Thursday, December 13, 2012

2012--The Year I Took My Writing To Therapy (Stephanie Kuehnert)

I started 2012 in a very scary place, having the frightening realization that I wasn't even sure I enjoyed writing anymore. Writer's block had turned into a writing slump and self-doubt became a full-on crisis of faith. I described what brought me to the point of consistently questioning if writing was what I'm meant to do and how it feels in this article I wrote for Rookie magazine. It's something I've dealing with for a while, probably going on three years now, so instead of making concrete writing goals for 2012 (ie. finish a manuscript), I declared it a year of re-evaluation. I had to find what made me happy, and if I wanted to continue doing this writing thing, I had to learn how to love it again.

I took baby steps, playing in the world of the novel I was working with and eventually setting small goals for myself. By the end of February, I was swept up and in March I thought I was over the crisis.  I'd written the first third of a book that I was insanely proud of and my agent was so excited about she sent it out on partial. I had high hopes... Hopes that faded and twisted into anxiety after the first month of being on sub. At first, for much of May, I tried to write my way through it. I set lofty goals to finish  a draft of the book by mid-July. Instead, by the beginning of June I was already behind on my personal deadline, frustrated and hating every word I put down. Once again, writing had become an agonizing chore. More than that, it was making my feel self-destructive. As I teenager, I struggled with depression, substance abuse and self-injury. I've long-credited writing as my savior from those things. Once I found my voice I had the strength to pull myself out of that hole. The idea of falling back in was terrifying. I couldn't let it happen.

So I decided to go to therapy for the first time in almost a decade. I'd been therapy when I was still cutting and drinking to cope with the aftermath of emotionally abusive relationship. That seemed like a legitimate reason to be in therapy. I wasn't very sure at first that being a floundering writer was a legitimate reason or that any therapist could actually help me with feeling better about it unless they happened to also have sway over a publishing company. But I figured what the hell, find someone sliding scale that I could afford and go a couple times to see if it helped. 

I've been going every week since the beginning of July now. It's been that helpful. There is some personal stuff I'm working on too of course and there are a lot of connections between being an abuse survivor and my fear of losing control, which definitely affects my writing, but I've also learned some general things about myself as a writer that could probably be universal, so I thought, why not share the wisdom:


  • The first thing I needed to figure out/acknowledge is that at my core I'm a writer. Writing is not one of those things that's a job or a career. It's a part of the fabric of your being. Yes, I would like to be able to earn at least part of a living at it. For the foreseeable future that might only be a very, very tiny part via my non-fiction writing for places like Rookie, and next year instead of working a jumble of part-time jobs, I might have to find a full-time job (hopefully one I really love) and have a lot less time for writing, but it's still there. It's in me. And whether I'm doing it for publication or not, I'll always end up telling stories.
  • When one project isn't working, break free and start another. I don't like doing this. I was really freaked out that stopping halfway through that project that had gone on submission as a partial would mean I was giving up and never going back, especially because with that particular project, I feel like I've already started it over several times and it is something I really want to write and get right. But as a published writer I know this is part of the job. Sometimes you are in the middle of a first draft and you get revision notes and a deadline and have to switch gears. If I can be flexible in that way, can't I be flexible for myself? 
  • My mentality that I have to work on one project at a time and stick with it til the end (or til interrupted by an obligation) is just one of the many rules that I've made for myself that I had to realize was exactly that--a made-up rule, not a statement of fact. The idea that I have to write at least 5 days a week to keep momentum going? Yeah, it's helpful, but when push comes to shove, not an actual fact. And I *know* this because I used to binge write when I was in college. I'd spend a one day or maybe two writing a ton and then have to spend the rest of the week doing other things. In the meantime, I'd be thinking about my story, jotting things down on occasion, but not actually writing. And you know what, I still finished my book. Like my fairy god sister, Beth Revis reinforced this when she made a video to speak to a YA Fiction class I taught this fall. She admitted that she doesn't write every day, she does a lot of what I mentioned above and you know what, she's writing some STELLAR books. I've long told my students and myself that every writer is different and every book is different, but the truth of the matter is every day is different. If I'm stuck and doing things the way I've always done them--writing linearly for example--why not try something completely different even if it goes against my comfort zone?
  • The writing "routine" is a myth. At least for me, especially right now while I'm cobbling together all of these part-time jobs. I've spent the past four years trying to figure out my ideal writing routine. I thought I had it figured out--which days of the week I would spend writing, that I would always ALWAYS start in the morning when I was my freshest. I came up with all these tricks of writing in 90 minute sprints. But since I kept telling myself that morning was my best time for writing, if I had a bad morning, I would let it ruin my entire day and sometimes a bad day would put me off track of my goals and then it spiraled into a bad week. A lot of times I would be struggling in the morning because I knew I had some other deadline (freelance or teaching work) hanging over my head. I would insist to myself that mornings were for fiction writing, even though I couldn't actually concentrate on my novel while worrying about this other work. So now I tell myself that while I prefer to write fiction in the morning and I prefer to write on certain days, I have to go with the flow, evaluate my day or week and figure out what is actually going to be productive because...
  • Deep down--no, not even deep down, I am totally conscious and aware of when I'm procrastinating working on something and when I actually need to do something other than work on my novel because otherwise it is going to impede my writing. There's a difference between that basket of laundry that doesn't really need to be put away or surfing the internet and letting a project that has a deadline take precedence. If I get that project done, I can stop worrying about it and actually fully immerse myself in my fiction writing. And as writers, that's when we feel best, when we are able to be fully immersed. Sometimes we might only be able to be fully immersed for 15 minutes. Don't discount that. Enjoy it.
  • My therapist asked me a really great question, "Are you desensitized to major or important accomplishments in your writing?" I think most of us are, published or unpublished. We look at major accomplishments in terms of book sales or awards or reviews. The fact of the matter is writing a really stellar scene--or paragraph or line--is a major accomplishment. Finally figuring out a plot point is a major accomplishment. Flying through a very rough draft of a chapter you were struggling with, accomplishment. And it is important to acknowledge these to enjoy writing. I keep a spreadsheet where I keep track of my productivity--the day, the time I'm writing, how long, how many words, in case there is a magical pattern to find. My therapist encouraged me to add a "gratitude" column to the spreadsheet, so that I acknowledge every day, big or small what went well. Sometimes I'm over the moon about everything I wrote, sometimes I'm thrilled about one small section, and sometimes I just acknowledge that despite all the stress going on in my life, I'm happy that I managed to focus for an hour.
  • When I do get stuck, it's important to look at it in a fresh way. I was cruising along with another book idea (the one I decided to go to because the one on sub was causing me too much anxiety) and I reached the middle and suddenly felt overwhelmed. "This always happens," I told my therapist. "I always get to a certain point either halfway or 3/4ths of the way where I break the book. I feel like I'll never tie everything up. It's just broken." And I went on to explain how I'd broken and fixed my first two novels and then how I'd broken my third and it took forever to fix and how I'd broken the fourth and just given up and skipped to this new book, so now I was freaked. "You need a new term," she told me. That old term of "broken" kept me focused on all the past ways I'd dealt with this struggle--and in this case, that fact that it was so hard with my third book and I'd given up on my fourth. With my third book, I had to write really slowly to fix the huge problem and work it all out. This time, the solution might be to write really fast even though I think that I hate that and it goes against everything I usually do.
  • Finally, crises of faith like the one I'm dealing with don't just disappear overnight. There is no magic fix, not even selling a book. Each day I have to find a way to gather up enough strength and faith in myself to continue. Some days may be easier than others, but eventually I'll get through to the other side.
So, this was a hard year in a lot of ways. Personally, I dealt with a major loss. My elderly kitty, Sid was sick for the majority of the year and passed away right after Thanksgiving. I had two really good months of writing (March on one project and end of August/beginning of September on another), spent most of the beginning of the year hating what I was writing or hating myself for not writing. But I did spend the rest of the year re-evaluating and figuring out how best to cope. I'm admittedly a bit weary right now (lots of teaching and freelance deadlines), but I plan to recover  over the next two weeks and start next year strong with a lot of tools and growing faith.  Like my fellow YAOTL blogger Jenny O'Connell, I'm really hoping that 2013 will be a lucky year (13 is my lucky number after all)--one of recovery, change, and accomplishments.

12 comments:

  1. Great post, Stephanie. I think I will save it and refer to it when I need to. I am not published (yet? maybe someday?), but a lot of life things got in the way of my fiction writing this year. Like you, I experienced a profound loss. I am now in a year-long fiction workshop and am slowly getting my groove back but yeah, it's a process. Here's to a great 2013!

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    1. Yay for getting your groove back after loss and hardship. It is a process, but I hope your fiction workshop is super inspiring. Here is to an awesome 2013!

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  2. Replies
    1. Yeah, I really enjoyed being a binge writer. I do think I need to try it again.

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  3. This reminds me of something Anne Lamott wrote about (maybe in BIRD BY BIRD): "Trust your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it."

    It's so easy to get caught up in what we think we're supposed to be doing, to develop rules for ourselves because we want to see results, to get frustrated when our plans go awry. And at some point, all we can do is trust our broccoli. Hugs.

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    1. I love that!!! It's been too long since I've read BIRD BY BIRD apparently, but I am going to put that quote up on my board. Thanks!

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  4. Thank you for sharing this. You are my hero.

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  5. Heyy, one thing I've learned is to use my writing as therapy and I started doing that when I was in counselling a couple years ago. Even though I'm not in counselling anymore I still use it as therapy. Some people journal and I journal in fiction. Each one of my characters comes out of my own struggles with life. They are real life because they are me. Not only is writing my fabric but the fabric of my writing is me

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  6. I think it takes courage to go to therapy, and I think that therapy is important because you can have an unbiased listener take the time to help you.
    I know what you mean about the difficulty of setting up a writing routine. I work multiple part-time jobs too, and it's hard to set up a routine when I don't work at the same times every day. I read somewhere that it's good to set up a goal in terms of a word count or pages instead; that way, I don't necessarily have to work at a certain time, as long as I get it done.

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  7. Such a helpful and inspirational post--to know that we writers are not alone in our (often) angsty struggles with the blank page. Something I've had to re-learn too over the years--to go easier on myself. I heard Linda Su Park say this at a conference about writing: "It's not rocket science. We're playing around with words, people."

    Easy to forget some days.

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  8. Hi! I am so excited to get to know if you have a lot of visitors of your journal?

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