The Flipside Of My Writing Tirade

I Storified a bunch of tweets yesterday where I did my boot-stompy grr-arrgh finger-wagging bear-posture and growled at you for not writing and for giving into your excuses.

And today I read a good response to that, which you can read here.

(That response by someone called “Pipsqueak the Ferocious,” which is awesome.)

I will quote the latter portion of this person’s post, though you should certainly go and read the rest of it (and spread it around the Tumblrs if you so choose), but I’ll quote one vital bit here:

Chuck’s tirade is good for me right now, but that’s because my brain is functioning well at the moment. If I’m not working when I’m supposed to, it’s because I’m lazy and/or avoiding responsibility. But you know what? I’m not not working right now. I can focus on my work. I can laugh off those shitty lines I have to write and fix later just to get to the next thing that happens. I’m in fact less inclined to refer to anything I write as shitty in the first place.

I can take Chuck’s tirade right now because I’m capable of healthy perspective.

If you do not currently have the same capability, please keep in mind that you can’t run on a bum knee.

Not writing when your brain is hurting doesn’t mean you’re worthless. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at what you do. It doesn’t mean you’ll never get better. And it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to try again when you feel better.

And when you do feel better, show the fuck up. Work your ass off. Get your words on the page. Show that goddamn depression—or whatever your hurdle is—who the fuck is in charge of what you’re capable of accomplishing.

Assume that the quote above pretty much covers it.

And also assume that anything I say after this is probably best ignored, because, no, really, Pipsqueak the Ferocious said it best. That said, I’m someone who doesn’t always know when to quit talking, so let me unpack this a little bit.

I ranted yesterday, and today I want to counter with the flipside of that, a little bit. I want to stand before you and say, TELL ME WHAT THE BAD MAN SAID TO YOU, and you respond with, YOU’RE THE BAD MAN, IT WAS YOU, WEIRDO, and I will just say in response SHHH SHHH SHHHH, HERE’S A BALM TO SALVE THE STING and you’re all like DUDE THAT’S JUST COCONUT OIL and I’m like SHUT UP IT’S A SUPERFOOD.

Some of the response to my little ranty-blather veered between cheerleading — yay woo you’re helping me get shit done — and an uncertain, incredulous eye-brow arch — yeah but you’re missing the larger picture and clearly demonstrating your privilege. And it’s true. It’s hard to capture nuance in a series of tweets, and too much vacillation would’ve dampened what I hoped was the larger thrust of the piece which is: hey, yeah, this thing we do is work and that means you gotta work it to do it.

But I want to add this:

You have to be kind to yourself.

Reality is not always kind, and so you sometimes have to fill that role all on your own.

You have to allow yourself compassion and forgiveness. Shame is not useful. Feeling lazy or weak or as a failure won’t fix anything for you. Beating yourself up isn’t a very good way to become who you want to be. You have to give yourself realistic expectations. I write a whole lot in a given day (a quantity of 2000-3000 words — though to what quality, I cannot say), but that’s because I do this as a full-time job. Others do not possess that luxury — certainly I didn’t, once upon a time. You don’t have to write 2000 words a day. You don’t have to write every day. (Though that helps, when you can manage it.) You just have to try to move forward. Sometimes moving forward will be by inches. Sometimes it will be with great antelope leaps. Sometimes, you will fall behind — and when that happens, again, kindness is  key. It used to be when I fell behind, I’d hate myself for it. To go with the ‘bum knee’ metaphor above, if that knee caused me to fall behind, I’d be mad enough at myself that I’d drift even further backward — almost as if I was punishing myself. It’s like breaking the second leg because the first has betrayed me. It’s dumb, but anger can be destructive. A dent in the armor of one’s self-worth grows rust and corrodes quickly.

And that’s not useful. There’s no fruit growing on that dead tree.

So even when moving backward, you always think about moving forward. Slowly, carefully.

Kindly.

But kindness is a tricky thing. It is neither perfect, nor absolute.

As many of you know, I have a cackling monkey-demon preschool-age son, and we attempt to approach parenting with as much compassion as we can muster. Sympathy and empathy in attendance. He’s a little kid and we think OH PSSH LIFE IS EASY FOR CHILDREN but fuck that, it’s not. Being a kid is confusing as hell. You have almost no actual power or choice in your life and your itty-bitty body is a cauldron of conflicting, bitey hormones. So, we try to be kind.

And yet, there’s this line. Where you cross over from kindness and into appeasement. Where you cross over into making excuses instead of compassionately correcting. That appeasement doesn’t work. It uniformly doesn’t work. Alternately, you can go the other way, and just yell and fight and punish, and that doesn’t work, either. There you’re just two goats locking horns — or, worse, you cross over into making the child feel weak and shameful.

Kindness, then, isn’t about appeasement.

It’s not the act of giving in or giving up.

But it also doesn’t masquerade as shame or abuse.

Kindness is about understanding one’s limitations but still encouraging growth. It’s like physical or mental therapy — kindness to your bum knee isn’t just letting the leg atrophy and accepting you’ll never use it again. FUCK THIS LEG, you say, then numbly return to your pudding cup. Kindness is leaving it alone until it heals enough that you can move it. Kindness is pushing a little bit here and there until that knee can move again. Or until you can compensate. Kindness isn’t giving up, but rather, believing that you can do it — and then taking action to make it so. As Pipsqueak the Ferocious wisely points out: “Show that goddamn depression — or whatever your hurdle is — who the fuck is in charge of what you’re capable of accomplishing.”

And again, this is so much easier said than done.

But none of this changes the fact that it still needs doing.

And you are in charge of doing it.

Reality is, some folks will have it easier than you do. They will start off healthier, happier, or with better connections or more money or white skin or a brain that isn’t wonky.

As for me — my childhood was not what I would call “awesome.”

I had (and still occasionally have) nigh-crippling anxiety. I don’t talk about that much, because ennh, it’s not really that interesting, and I don’t like to give it too much power. But sometimes this anxiety would manifest as hypochondria or as some other fear-based specter. I’d be driving home from work, convinced I had one of several rare maladies. My throat would be tight, feel like it was closing, like I couldn’t breathe. Chest pain. Gremlins of panic. Good times.

And before we had our son, we lived in a creepy rowhome next to a pack of weirdos in a higher-crime little town and we worked full-time jobs and were kneecapped by heaps and mounds of debt and… y’know, writing even a little bit at a time seemed like an insane luxury. Even though it was bringing in money, it seemed like a fool’s endeavor. And some folks in my family certainly thought it was. Even when I was a kid, wanting to be a writer was not viewed as being a practical, intelligent decision. It was assumed, I think, that I’d grow out of such wanton dipshittery.

And then having a kid of our own, even just one, that complicates things, too. It’s like, you each had full time jobs before and now you’ve got a third full-time job thrown on top of that and this one cries a lot and apparently needs to eat and then totally poops all the time and, and, and —

It’s a bucket of tough fucking cookies, is what I’m saying. And it gets easy when you’re saddled with all these things to feel like if you’re not producing eighty billion words a day then you’re a failure. And it also goes the other way, where it gets easy to simply not write any words at all — because writing 500 words isn’t enough, so why put even one down? And then you gaze forward and you see, oh, shit, it’s not just about writing, it’s about editing, and publishing, and selling, and reviews, and then doing it all again and again —

And soon the stress mounts.

You can’t breathe.

Gremlins of panic.

Good. Times.

That was me. You are you. Many of you have it worse than I did. Worse because of… frankly, whatever. And here’s a thing that has the potential to make you feel good and bad at the same time, and that thing is: you’re not alone. Realizing you’re not alone is great because you don’t feel like a weird-ass zebra running in a pack of horses anymore. You see that others are dealing with the same shit you’re dealing with. The feeling of a support group, invisible but present.

But the feeling of a support group can go the other way, too — you can see other folks who have suffered as you have, or have suffered somehow worse, and yet, they’re managing. Maybe they’re doing better. Maybe they’re doing fucking awesome, which once more only makes you feel like they’re running the race and you can’t even find the starting line.

And I can’t fix that feeling, really.

What I can tell you is that comparing yourself to others will never have much of a positive impact. It’s valuable to share your pain and problems with others, but at the same time, you need to see that who you are is who you are, and your path is yours. You can’t walk somebody else’s path.

You must be kind to yourself.

But the flipside of that is, being kind also means not leaving yourself room for excuses.

No matter who you are, or what you have to deal with, the truth remains: if you want to be a writer, you have to write. The trick is having realistic expectations. Not ones given over to excuses, no, but also ones that are kind. Expectations that push you enough to do the work, but not so hard that you break. If you don’t write for a couple days, let that be okay. But if you don’t write for a couple years, then it’s worth looking back and asking why. It’s like dieting and exercise — a cheat day here and there is fine. You take Sunday to lounge around in a pile of Doritos bags while watching a marathon of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (*ooooh damnit), fuck yeah. Take that time. Be good. R&R is key. But if you take all of January and February and March to do that — then you have to find a way forward. Not backward. Not a shame-based motivational plan. But you have to take a step as soon as that bum knee lets you.

And I know. Even still, the advice is unfair. That you still have to work, that you still have to write, but it is what it is and I can’t change that. The reality — so obvious that I shouldn’t even have to say it, and yet it’s a truth of which I must remind myself from time to time — is that this requires a commitment from you. A realistic one. A fair one. A kind one. But a commitment just the same. And that’s true no matter who you are, no matter what your problems, no matter the complications of your existence. Because at the end of the day, you’re still accountable to you.

Not to me.

Not to anybody else.

You.