Getting Unstuck with Your Writing During a Pandemic
I had a whole semester to devote to my research...and I got stuck. I couldn't write. My anxiety overwhelmed me until I had to rock myself like a baby to feel calm again. I thought I was going to waste away the opportunity my institution had granted me, and the guilt I felt only fueled my anxiety more. I felt like I was in a sinkhole that I'd drown in.
After talking with my therapist, I made the first step to getting unstuck. I accepted that where I was is perfectly normal for living through a global pandemic, a tyrannical leader, and racial unrest that had direct implications for my Black life. How else was I supposed to respond? Not to mention, imperatives that one be hyper-productive are ableist. Periodt.
The problem was: too many people were acting like things were business as usual! Their expectations for my labor (at least as I imagined or perceived them to be) hadn't shifted to account for the impact our present moment would have on our ability to function--nevertheless work. In other words, despite it all, I had shit to do!
I let the shit sit for a while. I had to get my anxiety to a more manageable level. For me, as a consumer of psychiatric services, that meant adjusting my medication. It also meant learning skills on how to cope with overwhelming and often debilitating anxiety. I learned to remind myself to breathe. I learned grounding exercises that helped me get present, like observing what I saw, heard, smelled, felt, and tasted at a given moment. It meant accepting that some days this was just how I was going to feel, and if it didn't have me in a panic, I would work through it.
The next step I took in getting unstuck was being really specific about my writing tasks. I am currently working on my academic monograph, and the thought of writing a book, or even a chapter of said book, was too intimidating. Revising two paragraphs or looking up all the articles on Alice Walker's By the Light of My Father's Smile, however, were much more achievable tasks. I even tiered tasks according to anxiety levels. On really anxious days, I focused on gathering and, depending on my focus, reading, sources. Other days I could revise or write.
Finally, I dealt with my writing-specific anxiety through therapy and journaling. Graduate school was tough. And my writing confidence took a hard hit. I had to build that confidence back up to establish a writing practice. Stopping negative thoughts in their track and replacing them with more honest, affirmative ones have helped me. Visualizing an embodied source for my critical thoughts and flicking that person off of my shoulder also helps. To get past the initial wave of anxiety, I broke my already specific tasks down into smaller segments. I would edit or write only one sentence, take a break, and come back to it. I used this technique to get started on this blog post! Once I got into a habit of writing, I had to maintain it to keep the anxiety at bay. But I am human, and I don't, so I go back to these tools often.
The challenges we are facing are very real, and they, of course, affect our ability to write regularly or at all. Ideally, we would quit normalizing the cult of productivity that characterizes our society. But not all of us have the option to wait for this to happen. We have work we have to do today--or yesterday. Being honest and gentle about where we are is absolutely essential in getting out of the sinkhole. Changing our expectations of how we work, even if we can't change the amount of work, is one way of practicing gentleness.