What do you do when you find that you've boxed yourself in and sealed the lid with layer upon layer of plastic packing tape? How the hell do you set yourself free?
It won't do to sit inside the box and knock politely, hoping someone will hear you on the outside. Neither will it work to call for help in a polite but muted voice. That will get you nowhere.
There's only one way out of this suffocating situation: You need a knife or very sharp blade. One you can use to slash that box right open.
No knife? Take your foot and kick hard -- or take both feet, and both your fists too. Punch and kick until you've torn open a hole at least the size of your head.
Then stick your head outside. Suck in as much air into your lungs as you possibly can, to make up for all the air you've lost while stuffed inside that stifling box. And now scream and yell your biggest hello to the world that you can possibly muster.
I'm in the process of kicking just such a hole into the box I buried myself in some months back.
This past few months I've boxed myself by not writing. I convinced myself that I had nothing much of importance to say. I figured nobody would miss what I was writing since there are 350 billion other people out there writing these days.
Well now that I have finally seen the error of my ways, I realize that I've missed writing a lot.
And not only that, it has finally dawned on me that along with my writing disappearing, a whole chunk of ME has gone into hiding. Which may explain the mighty crappy depression that I've been fighting for months.
Thanks to a new therapist and some soul searching, I realize that I stopped writing some time after I published my second novel. While many readers loved it, book sales fell far short of my desired goals.
The whole episode left a bad taste in my mouth. You know the flavor -- it's called failure.
Somehow I convinced myself that it wasn't worth writing anymore if people weren't going to respond to my fiction by buying my books. I never really verbalized this negative mindset, I just shriveled up, and let my writing life grow fallow.
What happens with writing is what happens with a lot of the best things in life. Like exercise for example. You can have a great gym or walking routine going for months or years. But then you come down with the flu or pneumonia and you stop going to the gym, or walking, for a couple of weeks. Which then becomes a couple more weeks.
And before you know it, you've stopped your walking and you're back to being a couch potato.
The same holds true with writing. You can be writing a novel or short stories or personal essays or poetry. You are going great guns. You are writing hundreds, maybe thousands of words a day, for weeks or months on end. You're so psyched to write that you get up in the middle of the night to wallop the laptop keys. Writing seems like the easiest and most natural thing in the world.
And then something happens. An obligation -- a work-related duty or some other personal chore -- gets in the way of the muse. And suddenly you wake up one morning and you're not writing that day. And then, the next day. And the next. And before you know it a week or two or more have slipped away and suddenly you're in such a writing funk you don't have enough muse or inspiration to fill an itty bitty espresso cup.
How do we turn these fallow periods around? Once we've kicked a hole in that box, how do we get to work and start writing again?
You spend some time in contemplation. You actively seek out the inspiration brought on by reading good books. You spend time with other writers, preferably in a writer's group.
But most of all, you just decide that you are going to write. You convince yourself that writing really matters. You remind yourself that writing is a lot like breathing. It pulls the very air of life into your lungs and brain. It helps you sort out and explain so much of the sorrow and pain that happens in the world, particularly in your corner of the world. And you remind yourself that even if your words don't bring in six-figure advances, you know at the end of a day of writing that you've plunged into your soul and gotten messy with words, and you've come out feeling a lot more whole.
The therapeutic value of writing -- particularly writing that is close to the soul -- is undisputed.
And like exercise, it's good for everyone, not just professional writers, but for people who do nothing more than keep a diary. For proof of that, I offer you the work of one of my all-time heroes.
James Pennebaker is a Texas-based research psychologist who has built a solid reputation on the health benefits of journaling. For decades now, he's studied college students and a host of other social groups and found that writing regularly in journals about issues that bother us deeply -- both the events themselves and the emotions associated with these events - can lead to much improved health outcomes: For the college students it meant 50 percent fewer visits to the health center, as well as significant improvements in immune function. Students who journaled also displayed improved moods and a boost in positive attitudes.
In another of Pennebaker's studies, outlined in his now-classic book Opening Up, he evaluated the effect of therapeutic writing on a group of 50 unemployed engineers laid off by a large Dallas computer company. "Half the men were asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about getting laid off for 30 minutes a day for five consecutive days," Pennebaker writes.
The other half of the group wrote for the same amount of time about time management strategies, avoiding the topic of the painful layoffs altogether. A third comparison group did not write at all.
Pennebaker said the "potency" of the study surprised even him:
"Within three months, 27 percent of the experimental participants landed jobs compared with less than 5 percent of the men in the time management and no writing comparison groups. By months after writing, 53 percent of those who wrote about their thoughts and feelings had jobs, compared with only 18 percent of the men in the other conditions."
Curiously, all the men had gone on the same number of job interviews. So what explains why the men doing the therapeutic writing got more job offers?
Pennebaker hypothesizes that the men who wrote about their thoughts and feelings had more likely processed the deep anger they felt toward the Dallas computer company that had so callously laid them off. He suspects that when men who hadn't done the therapeutic writing went on job interviews, they inadvertently let slip some of their resentment or bitterness about having been laid off.
Writing experiments like these have now been conducted worldwide. Pennebaker concludes:
"Writing about emotional upheaveals has been found to improve the physical and mental health of grade-school children and nursing home residents, arthritis sufferers, medical school students, maximum security prisoners, new mothers and rape victims."
Pennebaker's work certainly speaks to the power of journaling. But for me, the power of writing extends beyond journaling to any kind of writing that speaks to my soul.
It's just such a shame that something came between me and my writing. That being my ego.
The part of me that was feeling bruised because I couldn't brag about how many books I'd sold.
I hope I've learned my lesson. I know one thing: Now that I'm out of that damn box and back in the writing saddle, I'm going hang on for dear life and no matter what, I'm going to keep riding.
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