Make your way through the season of life when writing seems impossible.
Life can get in the way of your writing. Author Nicole Gulotta calls this the Season of Discontent and shares the following tools as a way of navigating those rough waters:
If you’re railing against a set of frustrating circumstances—as we all do from time to time—transformative mindset shifts will help release blame from your job, family, and anything else keeping you from the page.
It was 2013 when the family foundation I worked for relocated its offices thirty miles outside of town, ushering in a long Season of Discontent. In Los Angeles, the land of highways, miles matter, and there was no pretending that driving sixty miles instead of four every day wouldn’t deeply affect me, it was only a matter of how and when.
Then I read a poem by W. S. Merwin called “Air,” where he writes about walking in the desert at night. His lines brushed up against my heart like a soft wind.
This way the dust, that way the dust.
I listen to both sides
But I keep right on.
Don’t you love when the right words show up at the right time? This poem must have known I needed to read it.
The First Thing to Do: Make Peace
Making peace with your circumstances is challenging work. A concerted effort must be made to uncover old storylines holding you back, and then you must endure the experimental phase when you try on different mantras and methods to help you cope.
You will most likely have days that seem promising, and others that seem futile. Peacemaking involves embracing something that feels like surrender, which you might not have a history of running toward with open arms.
The Season of Discontent can be a deeply unsettling place where negativity reigns and feels at odds with who you know you are inside: a writer with things to say and words to write, yet somehow shackled.
Although, after floundering for a few days (or a few months) with knots in your stomach and anxiety in your heart, you’ll realize the frustration you’ve been blindly following around has revealed nothing useful except that you’d be better served without it.
This can be difficult to believe in the moment but is always a relief in retrospect.
Rituals & Routines: Obstacles and Opportunities
One of the hardest aspects of hovering in the Season of Discontent is resisting the urge to lament the circumstances, which can become second nature, almost as comforting as curling up in a blanket. But give this a try. First, make a list of the biggest obstacles you’re facing right now. It might look something like this:
- Lack of time to devote to writing
- A long commute
- Bringing work home with you
- Lack of clarity on what to write about
Now, look for opportunities to shift your mindset. How can you use these obstacles for good? How can they serve you instead of the other way around? Can you play an inspiring podcast on your drive? If you take the train, can you read or draft poems? Do you need to change jobs immediately, or can you stay awhile? You don’t need all the answers now, just a few ideas to start considering.
The Second Thing to Do: Make Priorities
Reconciling my career and my creativity has been a struggle since the day I graduated from college and went on my first interview for a teacher’s assistant position at a local charter school. I had very little idea what might make me happy back then, and what followed was a series of jobs that never felt quite right. I’m grateful in hindsight, because my discontent led to blogging, which led me to my first book.
Over the years, I’ve started to see my career as a partner in my creativity, and welcome what my day job truly is: a patron. It’s an opportunity to pursue my writing with greater freedom, rather than relying on it to pay the bills.
Rituals & Routines: New Mantra Buffet
There are weeks or months that require a boost of encouragement, something to hold on to as often as necessary. Choose one from this list, or write your own, and put it somewhere you’ll be looking: the car dashboard, the bathroom mirror, the desktop computer at work.
- I’m the only one who can tell my story
- My career empowers my creativity
- Progress over perfection
- When I write, I nurture an authentic part of myself Seasons change
- One thing at a time
The Third Thing to Do: Make Progress
In her essay “The Getaway Car,” Ann Patchett tells the story of how after graduate school she left her husband and her new teaching job and moved back in with her mother in Nashville. Working as a waitress at TGI Fridays, Ann decided if she wanted to be a writer, she’d need to write her way to a better life for herself. “It was a test of love: How long would I stick around once things were no longer going my way?” This is when she figured out how to work in her head during restaurant shifts. Her brain made space for appetizer and cocktail orders, as well as characters for the novel she wanted to write.
Rituals & Routines: Write your Way Through It
Writing might come naturally, but it is sometimes overlooked as a tool to help us sort through feelings. It can be as easy as journaling or creating a document for venting, if you like, but I enjoy making an I Wish list as a first line of defense to sort through bubbling emotions.
However you approach it, the idea is to move the emotions from inside your body to the page. Nothing has to come from it creatively. It’s highly unlikely this will be the piece you pitch as a guest essay or publish on your blog.
- I wish I didn’t have a long commute
- I wish I had a private office
- I wish dinner would make itself
- I wish I had more time to read
- I wish my schedule was more flexible
- I wish I could read an entire magazine in one sitting
- I wish I could sleep in
Don’t worry about censoring yourself. Write down everything that arrives and add to the list over the course of a week. Next, see which concern is the most pressing, and set out to remedy it as best you can. If you want more time to read, are there places you can make space for it? It won’t all change at once, but remember: progress. Even a few small shifts will help make a difference.
The tough stuff refines us, makes us go to deep places, and the only way forward is to lean into the discomfort and see what it can teach you. It might take a long time, but one day you’ll be finished walking through the desert and be able to look back on those difficult, sun-drenched days and think, I made it across.
At the end of his poem, Merwin realized what he wanted to be doing all along:
Walking at night between the two deserts, singing.
Writers don’t want to choose. We don’t want to write someone else’s words and never our own. We don’t want to miss time with friends and family. But we must start across these two deserts, singing our songs, writing our words, listening to both sides, letting them mold us, making space for everything that matters.
The oasis isn’t trembling on the horizon, it’s inside us, ready to quench our thirst. And if you’re searching your writing life for something to control, there is only this: whether or not you show up to the page.
This season might be fraught with challenges, but you can choose to make writing a priority. And one day, those words will lead you out of the desert.
You might also enjoy writing a letter of forgiveness.