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So I get an email from my editor a few weeks ago. It is bright and bubbly and gurgling with enthusiasm for my as-yet-unfinished-and-recently-temporarily-sidelined-for-another-project-but-she-doesn’t-know-that book. It’s also kind and patient—she does not press but asks how things are going and wonders aloud if I’m ready to start laying out schedules. Deadlines. Hard, sharp-edged things that make me twitch. She’s careful with them, cause she’s an editor, and has worked with many a slow writer. She knows you can’t rush a good thing. Still, there they are, those tools on the table between us. Waiting for me to take them up.
I send an email soon afterward. Not to my editor, of course. Nope. This one goes to my writing buddy. This email is not bright and gurgling. It is high pitched and thrums on the page and the subject line is “i am losing my shit.” This email lacks contractions and appropriate punctuation. Its final sentence is in all caps. And it has multiple ideas strung together in one sentence. Well, not multiple ideas, actually. Just one idea, repeated hysterically over and over again. And that idea is o shit, howamInotfinishedwiththisbook.
Such an outsized response to such a kind and thoughtful inquiry is clearly unwarranted. You might think I’m writing to suggest that there’s a better way to respond to such a situation, even when we’re panicked.
Instead, I’d like to make the case that losing your shit is not such a bad way to go.
* * * *
I’m not suggesting that a total loss of control is what you’re aiming for: There are good and bad ways to lose your shit. For example, it should never include lashing out at others, especially those with less power than you. I’m not telling you to scream at your students or snap at your spouse. Nor do you want to completely run away from the issue. I mean, sure, it’s no problem if you binge watch a season of Insecure before you dive in. But you don’t want to do much more than that. And if you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety, you want to follow the advice of your trained mental health professional, and maybe run your writing coach’s suggestions past them first.
But if you tend to be pretty grounded and find yourself uncharacteristically shaken, there’s a way to lose your shit that helps instead of hurts. That way is to find someone with whom you can drop the mask of control that is a standard part of professional life and just let out the irrational chatter fluttering through your mind. I’m not just saying here that it’s good to have friends and be in touch with your feelings (although both are heaven). I’m saying something one step past that: that when you articulate all the irrational things that are going on in your head, it makes it easier to identify the true problem, which you can then begin to address.
The fear that provokes o shit, howamInotfinishedwiththisbook is shapeless, without form. It can’t be dealt with in any meaningful way because it’s so vague as to defy apprehension. But when you lose your shit—that is, when you speak that fear aloud, in its raw and unedited form, that cloud of anxiety begins to take form, so you can actually begin to engage it in a meaningful way.
* * * *
The first way this happens is that saying your shit aloud makes you realize how absurd it is. I got the first hint of this when my writing buddy wrote back that my email “didn’t sound like you.” That phrase was like a tiny hiccup in my alternate reality, one that only momentarily distracted me from my hysteria—I rolled over it cause I wasn’t yet ready to see. Of course this sounds exactly like me I thought. She just doesn’t know what a fuck up I am. Can’t let her know. Can’t let her see.
But my absurdity became undeniable when we talked on the phone. What, she asked, was going on in my life that was making me respond this way? Was I upset about something? When I started listing all the things that were bothering me, large to small, one stood out. On the same day I’d gotten the letter from the editor, I’d also stumbled upon the Amazon page for Helen Sword’s new book on writing, and decided that she was among the hordes of scholars that had, as I insisted to my writing buddy, “already written everything I have to say.”
“Well, what’s her book about?” asks my buddy, when I mention this.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t actually read the book. I just read the abstract on Amazon.”
She soldiered on. “OK. But what was it in the description that made you think she was saying what you’re saying?”
“O, I don’t know!” I said, the veneer on my hysteria finally beginning to crack. “I can’t remember what it said. I think she used the word ‘space.’ Just like I do.”
By this time, even I could see. This was not about the Helen Sword (who you should read, by the way, her stuff is good). Something else was happening, though I couldn’t yet tell what.
* * * *
And therein lies the second way that losing your shit helps. Once you can see their absurdity, you can then identify the real issue. I won’t bore you with the rest of my back and forth with my buddy. I’ll only tell you that at some point I mentioned that I was at the beginning of a new chapter. And then all of the sudden, it clicked.
I hate beginnings. I know generally what I want the chapter to say, but I don’t know where to start. If left unchecked, I’ll spend weeks fruitlessly “thinking” about what I want to say. And this beginning was worse than most. I’d just finished what I’d thought of as the “hard” section of the book and had actually been looking forward to moving on to the new section. “i thought chapter four would be easy,” I wrote to her, “and it’s not.” In other words, I was just facing a garden variety writing challenge: I was having trouble getting started. And I wasn’t just frustrated—I was disappointed too.
Here’s the whole point: I never would have figured any of that out if I hadn’t given shape to my fears. My first email was a nameless, faceless spectre. I had to be willing to look at it—then let someone else see it—in order to know it for what it was.
* * * *
You can do this, too. If there’s something about your writing that’s tripping you up and freaking you out, consider looking into your fear instead of running from it. It’s better to lose your shit with a friend, someone you’re close to, who can engage you in a dialogue, one that’s frank without being judgmental. Their care and questioning can peel back the layers of your hysteria and help you see what’s really going on.
But if you just can’t bring yourself to lose it with someone else, befriend yourself and try it anyway. You can do so by trying a variation on a Fear Dump, a strategy that writers use to manage their anxiety.
First, write down everything you’re thinking and worrying about--don’t hold back. Use all the Emojis, exclamation points and capital letters you want.
Second, when you’re done with your tirade, reread what you’ve written and circle everywhere you’ve made a strong claim, especially the places where you’ve talked about your character as opposed to your behavior. When you’re losing your shit, comments about who you are as a person are almost never empirically correct, but they often speak to the very heart of your fears. Also pay special attention to places where you’ve made predictions about the future, and about what’s now possible (or not possible) given what’s happened in the past. This is where you are likely to bump up against your limiting beliefs, those assumptions and interpretations that are holding you back.
Finally, when you’ve completed those steps, take each claim that you’ve circled and ask yourself these three questions:
All questions 1 and 2 are trying to do is help you step back and separate the absurdities from the reality. Question 3 moves you in to strategizing mode—but it does so subtly, by asking you to imagine possible alternatives, rather than make concrete plans or come up with fully fleshed-out solutions. It might take a little for you to be able to approach these questions with the amount of distance you need. But try at this point to treat yourself like your own best friend, and you’ll find it easier to get some perspective.
Being an academic is hard work. And being an academic who writes? Regularly? It’s a grind. And there are very few places in our professional lives that allow for the ugly, the messy, the extra. Make space for it. Hold space for it.
Then use it to help you get back to work.
Want to learn some more tips to help manage your writing challenges? Join us next Friday, October 6, for Still I Write, the free online writing retreat. Registration closes Saturday, Sept 30th, 2017.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach