March 9, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
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?