Dear Story Nurse,
I’ve been publishing short fiction for several years, and a few months back, I signed a contract for a long piece. Which is really exciting: I love what I’m working on, the work setup, and my editors.
The problem is that I made the mistake of working on my creative project during my dayjob’s work hours, due to various factors including depression, anxiety, my not thinking through the consequences, and general workplace toxicity. After a very stressful month of investigation and deliberation about this, I’ve been fired.
I accept that I made a big mistake and have taken responsibility, but am feeling raw and anxious about the future, and want to try to make the best of things. I also want to throw myself into completing my project to the best of my abilities, but the stressful events around the whole situation have thrown up a lot of complicated feelings (I am seeing a therapist I trust). How can I put aside my feelings of shame and anger about the lost job and regain my creative enthusiasm?
—Newly Full Time Writer (she/her)
Dear Newly Full Time Writer,
Many sympathies on losing your job. It sounds like this has been a very challenging time for you. I’m glad you have a therapist and I hope Team You includes many other excellent people.
Those of us who don’t choose to write fiction full-time, and even some who do, often have to confront the undeniable fact that writing takes time away from other things that we, or other people, think we should be doing. Many of us write when we should be working or studying, and our work and grades suffer for it. (You are not the first person to get fired in this way or for this reason, I guarantee you.) We eat takeout or microwaved junk food because we write when we should be shopping and cooking. We go bleary-eyed through the day because we stay up late or get up early and write when we should be sleeping. We complain of loneliness and then we write instead of going out with friends, or going on dates, or spending time with our families.
Some writers phrase this as a compulsion: “I can’t not write.” I’m always wary of that, because it sounds to me like giving up ownership of one’s life and choices. The common notion of the domineering muse is a false one, because the muse is you, and you are a conscious being making conscious decisions. They may be costly decisions, but you’re still the one making them, perhaps despite what you know is in your best interests. I can tell from your letter that you’re determined to own your choices (while acknowledging the influence of things you can’t control, like mental illness), and I think that’s a very wise approach that will make it much easier for you to get back to writing.
As I wrote a few months ago, when the person you have injured is you, the person you need to apologize to, and make amends to, is you. In a sense, you have to earn your own trust again. Right now it’s hard for you to believe that you can handle your urge to write in a responsible way. So take some time to decide what responsible writing looks like for you, both while you’re unemployed and after you find another job (where ideally the workplace will not be toxic and you won’t feel the urge to defy it, or escape it, by doing personal tasks while you’re on the clock).
Establish some parameters for yourself that feel plausible and achievable. Aim for “do” rather than “do not”: “write between 9 and 11 p.m.” or “write while I’m on the commuter train” rather than “don’t write at work,” for example. This isn’t about protecting the rest of your life from your writing, but about protecting your writing from the rest of your life. Right now your urge to write feels scary and dangerous. You want to create a space within which you can write safely, without risk.
Then pay the cost of writing up front, in full, by acknowledging that you are choosing to take that space away from everything that isn’t writing. If you’re going to write in the evenings, make a deliberate choice to stop accepting dinner invitations that will cut into that writing time. If you’re going to write in the early morning, understand that this comes in lieu of sleep. If those costs start to feel too steep, nudge your parameters around or look for ways to mitigate your losses. Maybe you’ll end up only writing three evenings a week rather than every evening; maybe your partner is willing to handle childcare in the mornings.
Once you’ve defined a safe space within which writing can happen, earn your own trust back by staying within it. If you constantly find yourself straying outside of it, think about why that is. Are you resenting there being any limitations on your writing? Are you feeling self-destructive? Is writing so intensely therapeutic and reassuring that you want tremendous doses of it? Is there a certain time of day when you feel most creative and don’t want to waste it? Work on understanding those feelings and negotiating with them rather than ignoring them or trying to push them aside. And as you’re doing that, keep writing as responsibly as you can, adjusting your parameters if you need to. It’s important to accept that you are the type of writer you are while also acknowledging the demands of the outside world. Responsible writing lies in finding the happy intersections between the two, being responsible to yourself as an artist as well as to your more worldly needs.
As you create a space where it’s safe for you to write without fearing that you’ll cause yourself harm, and as you build up a good track record of staying within the lines you’ve drawn for yourself, you’ll find that writing gets easier and creative inspiration will come back. Until that happens, if you’re struggling to put words on the page, I suggest spending that time on things that are related to writing so the shoulds don’t come creeping back in. Give yourself time to get back in the groove, and build the habit of writing time being a regular, reliable thing.
You may note that nothing in here makes reference to punishment. You’ve already paid a penalty for your poor choices; those natural consequences are more than sufficient to motivate you to change. What remains is to commit to making better choices in the future, and to clearly define “better choices” so you know when you achieve them and can correct yourself when you fall short.
You can’t change the past. You can only move forward from where you are. I wish you the very best of luck in building a path toward a happy coexistence of writing and the rest of your life.