I’m writing today to ask for some advice. I love reading and writing. My BA is in Creative Writing. I was published in my university’s literature magazine. I used to read and write so much. But in the last year, it’s gone away. I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters in December 2017. Since then, I’ve started many books, but haven’t been able to finish one. I also can’t write anything. I definitely can’t finish any projects. Right now, I feel like I have no more stories inside me. I used to think I had so many. I used to define myself by my love of stories. I feel really flustered that I can’t connect to these things anymore.
I am a professional novelist.* Writing is my job. I have physical proof (*shakes copy of book*) that I have stories, but many days in the last year or two I have spent just to try to get two thoughts in the same room with each other. Part of the reason that it took me so long to reply to this—and the reason this blog has been so empty—is that I have had a bad case of WANDERING BRAIN MEAT.
The first thing I want you to know is YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I have heard this from so many people. There is too much, too loud, too often. Right now is a lot. And it’s important to realize that our brains are not designed to cope with how we are living at the moment. We’re not supposed to be slammed sideways every six seconds with world-altering news while at the same time getting updates in real time on everything everyone else is thinking, wearing, and doing. We are swamped in information and choices, so we have info flu and decision paralysis. Sometimes, I do not feel quite myself.
So, CONGRATULATE YOURSELF FOR JUST BEING YOU. Everyone.
I fully believe—in fact, I know—the stories are still there. They haven’t gone; they are being drowned out by other noises. It’s like someone is talking to you in a crowded room. The person is there, definitely talking. You just can’t hear it.
Also—and I am guessing here—you may be berating yourself. I am guessing this because this is what I do. Here are things I tell myself ON THE REGULAR:
“Look at how much everyone else gets done. THEY KNOW HOW TO DO IT AND I ALONE STAND AS THE GREAT FAILURE OF OUR TIME.”
“See, the problem is, I’m lazy and I’m stupid.”
“Everyone else has this worked out.”
“I’m just not doing my best.”
I say these things even though I know intellectually that we are all** having a rough time. This is stormy weather. So, here is my advice. It’s not the advice of a psychologist or any kind of MIND EXPERT. This is just your Auntie MJ advising you from her spot at the kitchen table, where she sits with a cup of coffee and a bowl of spiders.
1. Do not beat yourself up.Don’t do it! DO NOT DO IT. (And do not beat yourself up for beating yourself up.) You wouldn’t be angry at yourself if you were standing in the ocean and a wave knocked you over, or for getting wet if it started raining. I think the path starts with a gentle acknowledgement that there is a lot of everything right now and not being able to think straight or do things that require a lot of thinking straight is a natural response to the world as we currently know it.
2. Gentle is the operative word here.You don’t need to hit this point with a hammer. Everything right now is very blunt and constant and reactive. Responding with a nice “Oh” is fine. It’s the back away slowly response. “Oh, would you look at that,” you say. “I am standing in a pile of snakes and unexploded bombs from that old bomb factory. That explains so much.”
3. Drift lightly in the direction you want to go.Again, we are in a state of a lot of NOW NOW NOW do it NOW. That’s not how all things get done. Let me tell you what you are now. You are a floating spirit—a lovely creature with softly billowing robes. Stress, anxiety, and depression lie to you and tell you that the places you know are no longer there. They very much are. There is a fog of stress, anxiety, and depression clinging to the landscape. Really. That’s all. Remember, you are the floating creature in the billowing robes. You can drift into this fog without harm and look around. This is very poetic language, but I find it helps. Poetry is reality too, after all.
4. Sometimes you have to feel around the wall a bit before you find the light switch, but once you find the switch, the lights come on.Sometimes the DAMNDEST THING is the thing that helps you find the way back. It may be the last thing you think. It may be something that never helped before. I think my friend John Green won’t mind if I use him as an example. He was once in the deep throes of a depression and it had been going on and on. Then, for some reason, he watched the movie Harvey about one man’s relationship with his imaginary human-sized rabbit. He watched this, then everything began to settle around him and he said, “Oh, right.” And that was the light switch that lit up the room.
I have had the same experience many times. I’ve been in the tangle of an anxiety period, or been confused, beaten, or down—absolutely convinced that this time I just didn’t work any more and had to be put out with the recycling—and then something would come on. Some old song I’d loved and forgotten, or one I’d never put much stock in. A show. A passage in a book. Something would flick and I’d remember. A lot of times it was a song. I’m sure there is a name for this psychological phenomenon, but let’s just call it the light switch.
Finding the switch doesn’t mean that everything is done and fixed. It can do A LOT, though. It illuminates enough that you have a look around and see where you are again.
5. I don’t want to be this person, but meditation does help.It really does. It helps put your brain back on the path. There are lots of programs and aps that can help you with this. I use one called Headspace, which is popular and very helpful. The key part is consistency. You are retraining your brain, so it works gently, over time. BUT IT DOES WORK.
6. Make it easy to succeed by making the goals small and attainable.In terms of reading, maybe right now is not the time to jump into War and Peace. (I mean, it could be. Don’t rule anything out. All of these suggestions are just that.) This is a great time to revisit an old read. Or read a short essay. Bring yourself back easily, in small steps. Go with whatever feels right and good.
In terms of writing, here is what I do when I have a bad case of the wandering brain meat. I shall label these with LETTERS because I already used NUMBERS.
a. First, set a plan. Maybe you will work for an hour. I make it very difficult for myself to do anything else. I use freedom to shut down my internet access. Then I put my phone in a time-out jar. Then I shut down every program I’m not using.
b. EVEN THEN, my raccoon-like brain finds its way into whatever garbage it can. “Well now we can wax the ceiling,” it tells me. “And then we will alphabetize the dishes. Let’s jump up and down until we barf!” A good little hack I picked up recently is to start a WANDERING BRAIN MEAT LIST. When you are sitting there, with no internet and no phone and still your brain wants to DO OTHER THINGS, have a piece of paper ready and write down what you want to do. Later, when the time is up, you can review the list to see if those things still need doing. Do you need to look up every type of lettuce on Wikipedia? Probably not.
c. Write out a quick précis on what you want to accomplish in your writing session. Any answer is okay. It could be: make a list of blog posts to write, sketch out a chapter, write 500 words, write poison pen letters to people in your small town about how the monsters who live in the cornfield are making their way into the soil. Whatever. Give yourself a goal.
d. Honestly maybe we should all throw our phones into the sea. Let’s not discount this one right away.
Honestly, I feel like so much of this is knowing it’s not just you, and that none of this is a competition. You can’t fail, so it’s okay to start wherever you can and proceed however you like.
We got this. And I will update this blog. I really will. We’ll make a deal with each other.
* I laugh as I type this, but it is true.
** The exceptions prove the rule.