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How NaNoWriMo Started Me on the Path Away from “Tortured Writer”

I was planning a nice tidy post about what I’ve learned from National Novel Writing Month — the usual stuff about how it . . .

  • Made me commit big time
  • Broke my habit of writing slowly
  • Taught me how to get writing done in the midst of a busy life
  • Helped me practice getting started each day
  • Showed me how the story reveals itself
  • Introduced me to plotting and outlining

Then, during a #nanolove chat on Twitter last week (hosted by the vivacious Abby Kerr), this question came up:

And I realized that the one biggest impact NaNoWriMo had for me was to start me on the path away from tortured writer.

My thesis supervisor from grad school days, Aritha van Herk, once told me something to the effect that a calm, stable life was more conducive to writing than one filled with drama. At the time I took it as a comfort for being boring — I certainly felt boring, a timid Christian girl already married at 23. But I couldn’t quite see it — didn’t the dramatic, tortured types have more to write about?

They might. But I’ve come to see that calm and stable doesn’t have to mean no adventure or risk-taking. It can mean emotional stability and the steadiness of one’s writing habits.

A note to @Layykenn and other tortured souls: I don’t want to set this up as a dichotomy, where tortured = bad, and placid = good. I know that, for some people, turbulence works. And if you love the drama, more power to ya.

Once upon a time, I started a blog of stories about the writing life called Wrestling the Angel. At the time I really identified with the image of struggle, effort, and wounded-ness around my writing:

Since I started writing fiction fourteen years ago, I’ve been frustrated and depressed more often than I’ve been happy and productive. And that way of living does a disservice to my vocation and the people I want to reach, as well as to myself and my family and friends.

The name Wrestling the Angel was inspired by the Hebrew Bible story. Just like Jacob, I can’t let go of this wonderful and terrible calling to write. I’ve been wounded in the conflict of desire and fear. But I’m hanging on until I get the blessing: a writing life of peace and productivity.

Reading that now, I can see the tide has shifted. In the last four years, I’ve been happily absorbed and steadily producing. Frustration and depression are distant memories. I am really enjoying my writing life and so grateful I found a way to do that.

Some of my steps along the path away from “tortured artist”:

NaNoWriMo introduced an uninhibited, exhilarating quality to my writing sessions. My fingers were going too fast for my tortured thoughts to keep up. NaNo reminded me of what I loved about the creative process and how much it improved my mood.

Therapy, therapy, therapy. The slow, hopeful work of dismantling beliefs that don’t serve me, like “I can’t write and look after my family too.” Recognizing that I am powerful and can make my own choices, identifying the coping mechanisms that no longer work (like making everyone else happy first) and replacing them with better ones.

Leaving my job. I am very grateful for my technical writing career. It has paid my bills generously and taught me many skills. I also reached the point where it was killing me — the overtime, the fatigue of spirit, the lack of variety. No, that’s not fair — I was killing myself to fit into the wrong job. Thanks to therapy and a supportive partner, I was able to quit and start freelancing. I gave up a lot of money when I left that job. And I’ve never regretted it for a moment. My freedom and emotional health are far more precious.

Working with coaches. Cynthia Morris guided me as I navigated the unknown waters of self-employment and the freedom to write. She inspired me to be a creativity coach myself. And recently, Ashley Sinclair has done some kind of magic that’s catapulted me into action. It feels so luxurious to have a partner in my creative work instead of floundering around on my own.

Doing the Artist’s Way. The first summer after I became a mom, I wrote morning pages and played with Julia Cameron’s questions to discover just what flavour of artist I was. I loved bringing some whimsy and celebration back into my writing life after being so serious about trying to finish a book.

Writing in the mornings. Last year my grand project was becoming an early riser (for good, this time). One of the hardest and easiest things I’ve ever done. Hard because of my preconceptions about what early rising should look like (do it every day, work for two hours, never hit the snooze button). Easy because it gave so much back to me: Trust in myself. Connection with my work. And pages!

Finding my genre. I shelved the adult novel I’d been working on for three years to start a middle grade book for nine- to twelve-year-olds. It felt like slipping into a warm bath. At the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference in June, I came home to my tribe. Here were people who were passionate about children’s lit, knew the authors I loved, and could help me with my book.

I’m still not quite used to thinking of myself as a happy writer. I’ve been travelling towards it for years, and while the journey is never over, I’m definitely walking in the sunshine.

This is why I coach. Because I want to walk beside people who are ready to leave their tortured period behind them.

Photo credit: Don Douglas


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