Thankful. But I Sure Miss Breathing.


March 9, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

flickr commons underwater thanksgiving 8206075124_8e00d467b6_b

Underwater Thanksgiving, Rainbow Springs, Florida, 1953. Courtesy Flickr Commons.


I have work that pays my bills. I am thankful for that. But I did not perform a story on the theme “Thankful” last Tuesday.

That makes me sad. That makes me feel like a failure. Though several performers I greatly admire did not tell stories on Tuesday either, and if one of them said the same to me, I would quickly come to the aid of their self-esteem.

It was not because I didn’t have material. It was because I had too much.

This can push me into overwhelm, especially when I do not have enough time to revise and edit. And to take breaks between those periods of revising and editing to mull and consolidate insights. To breathe. That is how I do my best creative work.

Instead I feel like the lady in the photo.

Apparently this picture was part of a promotion meant to encourage people to visit Florida during their Thanksgiving break. So there she is, putting on makeup and a smile for the cameraman (who no doubt has a scuba tank) while carving the feast underwater.

By the end of the shoot, I imagine her lungs were about to burst.

In part I set myself up for this. In my post on Creative Monsters, I identified what is a real problem for me, especially early on in the writing process. The monsters act very monster-y, in stereotypical monster ways. It takes energy, and effort, to dig beneath the monsters to the deeper, whole truth – to that which is truly holy. And I do not always have that level of energy. Particularly now.

Most of last weekend, after my blog post was completed, I spent staring at the screen, comatose, out of breath, exhausted.

This despite the fact that transcribing an interview of a successful slam storyteller was supposed to give me more time to focus on crafting my own story. I got words onto the page, but I couldn’t structure the material.

This weekend hasn’t been much better.

It makes me wonder if I should even be trying to do storytelling – or a blog – at this point in my life. (But if not now, when?) And while I’m busy wondering and worrying about that, I am not – you guessed it – writing.

Meanwhile, I write for a living.

It’s a very different sort of writing than what I do here, or the writing that results in stories. But it uses many of the same muscles. In weight training, muscles require a period of rest between workouts to safely build their strength. I have not been particularly good at building those periods of rest into my life. Or giving those muscles time to breathe.

Very few people go to school intending to do the work I do now.

I have a Ph.D. in Victorian religious literature from the University of Minnesota. I wrote my dissertation on the fairy tales and fantasy novels of George MacDonald. I tell people I’ve always managed to get work anyway. Up until the recession, that was pretty much true.

When my children were young, I wanted to be at home with them.

But we couldn’t really afford that. And even adjunct teaching jobs, when you could find them, were a great deal of work for very little pay. That is how ended up working as a technical writer for Ford Motor Company – we were living in Dearborn, Michigan at the time – writing abstracts of automotive articles for their corporate database.

A decade later, it was my turn for more meaningful work.

I started exploring possibilities, beginning with a volunteer opportunity at an organization that provided services to English Language Learners. One day the Executive Director called me up and asked if I’d ever written a grant. I had, about fifteen years previously, as a graduate student. Their contract grant writer had abandoned them. She hired me on the spot. I did it well.

My dissertation was sitting on a microfiche shelf in Ann Arbor, but this writing was actually getting money for people to do work I believed in.

That felt great. The rest was history. Or at least the next decade and a half of my employment history.

I am very thankful for the work I currently have.

It is good work, important work, but very deadline-driven. And it does not always leave me energy to write the things that are closest to my heart, the things I need to write to make sense of my life, and that I hope have meaning and beauty for others. So where my creative life is concerned, I am often feeling underwater, suffocating and out of breath.

I would love to hear from others who have dealt with this problem – particularly people whose day jobs involve writing.

Do you experience synchronicity from the creativity required in your day job, or does it deplete you? Is it sometimes a little of both? How do you establish balance, give yourself the restorative time you need? When do you find time to breathe?

10 thoughts on “Thankful. But I Sure Miss Breathing.

  1. A post many of us can relate to, Paula.
    My experience is that there’s always some difficulty to overcome (yeah, sorry about the lack of positivity here) and I don’t know if that ever gets any easier, although the shape and manageability of the difficulties change.
    I did do a spot of journalism for a while, but at the time wasn’t working on my creative writing – that I kept in my heart till circumstances were more favourable.
    I don’t think there’s an easy answer (time management & organization skills aren’t my strong points), but my advice would be to take those breaks – because without breathing out properly, you can’t inhale a full breath.


  2. Paula,
    I make a concerted effort to separate my work brain from my non-work brain. It helps that my kids are young enough (with homework, afterschool activities, etc.) that as soon as I’m out the office door I have a kerjillion other things to engage me. If I’m out of the office at 5:30 I often can’t get back to my creative work until 8:00 or some nights even 10:00.

    One technique that I use to breathe between work and home, is that in the ten minutes I have by myself in the car between the office and kids pickup… I talk to myself in the car. I brainstorm, I work through stories orally, I chase dead ends. I sing (sometimes to engage the creative brain I make up new lyrics, sometimes I just sing to give my brain a rest). And depending on my energy, sometimes those ten minutes are essential story work and sometimes they are just a chance to play and to fail. Since most of my stories I work on orally, instead of writing, the car works for me.

    But I heartily recommend at least ten minutes of transition time doing something playful (knitting, painting, cooking, gardening, rearranging a sock drawer) to cleanse the mental palate.


    • Thanks so much Tim. (Especially since you probably used up some of your transition time responding!) I used to know how to do some of that, when I had family at home. It’s gotten a little harder now that the little buggers have gone and grown up on me. ;-) Actually I love their grown up selves. But you know what I mean. I wish I did work more orally – I envy people who can do that. I do find that the performance process teaches me a lot about the story that the written version does not.


  3. […] a recent post, I mentioned that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a fellow named George […]


  4. One of the reasons I began a blog was because I was out of work and missed writing, so I get this. And I LOVED George McDonald books as a girl :D


    • Well, as it happens, I lost one of those two jobs last week due to a corporate restructuring. So now I have more time, theoretically, but less money. And that time will quickly be taken up with all the work involved in looking for work. Sigh. Glad to find another MacDonald fan. At one point I think I found your first name on your blog, but I can’t anymore. I see from your most recent post why anonymity is important to you, but perhaps its time to give yourself a nom de plume. Looking? Blue? Sky? What would you prefer? ;-)


  5. I felt like this for a long time over the summer but couldn’t express it as well as you my excuse was that I felt I’d lost my way a bit but I feel that I can exhale now knowing that I’m not the only one


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