When I first started doing creative writing, in grade school and high school, you could not have paid me to stop. I would get so caught up in my writing world that teachers would have to remind me the bell had rung and I needed to go to my next class. My mom would gently remind me for the third time that if I didn’t move my current chapter off the kitchen table, I’d be eating supper on top of my story. When I finished my high school writing project, I looked up, took a deep breath, and thought “what now? what next?” And then I took out a fresh sheet of paper and starting something new.
I still sometimes look up from my work, take a deep breath, and think “what now? what next?” But the answer is inevitably…answer that email. Go to your tutoring session. Go to your meeting. Cultivate “the busy.”
When I was younger, these things wouldn’t have stopped me. I carried out my responsibilities, absolutely, but I interlaced them with writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote, filling up all the cracks in my day with pencils and erasers and imagination.
Now? I choose not to.
It may not be entirely fair, or self-compassionate, to say that I choose not to engage in my creative writing. But hear me out on why I’m using this word.
At the winter solstice, I launched a new system of organization: the bullet journal.
It’s pretty wicked cool, and the best part is, you get to make long lists of tasks with little check boxes next to them. As you complete the task, you check it off, and this feeling of relief washes over you in an awesome wave, a la Patrick Bateman getting an open table at Espace. You’ve done it. You’ve completed all those tasks to which you have assigned importance.
Something equally useful, but less awesome, has come out of this new practice, as well. Namely, the task lists show you, boldly and without pulling punches, exactly what it is that you prioritize. You see what you have demarcated as important laid out in front of you, and you see if those demarcations really give your life meaning or if they just propel you through the day. You see exactly what you have pushed aside, too.
For me, that is creative writing.
I am even better at exercising than I am at sitting down and letting myself write.
So, I started to ask myself, what the hell is going on here? Why am I doing this to myself?
I came to the conclusion that I am choosing to let creative writing go in order to make way for more “important” things. And then I started to ask myself, what the hell is going on with that? Since when did I decide that creative writing isn’t important?
I believe I can pinpoint that belief to the moment in which creative writing started to make me feel guilty. And that guilt coincides with my decision to become an academic and historian.
In other words, I decided to become a professional, rigorous story-teller, and then I stopped telling stories.
If that sounds dumb, that’s because it is.
Why did I do this? Why do I feel guilty? As far as I can tell, there are two reasons.
First, historians often have a love/hate relationship with fiction.
There are some bright and shining stars in the academic world who have not made me feel this way–I want to make that clear. But overall, I have internalized this opinion that creative writing is a frivolous, stupid waste of time. It is the last resort of failed graduate students, the retrogression of actual ideas, the playground of the mindless. It is something that you do not tell your professors that you engage in. It is something that, if, god forbid, you publish, you publish under a false name lest “real” academics find out and take you less seriously. It is, in a word, ridiculous.
Second, I am my own worst enemy.
After about two weeks of making task lists, I just stopped putting boxes for creative writing on my list at all. I have a draft of a dissertation chapter due by the end of February. I have lectures to write for my seminar. I have books to read alongside my students. And in my mind, these tasks were greater, more important, than my creative writing.
But let me tell you what–when I really just stop what I’m doing and let myself spill out onto a page in a way that feels joyful and frivolous, I am happy.
And it used to be, that I accomplished all my tasks AND made room for happy.
It used to be that I wrote more and I wrote better because I was practicing my craft all the time and skipping back and forth between wizards and term papers, magic and thematic essays.
So why not now?
Why did this blog start out as a safe space for my creativity, and oh so quickly morph into a place to be accountable to my exams and now to my dissertation?
Because I choose to let the guilt win. I choose to push creative writing aside when I have other things on my task list. I force myself to believe that creative writing is worlds away from what I need to be doing, rather than the engine that warms me up and launches me into my academic projects. I drown my exhausted mind in Netflix instead of recharging it with meditation and travels into my written worlds.
In the end, then, I need to start making better choices for myself. And here is where I’m (re)starting:
I choose to remember that when I allow myself this reprieve, I actually write better academically–more quickly, discerningly, and energetically. I have over the years convinced myself, and allowed other voices to convince me, that this is not the case. But it is.
And I choose to believe that writing anything is writing well, in both a productive and emotionally beneficial sense.
Because no one should feel guilt, or be made to feel guilt, over the thing that makes them well and brings them joy.