Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/The Root/GMG, photos via Shutterstock

The other day, I decided I was going to take a “writing day.” I had heard my writer friends speak of this often. They wake, have a cup of coffee or tea, eat breakfast, change their clothes, and then either sit at a desk or take themselves to Starbucks to work. They treat their writing lives like a 9-to-5 gig. This never appealed to me. I’m not good with that kind of structure, though routines are helpful.

But, I’ve also never really tried it.

I have dozens of looming deadlines and was starting to feel like I was falling behind, so I decided to have a “writing day.” I woke up and went through my normal morning routine—which admittedly isn’t very normal—then I sat at my laptop and stared at it for an hour.

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This isn’t unusual.

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I tend to throw a couple of lines that have been circulating in my head and then set a timer and write whatever happens in 30 minutes, but that day was different. It was a writing day, which meant I had to spend the entire day, if not actively writing, then sitting focused at my laptop waiting for the words. I had a list of subjects, I had plenty to actually write about, and after about three hours of starting and stopping about five different essays, I started to get frustrated.

I was writing, but the writing didn’t feel like it made sense. I couldn’t figure out where the words were going. I didn’t know what the point was ultimately. I started stories about my childhood, about college roommates, about the summer I spent in Edinburgh, Scotland, with Def Poetry—all the words were there, but I started overthinking:

“Why would anyone care?”

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Once the questions started, the frustration built, and that frustration opened the door for full-on panic; I was determined to beat it. I wasn’t going to walk away and give up this time. I have a column and a book to write; I literally couldn’t afford to give up. So I sat there, with eight tabs open, each of them with about 1,500 words of nonsense.

Whenever I thought I had a grasp on how to edit one, I would get frustrated and jump to the next one, and then the next and the next, until it was 12 hours and more than 8,000 words later and I had nothing to show for it. I wanted to cry. Even though I’d spent the day actively working and should have been proud of that, because I couldn’t find a finished product, I felt like a failure.

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At some point, I had migrated from the desk to my bed and then finally to my bedroom floor. I sat there, staring off into space, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Why did I think I could be normal and scheduled and not invite anxiety and self-doubt? I tried to remind myself that I had promised to give myself space and release the pressure, but those are just words. I’ve spent my whole life in this kind of frustration.

I used to joke that for me, writer’s block was less about the inability to write and more about trying to convince my fingers and my brain to stop being petty and work together. Sometimes they listen, and other times I have to just shut it down and walk away.

The panic came from out of nowhere. I have been doing a pretty good job of understanding how to work with how my brain works, but as I said on Facebook, I thought I was done being a paralyzed perfectionist. Apparently I still have work to do. I still need to figure out what productivity means to me when it comes to work. I can praise myself for getting out of bed and showering and making it to the gym in the middle of the creeping mist of mental-health concerns, but I also need to let myself have a bad day. I still have to learn how to get out of my own way.

Instead of congratulating myself for over 8,000 words written in one day, I was frustrated because the words refused to be about what I was forcing them to be about. I’d grown accustomed to think that the sporadic way I wrote was somehow part of a symptom and not just the way I write.

Wellness is more than just remembering to take your meds or see your doctors; it’s also about relearning and accepting that you might have to do things a little differently from everyone else and not seeing that as failure, just as something else. As for those thousands of words, they can be edited and find a place in the book.

That essay I couldn’t figure out? I had to save that and write this instead. It isn’t perfect, but it’s done.