Writing Through the Impossible

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author, editor and coach Jessica Conoley (@jaconoley).


One of the most phenomenal (and underrated) parts of having a creative freelance career, like writing, is our ability to mold the job to our needs.

Need flexibility to pick up kids? You’ve got it.

Want to learn about poisons of the sixteen hundreds? No one is stopping you from researching for 72 hours straight.

We have ownership of our time and our projects. We also have the freedom to shut our work down and devote ourselves to some other aspect of our lives.

But sometimes shutdowns just happen. And even worse sometimes these unplanned shutdowns are due to hardcore life chaos. Maybe it’s the death of a loved one, dissolution of a partnership (romantic or business), or a house fire that stops your writing and everything else. What we think was a temporary shutdown ends up being a life-altering event, and we have to find a whole new way of existing in order to move forward.

So, what do you do when you’re faced with an unexpected shutdown? How do you stay true to your creative ambitions and still handle what life is throwing at you?

I struggled with that question for 16 months as my mom was dying.

 Here’s what got me back on my writing track.

Gratitude

It’s hard to find things to be grateful for when your life is in cinders, but gratitude primes your brain to look for solutions and positive opportunities amidst your awful situation. It helps shift your perspective and eventually may lead you to hope. I spent those months feeling grateful for:

  • The freedom to take on as little work as I wanted to. If I had still been tied to a corporate job, I wouldn’t have had the same freedom over my time. I wouldn’t have been able to care for mom the way I wanted to.
  • The ability to lose myself in work. A lot of those 16 months sucked. Bad. I didn’t want to face them or think about them or feel them. Sometimes I didn’t. Somedays I buried myself in work and was grateful my career could be a sanctuary.
  • Clients and colleagues who showed time and time again they valued me as a person, not just as an editor, coach, or writer. I was careful with the details I chose to share, but my clients and colleagues consistently showed me the good in the world, when it would have been so easy to get lost in the bad.

When you’re faced with the unimaginable and feel like writing is the farthest thing from possible, take five minutes to write about what you are grateful for at that very moment. You can start by listing five small basics: I ate today. I have fluffy slippers on. The sun came out, etc. If you’re feeling really ambitious, add some sensory details to flex that writing muscle. That simple list proves you have written—which as you know feels very, very good.

Quiet

A new reality was being built around me, and if I remained in autopilot-disaster mode, I would end up in a place I never intended to go—the place where writing had turned into something I used to do. I was the only person who could figure out my best way forward, but under the barrage of external pressures, I couldn’t hear myself think. To find some quiet I reduced external noise by:

  • Silencing phone notifications. Text messages, phone calls, email, and social media alerts were all paused. Immediate family, doctors’ offices, and my three BFFs were the only people I let ring through.
  • Setting out-of-office notifications everywhere. I’m out on family leave and have delayed access to messages. If you need immediate access to me, please text. Thank you for your patience, and I look forward to speaking with you. Here’s the sneaky trick I pulled: I DIDN’T include my phone number in the out-of-office message. If the person didn’t have my number already, we didn’t have the level of relationship that warranted an immediate response.
  • Curating my media intake. I only followed adorable animals and positive, introspective snippets. I stopped reading the news. My watching and reading habits turned to the familiar: I rewatched all of The Golden Girls. I let go of my self-imposed rule that I had to read only new books. Instead, I reread the same two books for 16 months straight.

If you have a physical reaction when something pops on your radar, that’s a good place to set an out of office, hit mute, or establish a boundary. In the midst of chaos, it’s time to do what’s right for you. As you claim your quiet time, you make space to find clarity about the next best step for you—and don’t be surprised if the next best step is sleep. Your brain knows it’s much easier to write once you catch up on rest.

Self-care

When I quieted all that noise, I realized that the path I was on led to mental and physical exhaustion—and exhaustion is not conducive to quality writing. While it felt like the last thing I could do was invest in myself, quiet, sensible me knew that feelings are just warning signs that something needs attention. Quiet, sensible me knew if I didn’t take care of myself, I wasn’t going to be able to take care of mom. Quiet, sensible me decided self-care was a top priority, regardless of time and financial restrictions. I looked at self-care that had worked for me in the past and recommitted to:

  • Exercise. I doubled the number of Pilates classes I was taking. Yes, it was good to move after so much time in waiting rooms and driving to doctors’ appointments, but having my teacher tell me what to do and not having to think for one whole hour was positively wonderful. I went on long, slow, walks outside because fresh air felt like a luxury after stagnant hospital air.
  • Massage. Stress raises toxin levels in the body which leads to wear on your immune system. If I got sick, I couldn’t be around my chemo-treating mom. The clock was ticking on the number of days left with her, therefore getting sick was not an option. Massage had been an intermittent indulgence of the past, but it became a bi-weekly routine so my immune system could do its thing.
  • Meditation. Sitting still, breathing, and sorting through the crap rolling around in my head helped bring that external quiet and calm to my internal thoughts. It gave me space to hear myself think and trust that the next step I was making was the right one for me. (I know some of you are rolling your eyes, and that’s totally okay. Early 2017 me thought meditation was a load of crap too, but that’s a different essay.)
  • Writing. Writing is how I process emotions and learn lessons to my bones. Like many other creatives, if I am not actively creating, my mental health suffers. I committed to writing in any form I could muster and told myself judgement about the quality and usability of the writing was future-me’s job. All current-me had to do was get words on the page.

Writing was the hardest self-care for me to implement because I didn’t want to process what was happening. If I processed what was happening, it meant mom was really dying. All the time I wasn’t writing, I was in denial, which served as a coping mechanism and helped me through some really horrible moments. But, in the quiet I knew it was time to start accepting the inevitable.

When you’re investigating the right self-care steps, if there’s one that feels impossible it may be because that’s the place you do your heavy emotional processing. If you aren’t ready to process yet it is okay. Only you know when it’s time to move to that next step of acceptance. (I strongly suggest muting anyone who is trying to force you to move on before you’re ready.)

The questions to ask yourself are: Am I not doing this because it’s hard? Or am I not doing this because I’m not ready, yet? When you have your answer take a moment to be proud of yourself. Asking that question is very hard to do. Answering it honestly is even harder. You can decide what you want to do with that answer tomorrow.

Baby steps

I’d accepted writing, even though it was going to feel hard, was my next right step. After a few weeks of physical self-care, I had the energy to contemplate what writing might now look like. But, as I contemplated what to work on, overwhelm set in—words felt impossible. I sat in paralysis for a few days, before realizing I needed to back up a step—I’d missed the before-the-words-on-a-page part of writing. I wanted to start with something I knew I could accomplish, so I set a few micro-goals like:

  • Open my writing software. That was it. I didn’t have to write. I didn’t have to read. I didn’t have to decide what I was going to work on, all I had to do was open Word because that small action was a step toward new words.
  • Read something I had written. I only released one creative-ish piece of writing in 2021. I opened it and read it. Because I’d been on hiatus, I saw it more objectively. It was good. If I could do that once, in the middle of the worst of it I could do it again—because now I was taking care of myself.
  • Set a timer for five minutes and sit in front of an open document until the bell goes off. I needed every hack I could find at this point and muscle memory is real. Minute-by-minute my body sunk into my writing chair and reminded my brain this chair, this time of day, this sitting in front of my computer looking at an open document was something I did. Eventually, my body tricked my brain, and I deleted a word or two.

They were monumental, minuscule victories. (They also didn’t take very long, which was good because I was still running short on time.) I documented each win by adding a sticker to the calendar in my kitchen. As I made my morning tea, I’d look at the stickers. Most of the time I wished there were more, but sometimes I’d remember to be grateful for the handful that managed to make it onto the board.

What baby steps can you see that will move you forward? Even more important, how are you going to celebrate each of those baby steps you take? Place your celebration reminders in a place you see every day, multiple times a day. Subconsciously, each time you look at them, you acknowledge your progress and empower yourself to take the next step forward in creating your new normal.

Build

It was time to leverage the momentum from those baby steps into permanent this-is-my-new-existence-change. The most effective way to do that was by turning writing into a ritual I craved as much my morning cup of tea—an act where the day just felt wrong without it. It was time to turn writing into a habit.

Habit stacking (when you pair something you want to start doing with a habit you do daily) held the way forward. The one self-care I consistently accomplished, regardless of how bad things got, was meditation. My brain and body were fully committed to that deep quiet time to myself and wouldn’t let me skip it. If I linked it to meditation, my brain and body couldn’t let me skip writing either. After meditating, I habit stacked by:

  • Immediately sitting down in front of my computer.
  • Opening only the piece I wanted to work on. All other tabs and applications stayed closed.
  • Silencing my phone and (gently) tossing it across the room. On days when phone distraction was particularly tempting, I stashed it in the really fancy wooden box on the mantle in a whole different room.
  • Setting my nursemaid software time for one minute longer than I had the day before. (Nursemaid software is internet/app blocking software that won’t let you access certain websites until the time limit expires. The one I use is called SelfControl.)
  • Writing until the timer went off. I built up from five minutes on that first day. For word count oriented writers, you may want to try the Mary Robinette Kowal method of shooting for one sentence the first day, two the second, three the third, etc.

Build up your writing sessions by looking at tasks you have consistently completed throughout the chaos of your shutdown. What do you do no matter what? Drink coffee? Take the dog out? Listen to a podcast? Great, you’re halfway there. Now, how can you pair writing with that daily habit? It may take a few tries, but eventually your muscle memory and habits will automatically cue your body that it’s time to write and you’ll get to the desk on autopilot.

Try again

Six minutes eventually led to seven, eight, and nine; but the real milestone would be if I could hit 25 minutes. In pre-sick-mom reality, that was when I made myself stand up and move around so I wouldn’t turn into the hunchback writer of Kansas City. I made it to eleven minutes. We got notice mom’s cancer had come back. I stopped writing. Then one morning I thought maybe I should try again:

  • I went back to the baby steps and began at opening a Word document. I built up to 14 minutes. Mom got put on hospice. I stopped writing. Then one morning I thought maybe I should try again.
  • I went back to the baby steps and read something I had written. I built up to 17 minutes. Mom died. I stopped writing. Then one morning I thought maybe I should try again.
  • I went back to the baby steps and sat in front of my computer for five minutes. I built up to 22 minutes. I got fantastic work news and wanted to call mom and tell her, but she wasn’t there to answer the phone. I stopped writing—but this time it was for a day-and-a-half, not weeks or months, so I sat down at my desk, set the Nursemaid timer for 23 minutes and tried again.

I needed the stops. You may need the stops. The writing isn’t easy. The rebuilding your life isn’t easy. If today is a stop that’s fine. If this week is a stop that’s fine. If this month is a stop that’s fine. You will remember the baby steps and take them faster after every stop. You will try again because you get to create the life you want, and creation isn’t always fluid and linear. It’s made of starts and stops and trying again. And the good news is you don’t have to do it alone. You will try again when you are ready.

Support

I had a solid creative support triangle in place before mom got sick. In my newfound quiet, I understood also needed a mom-is-dying support triangle. Looking through all my silenced notifications I reached out to select friends, family, and colleagues asking for what I needed. Some of the more unusual ways I relied on my support were:

  • Having my roommate open any physical mail that looked suspiciously “well intended.” He knew whether the contents would send me into an emotional tailspin or not.
  • Asking a friend who was beta reading the same manuscript as me if I should finish it. (There was a cancer diagnosis in the opening pages.) She immediately told me to stop. I emailed the author and politely bowed out of the beta.
  • Publicly declaring I was writing again and sharing my daily sticker progress with social media followers. I engineered the situation so I felt like people were counting on me to keep writing. That amorphous social media commitment got me into the writing chair many times, when all I really wanted to do was go to bed.

People want to help. When we’re in a shutdown they often don’t know how. Only you know what you need right now. It’s okay to get creative and specific in your asks. People appreciate when you are clear. Some people are going to “help” in ways they think are best, but you have no obligation to accept. It’s okay to say no. Does an offer of assistance bring you comfort, lower your stress level, or ease the situation significantly? Great, say “Thank you.” And take the help. Who listens when you tell them what you need? Those are good people to reach out to. Your support system is one of the easiest things to be grateful for when you’re looking for something to add to that gratitude list.

Before mom died, writing only these 11 pages in three-and-a-half months would have felt like failure. But in this new reality it doesn’t feel like failure, it feels like a baby step.

I’ll keep building up my time until I make it to four 25-minute blocks a day, and one of those days I’ll find the courage to start writing fiction again. That’s how and where I’ll really emotionally process what I have lost. But that feels too hard. I’m not ready, yet.

Just like writing this felt too hard not so long ago, but I needed to write it to know I still had the ability. And now it’s time to share it because someone out there needs to read it so they can move forward with their own feels-impossible project. And when they share their creation, someone will need it, too and so on. This is how we build our new way of existence. This is how we move forward.

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