“If you want to write, write.” – Dr. John Knapp II, in an email from June 24
The words above are some of the most freeing I’ve ever heard, and ones that will probably rattle around inside my head for the rest of my life. Spoken to me by a mentor I’ve had since middle school, they came in response to a request for advice on writing fiction. They’re now written on an index card and pinned to the top corner of a black creative board next to my desk. To the left of and below the card are at least 100 other white cards holding the outline for the book I’m writing. Whenever I feel stuck or I wonder if what I’m doing is ridiculous, I look over and smile.
“If you want to write, write,” he said. So that’s what I’m doing.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved words. From the age of six, I’ve kept journals and enjoyed writing about the highs and lows of life. As an internal processor, writing is an outlet that helps me express myself and celebrate others. In high school, I dreamed of being a journalist and sharing stories people wouldn’t get to hear otherwise. As an adult, I’ve had the privilege of partnering with brilliant people who have needed help getting their ideas down for others to read. I’m 100 percent convinced that God gave me the ability to write and that I’m meant to use that in a way that impacts others.
But I haven’t always believed that. For a little over a year, I’ve been wrestling with my creative self. I’ve been telling her to sit down, be quiet, and not make a fuss. Until recently, I’d led her to believe she wasn’t important and nobody cared what she had to say.
I have an entry in my journal from March 1 of this year. It contains a quote from Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore. In it, an artist is questioning if he’ll ever truly paint again. Underneath the quote, I’d simply written, “What if I never write again?” I think what I was really asking is, “If I never write again, will it matter?”
A week after that entry, I posted Writer’s Block and Transmissions to the Future. In it I said, “For me, writer’s block is a bit more than a setback; it’s an emotional dilemma.” I’d had enough. I knew I needed to move forward, but had no idea how. I felt paralyzed, wavering between feeling numb and being angry.
During this time, my husband sent me a link for an episode of the Rich Roll Podcast that featured Brian Koppelman. A friend had recently shared it with him because she thought it was interesting, and he was blown away by how much overlap there was in Koppelman’s story and the way I’d described my own emotional state. Listening to the show while driving in the car, I began to cry when Koppelman interjected, “When I say [my] creative block felt like a death, what I mean to say is that I was really sad.”
“I felt so close to a kind of death. I was never a suicidal person and I was never going to die of misery, but you know, I truly believe that when a creative impulse dies it’s like any other death and has toxicity associated with it.” – Brian Koppelman on the Artist Within, Rich Roll Podcast Episode 427
It was the first time I felt permission to grieve the loss of a skill. In the past, that had felt silly. Listening to Koppelman was like hearing someone say what was in my heart, only with better words and with decades of experience knowing it can get better. Koppelman is now 53 years old, and the season of life he described occurred in his early thirties. A large portion of the show, he shared about his journey with daily routines and the writing of morning pages. He talked about why creativity is important and why it’s not okay to stay blocked.
“I finally got to this breaking point because our first kid was born and I realized if I had become bitter I wouldn’t be a good parent. If I allowed this creative impulse to die, the toxicity would leach out onto the people that I loved. That more than anything got me to the breaking point of knowing I had to change my behavior and find a way to believe I can do this work.” – Brian Koppelman on the Artist Within, Rich Roll Podcast Episode 427
After finishing the episode, I ordered the book Koppelman and Roll referenced several times, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I began the 12-week course focused on creative recovery on April 11, and it has been instrumental in putting me back together again. I really can’t remember the last time I felt as emotionally healthy as I do today.
I’ll admit The Artist’s Way is cheesy at times. Parts of it are outdated. But it gave me a framework for processing my doubts and healing my heart. Alongside following the plan Cameron outlines in her book, there are a few other things that have put me in a place I couldn’t have imagined back in March.
I spoke up. Giving my pain a name brought it to life and allowed me to address it face to face. As I talked to friends, what they gave me in empathy they matched with their confidence. They could see I wasn’t okay, but they assured me I wouldn’t stay that way.
I gave myself space. I began to turn down contract work, knowing that healing would take time and I needed to create margin for recovery. I could have chosen to keep forging ahead, but at the expense of never actually fixing what was broken.
I created a rhythm. Earlier this year, Tim and I realized neither of us ever felt like we had time to ourselves. In the evenings, we’d put Landon to bed and collapse onto the couch. Both of us felt discouraged by the feeling of constantly battling productivity and exhaustion. So Tim had an idea: We’d get up at 4:30, and at night when we were already tired, we’d go to bed. It sounds crazy, but it works! This morning rhythm almost always guarantees I have at least two hours to do my morning pages, read, and take a deep breath before the day begins.
I got over it. One of my favorite lines in The Artist’s Way is, “Anger points the way, not just the finger (p. 61).” I’ve now dealt with my inner-critic, the one that kept telling me “you’re not good enough,” and have distanced myself from relationships that kept me second guessing. It feels good to recognize that while I no longer feel I should remain in the professional role I was in, I’m not mad about it.
I got to work. Over and over again during the 12 weeks, I was asked the question of what I would do if I could do anything without fear of failure or shame. One thing I kept coming back to was a long-time desire to write fiction. In addition to beginning a fiction project, I’ve been writing again for the joy of it. For the first time in over a year, I wake up in the morning and already have words rolling around in my head. Long gone are the days of staring at my computer screen and agonizing over how to move ahead.
I don’t know what part of your heart you’ve had to shut down for one reason or another. I think we all have things we know we should share with the world, but can’t for one reason or another. And like Koppelman said, this can feel like a death—or at the least like a great sadness. On the flip side, “Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing (The Artist’s Way, p. 68).”
If you want to write, write.
Whatever it is you want to do, figure out what that looks like and go do it.
I know I am.
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Resources For Creative Recovery
Disclaimer: All of these aren’t for everyone. They were inspiring to me, but I wouldn’t recommend them to every person, every time.
Rich Roll Podcast, Episode 427: Brian Koppelman on the Artist Within
Books of Your Life Podcast: Neil Gaiman’s Books of His Life
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Morning Pages (as described by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way)
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
adozenseconds.com by John Knapp II