Resistance to Writing

Sometimes, like now, I don’t want to write. It’s different from procrastination, or having too many projects on the go. Rather, it’s this unaccountable, strange resistance to do what I love: to write.

After coming home from vacation, I was going to give myself a week off before I started (or rather recommenced) on a rather big writing project with a deadline that was two months away. Well, that week has now turned into two, and I’ve made little progress . . . or little attempt at making progress.

Instead, I’ve started all sorts of other things: writing regularly for my blog again, tending to my growing backyard garden, and embarking on a reading project studying the major works of Western thought (an undertaking I’ve been wanting to do for about fifteen years!). Sounds pretty ambitious, right?

But the one thing that I need to get done — submit this piece of writing for a September 1st deadline — has gone pretty much unheeded.

The looming deadline is like a weight (I think of the Albatross in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) hung around my neck. And each day that goes by without my working on it because I just didn’t want to, feels like a millstone slowly sinking me down to even lower depths.

I enjoy writing and have wanted for months to submit this piece. So what’s the problem?

I remember feeling like this way once before. It was my first semester of my MFA in creative writing, and I was absolutely overloaded with all the demands of adjusting to a new pace and environment, doing the readings for a heavy workload of required courses, teaching university composition, and — somehow — doing my own creative writing to submit for workshop at the same time. The result was that I did not want to do the required work. And I did not want to write. I had little motivation to do so, and for good reason: I was burnt out.

After silently feeling swamped and discouraged for weeks, and secretly humiliated that I just didn’t have what it took to do this degree, I opened up and talked with a colleague who had become a dear friend, and who’d already finished her first year in the same program. She confirmed (unexpectedly to me) that it was pretty normal to feel the way I was during the first year. And she shared with me that she’d enrolled, not because it was required, but because it was something she wanted to do. (No one requires anyone to do an MFA in creative writing, after all!)

That motivation for doing the degree in the first place — because she wanted to — gave me a good perspective. I thought about what had motivated me to begin the degree in the first place: because I’d wanted to become a better writer. I realized that no one, not even my professors, was forcing me to do all the work that I was expected to do for each class. They might “require” I read certain texts and respond to them, come prepared to class to talk about them, but ultimately, I didn’t have to. (That is, I could choose not to, and take the consequences.) My need to do so was a self-regulated desire.

When I came to that realization — that I didn’t have do any of it — it’s like I gave myself permission to say no, and in having that freedom, to really think about what I ultimately wanted.

After that, if didn’t feel like doing the readings, I reminded myself that if I really didn’t want to, I didn’t need to. But an interesting thing happened: I began thinking again about what I ultimately wanted to get out of this degree. I realized I still wanted to become a better writer. My creative writing professors (who were all successful, professional writers themselves, I might add) had made certain course requirements and readings lists for the classes they were teaching: it was their way of imparting their knowledge, of training us and teaching us how to become better writers ourselves. I might not always feel like doing the readings or assignments, but after feeling that I now had a choice to not do them, I found myself deciding to, indeed wanting to. Nothing in my circumstance changed, except for my perspective, and my regaining of a sense of agency, “And that” (to quote Robert Frost) “has made all the difference.”

And so how does that relate to the way I’m feeling now?

Like during my MFA, I’ve realized that no one is forcing me to submit this piece of writing. It’s a self-directed desire to try to get this piece, which I’ve already invested quite a bit of time and research and writing in, published. And, like doing the readings or assignments in my MFA course, I can choose not to. But what do I ultimately want? In part, it is to be published.

And as I end this blog post that I’m writing in the time I’d planned to work on my piece to submit, I realize that I’ve learned an important lesson. That when it comes to writing (being a writer, becoming a writer), we must choose what it is we ultimately want.

I ultimately would like to submit this piece in a month and a half. I’d like to try my best at getting it published. And even if my piece isn’t accepted, I don’t believe the experience will be lost: I’ll still have learned from writing and sticking with it, regardless of the outcome.

In moving forward with this piece, I’m going to continue to blog, to garden, to read — that is, to keep a balance. Perhaps paradoxically, writing about my resistance to writing has ultimately helped me find the motivation to write again.

Question: How do you motivate yourself to write when you don’t want to?