not it will release certain records, and particular classification systems. After I locate the records, I spend a good chunk of my day reading them. Reading police records reminds me of reading archival records, although I’m reading them for factual information rather than analyzing them in any kind of critical way. There’s also less witchcraft and more texting in contemporary, versus historical, crime reports. The reading skills I learned in graduate school come in handy. I’m able to read quickly and efficiently and pick out the most important pieces of information about the cases I work on. Entering data into a database to organize and tracking it for future reference seems much to me like using bibliographic software to track sources.
I thought that I’d miss teaching, but I’ve found lots of opportunities to teach in informal settings. On crime scenes with victims of domestic violence, for example, I educate them about issues of power, control, gender, and feminism. I encourage people to challenge and question their own understandings of their situations and look at their works in new ways. I explain the complexities of the criminal justice system to people, breaking it down into manageable chunks. Particularly challenging is explaining the U.S. criminal justice system to monolingual Spanish speakers. They often have had absolutely no experience with the system and need help understanding it. I’m teaching in other ways, too. For example, I’m putting together a training for volunteer victim advocates on how to be good allies to the LBGTQ community when its members suffer crime and violence. I fully intend to discuss concepts of race, class, gender, intersectionality, and heteronormativity, as well as offer practical solutions to be better allies.
Some things about my job are utterly foreign and new, such as getting called to crime scenes and working with law enforcement. I’m trying to figure out how all kinds of new hierarchies are structured and how they’re affected by structural racism, classism, and sexism. I’m also adjusting to the idea of being an activist and advocate rather than hiding behind scholarly objectivity. Other things I find totally incomprehensible. For example, I don’t think I will ever adjust to the idea of using adjectives as nouns. (”The female continued northbound…”) Police writing is sometimes just as unlovely as academic writing in its own ways.
I miss my research, but I’m hopeful that I may be able to make use of it in new ways. I recently found myself discussing my experiences and research in Guatemala with a fellow victim advocate coordinator. I told her about war, genocide, political violence, land issues, and discrimination against native peoples. I used the opportunity to link the 2014 surge in child migrants to the unresolved structural problems of the civil conflict. When I was done, she told me that she thought that what I’d told her about Guatemala was a fascinating example of intergenerational trauma. I was a little bit shocked, because I’d never considered my work on Guatemala in those terms. (I always thought it was about race.) Was it possible that there were other ways to think about my research outside of academia? It seemed that there were. She suggested that I speak about Guatemala at a state-wide conference for victim advocates next year. I’m excited to think that I may be talking about Guatemala again soon.
I’m not writing as much as I want to yet. Now that I’m moving further and further away from academia, I’m struggling to stay motivated to write. As my current job doesn’t hinge on intellectual output, I often don’t see much point in pursuing academic writing. I’d like to think that I don’t need the promise of tenure to motivate me to work on my academic writing, but my motivations have changed. Do I really need to have a monograph published on a first tier academic press? Or do I want to shift my writing more towards popular audiences?
Emotionally, I’m all over the place. Some days I feel awesome about my new job. It feels meaningful and like I’m taking academic knowledge to the streets. And then I get huge pangs of rejection and sadness when I remember how much time I invested in being a scholar and how hard its been to walk away. And then I’m jealous of academic colleagues. I’m jealous of people’s new jobs, new publications, and overseas research trips. I miss my academic friends. I miss me as a scholar. I complete this emotional cycle approximately twenty times a day.
Still in transition, but the only way out is through.
Photo: Green plants a-growin' at the Denver Botanic Gardens, July 2016.