When I look back on 2019 in future, I think I’ll remember it as the year I lost faith in my own writing and burnt out doing almost nothing.
Of course, there are a lot of good things that have happened in the past year. My husband and I bought a house and adopted a second cat. I started this blog and pulled 200lb on a deadlift for the first time.
But what’s sticking with me the most in these final days of the year is the feeling that, after feeling drained for so long, I’m only now taking the first, tremulous steps towards the life I envision for myself, like a newborn foal learning to stand.
Of course, these aren’t the first steps at all. Nothing I’ve done in the past few days is new to me, but it feels new because it’s somehow become strange and foreign to me. I wrote 460 words of my novel yesterday, the first time I’d touched it since August. I pulled out my DSLR for the first time in three months and took pictures of my cat attacking her own reflection. I’ve even worn my mouthguard (to stop me grinding my teeth) four nights in a row.
Yup, that’s how low the bar is. I stuck a bit of plastic in my mouth before going to bed. Go me!
I alluded to both my writing and a feeling of burnout in my first paragraph, but although they’re related, I think the causes are separate. I didn’t lose faith in my writing because I was burnt out, but the longer I went on feeling like I was trudging through mud, the harder it was to even think of creating anything.
I’m not really sure why this year was the year I stopped believing in myself. I’m not even sure that’s the right way to phrase it, as that implies there was ever a time when I genuinely did believe in myself, and I’m unconvinced there ever was. Perhaps what I should say is that this is the year I began to disbelieve in myself.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I’ve carried around stories in my head for so long that I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have characters swirling around my mind, their stories woven into the fabric of my consciousness.
I’ve been plagued by self-doubt for at least as long. For years I barely even wrote at all, spending my time daydreaming about my stories instead of ever putting them down on paper. I didn’t realise it at the time (I had grand ideas about how brilliant my stories would be, when they ever got written), but in retrospect I think I avoided ever actually writing because writing out the stories exposed their flaws. In my head, I could rehearse the same scene over and over again, with the rest of the story a foggy background. On paper, I had to write those foggy parts as well and try to knit them all together into a single story.
Around eight years ago I started taking my writing seriously, which of course meant actually writing. In that time, I’ve gone through phases of confidence and self-doubt, but never as much as I have this year.
I track my writing in Toggl (because I am a giant nerd), and while the first half of the year had some ups and downs, over the second half of the year I’ve just not written at all. I managed a whole 57 minutes in August, and another hour of a new project I had hoped would reignite my creativity in November, but that’s it. Every time I’ve thought about writing, I’ve been overcome by shame over the state of the novel I’ve been working on and this bone-deep conviction that I am one of those people for whom no amount of practice will ever be enough.
Even a couple of weeks ago I was so certain that I would never be a good enough writer that I was telling a friend I thought that maybe the best thing for my mental health was to simply give it up. She was supportive until she saw how much I didn’t really want to, at which point she somehow managed to convince me that she really does like my work and she really does think I can manage it if I keep at it.
And so, thanks to her, I wrote a whole 460 words yesterday. It was hard, but I’m determined now to see this draft through and seek feedback from a professional, someone who I’ll trust isn’t lying to spare my feelings.
At first, I threw myself into this blog when I was struggling with my creative writing. But after a few months I found I had more and more half-drafted posts on my drive, things I was anxious about sharing because they weren’t good enough. Perhaps they felt like they had nothing that hadn’t already been said by someone else, or else they didn’t seem to have a solid theme from start to end and felt like I was just rambling and going off-piste.
I don’t know if my criticisms were valid. I know that I can struggle to be objective with this kind of thing, and I know that every writer is more critical of their own work, when they read it dozens of times and know every last detail they’re trying to distill into it, than they are of articles they read only once.
I also know that if I want to get better I need to finish things. I’ve seen this in my fiction writing, re-drafting and rewriting the same novel for the better part of a decade (with occasional forays into the other tales that are bursting out of my mind), but unlike a novel, which by definition is so long that it must take weeks or months to write even a single draft, blog posts can be drafted and published in a single sitting.
So for 2020, I’m making it a goal to write every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. There are no rules about what I write — it can be my novel, on this blog, or even a short story or poem — as long as I’m writing something beyond IMs and emails.
I also know I need to have some completion goals here. I’m leaning towards making myself publish here every week. That’s something that I shied away from early on in the life of this blog, as I didn’t want to share anything that wasn’t worth sharing, but with almost as many half-finished posts on my drive as there are on the site, I think it might be time for a rethink.
With my novels it’s harder. I can’t exactly have a goal of finishing and publishing a novel every week. Sometimes, as well, I’ll spend weeks on brainstorming and planning without writing any actual scenes. I think what I’ll do here is to set a goal of finishing at least one chapter a week during periods when I’m actively writing, and also to send my manuscript to a third-party editor when I read ‘The End’, without giving into the urge for yet another rewrite.
I also mentioned that I’ve been struggling with burnout recently. It’s been going on for several months, and I’m only beginning to feel rejuvenated now that I’ve been off work for the last few days. At first blush, this might seem like it’s caused by the problems with my writing, but while it might be exacerbated by them I think it has a different root.
For much of this year, you see, I’ve been arriving home from work wondering how on earth I can summon the energy to make dinner, and often resorting to ready meals or takeaway. I’ve dragged my sorry arse to the dojo far less often than I should have done, and spent my weekdays counting down to weekends that I would spend, exhausted and spent, watching Netflix and feeling guilty about not spending more time on housekeeping or meal prep.
I don’t hate my job. In fact, I love the company and generally enjoy the work. For a long time, I thought it was just my depression acting up, and I couldn’t understand why when I wasn’t feeling sad. Then I learnt that I’m also autistic, and everything clicked.
This past year has carried some changes that have made the 9-5 work week more challenging for me, and because I didn’t realise I was autistic it didn’t even cross my mind that these things were a problem. For one thing, my company hired more people about a year ago, so what was a quiet office has become much louder and my desk has moved from beside a wall to the middle of the room, with people constantly walking behind me to go to the loo or make coffee.
For another, I now take the bus to and from work, rather than walking. It’s not a particularly long journey, but it means more time spent anxiously awaiting the bus and dealing with a noisy bus ride.
Both of these things mean I come home exhausted and unmotivated. And it becomes a vicious cycle, where I spend my weekend knackered and zoned out in front of the telly, then enter Monday frazzled and wondering what I’m going to have for dinner in the 45 minutes between getting home and speeding off to the dojo again. Which leads to me being knackered all over again the next weekend.
Unfortunately, I have limited control over either of these stressors. I can’t exactly expect my workplace to rearrange everyone’s desks so I can have my back facing a wall again, and buying a second car and paying for parking isn’t really feasible at the moment (besides, traffic and the uncertaintly around finding a parking spot are stressful as well, so I’m not sure it’d make much difference).
What I do know, however, is that a bit of self-care makes it easier to deal with. At the very least, if I’m taking care of myself then I can’t use a lack of doing so as another stick to beat myself with.
When I talk about self-care here, I mean the unglamourous stuff, the kind of self-care I’ve seen referred to as parenting yourself. In other words, adulting. I firmly believe that sometimes self-care is ice cream for dinner or beer and telly with your significant other, but that’s not the kind of self-care I need here.
Because I’m autistic, disorder and uncertainty are stressful for me. Imagine, then, how terrible I feel when my house is a mess and I have no idea what I’m having for lunch because I didn’t plan ahead well enough to prepare something. The solution seems obvious. Tidy the feckin house and make a meal plan. But being autistic makes these tasks harder than they would otherwise be, because my brain has trouble switching to a new task and the more stressed I am, the harder it is to focus, making simple tasks far more complicated and time-consuming than they need to be.
The solution to this is every autistic person’s favourite tool: schedules and routines. In particular, I want to implement some routines that help rejuvenate my energy after work and at the weekends. Everyone knows the feeling of getting home from work, sitting down for a moment … and still being there on the sofa five hours later. Or waking up on a Saturday and deciding to watch some telly in the morning, only to still be in your pyjamas at teatime.
I know from experience that simply trying to force myself to meal plan and exercise and clean and prep food at the weekend Doesn’t. Work. It’s how I end up in the aforementioned situation on a Sunday evening, wondering where the weekend went.
But I also know from experience that there are certain things that help me regain some energy, and other things that leave me feeling more drained. Eating a predominantly whole foods diet with plenty of veg, getting some gentle exercise, and the basics of actually getting dressed and brushing my hair in the morning all help, while watching telly and munching on whatever’s easiest in the cupboard do not.
So although I have plans to lift weights at home on Saturdays and meal prep on Sundays, I’m going to start with the routines that actually set me up for the best chance of success with these plans. That means keeping my weekend morning routine as close as possible to my weekday one. I don’t need to put on jeans and a real bra if I don’t want to (I never want to, let’s be real), but comfy linen trousers and a bralet are better than pyjamas. Likewise, eating a proper breakfast is better than just grazing and never being satisfied. When I do this I often find that I don’t feel hungry, but I feel utterly lacking in any energy (because duh, food is energy, it’s literally why we eat).
I’m also implementing a no telly before teatime rule. You may recall that I cut out television entirely for the month of February, and I found it made me so much more creative. I don’t want to cut out telly entirely because there are programmes I love, but I do know that I have obsessive tendencies where I will start watching a programme and end up coming home from work on Friday and sitting in front of the TV, going to bed, then getting up on Saturday morning and starting the next episode.
Weekday evenings are more challenging. Hopefully, with better weekend self-care in place, I’ll enter the week with a clean house and pre-chopped veg in the fridge, making weeknight dinners much less stressful, and not having any telly until I’ve had dinner will keep me from getting home and immediately zoning out.
However, if I’m going to meet my writing goals, I’m going to have to do that in the evenings. I also have karate several evenings a week, and there’s some housework that needs done during the week (like cleaning the kitchen and emptying litter boxes). In other words, even with the most perfect weekend prep, I’m going to have to do stuff on weeknights, which means I need a strategy for dealing with coming home stressed and tired.
I honestly don’t have an answer to this just yet. I usually have a cup of tea when I get home from work, but whether I want to spend that time reading and relaxing or I want to jump into writing I’m not sure. Perhaps even I should postpone the cup of tea and do a bit of meditating when I get home. Whatever it is, I’m going to have to experiment a bit to find a way to approach my weeknights with a bit more intention.
This has been a pretty long post, but the tl;dr is this:
I have two broad goals for 2020. One is to commit to my writing and my creativity by simply showing up every day, even if only for ten minutes, and to push myself to complete projects instead of tinkering further. In fact, I’m going to start right now, with publishing this post today instead of in three months’ time.
The second is to focus on the basics of self-care. I have big goals for my fitness and other aspects of my life, but the bottom line is that if I’m feeling burnt out from just going through the bare minimum of getting dressed and going to work, I need to have better tools in place to deal with it. So I’m going to double down on figuring out weekend and evening routines to put me in a better position to get things done, and I’m going to retrict my telly watching to help with that.
What are your intentions for 2020, and how do you plan to achieve them?