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Heavy Meddle: Untangling A Desire To Achieve From A Yearning To Write

An aspiring writer with a painful past seeks the courage to overcome one more obstacle: the blank page. (Amy Palko/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
An aspiring writer with a painful past seeks the courage to overcome one more obstacle: the blank page. (Amy Palko/flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

I’m finding that I’m more of an over-comer than I am an actual achiever. I’ve overcome childhood abuse, addiction to drugs and alcohol, toxic relationships with family, friends and former partners, a painful marriage, and I continue to consistently overcome my bouts of depression and anxiety. Some days are certainly harder than others. However, I work with my therapist regularly in order to focus on my issues, and I do the self-care necessary to get to an “even” place. I’m always working on getting stable, and this is mainly what my adult life has been made up of: cleaning the mess and trying to heal.

Achieving personal goals, separate from the necessary work I need to do for myself, is very rare. I can’t remember the last time I achieved a personal goal that wasn’t related to my well-being; that wasn’t related to staying alive. And it’s not that I don’t have such goals. The problem is that I don’t know how to hold and achieve a goal when it isn’t threatening my livelihood.

I’ve always held writing near and dear. I discovered my passion for writing during my youth, when I was looking to escape from the abuse at home. I wrote pieces I was certainly proud of, but as I grew older and was constantly beaten down by the world around me, I learned to stifle my creativity — my voice.

I desperately want to write, but fear and anxiety prevent me. To write is to come closer to myself and also to be vulnerable to critique, so I stifle the impulse. I feel I only have enough resilience to overcome and not to achieve.

So, how do you do it? How do I build the resilience to act on my passion around writing? How do I learn to nurture my creative voice again? How do I achieve?

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Yours truly,
Broken Hearted

Dear Broken Hearted,

You’re asking two distinct questions here. They’re related, but not in a healthy way. Let me explain.

Writing is hard for precisely the reasons you articulate: The writer has to expose herself on the page and confront dark feelings within herself, and she then faces the prospect of criticism or neglect. Even before that part of the process, the writer has to sit alone in a room and make a whole bunch of decisions with very little guidance. And this, too, is difficult.

Now imagine that, on top of all that stress, you ladle a whole bunch of anxiety about “achievement.”

Oy. No wonder you’re struggling with writer’s block.

Let me lighten your burden a little bit, Broken Hearted. Please stop confusing the desire to “nurture your creative voice” with “achieving.” They are not friends, or even allies. In fact, the latter impulse acts upon the former desire in about the same manner as hydrochloric acid on the skin.

True achievement in the world of writing doesn’t reside in publishing books or receiving big awards. It resides in getting your ass in the chair and trying.

True achievement in the world of writing doesn’t reside in publishing books or receiving big awards. It resides in getting your ass in the chair and trying. Period. Tell the truth about the things that matter to you most deeply. To the extent you can, silence the petty voices that blather on and on about “achievement,” and pay attention to the people you are writing about and what they’re up against.

Please also remember that writing is a lonely endeavor, and that you will be happiest and most productive if you can find other members of your tribe. Find fellow readers and scribes, perhaps in a class or informal writing group, and put yourself in the company of other writers who are are expected to produce work with the assurance that this work will receive constructive feedback.

After all, nobody is going to beat your door down insisting that you write. It’s ultimately up to you. Often, it helps to have some gentle peer pressure.

It’s fantastic that you’ve overcome so much hardship in your life. But it’s for that very reason that I would ask you not to turn writing into another form of hardship. It’s certainly hard to do well. But your first and final goal should be to take pleasure in the process of writing, in your ability to use language to capture the beauty and pain you see in the world around (and within) you.

Onward, together,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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