Let go of the thing you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb) — it will take you someplace further and far more interesting.
The conceit of letting go
For more than 40 years, I’ve had one north star, one measure of success in my life: to be a writer. Everything I did, thought, dreamed, wished was borne out of that singular desire. It shaped the way I saw myself, and even others, as well as shaped every choice I made in my work and personal life.
I’ve gone on writing retreats, attended conferences, participated in writing workshops, classes and groups, and even earned a master’s degree to support my habit. I took jobs where writing was a key, if not the sole, reason to earn a paycheck.
I’ve stayed up into the wee hours writing, writing, writing—starting stories, outlining character sketches, penning poems, crafting article headlines and subheads and body copy, creating brand narratives, concepts and names, keeping a blog, drafting a screen play, beginning a novella (again and again and again), and journaling thousands, if not millions of pages.
And what for?
This was the question I asked not many years ago, in the early evening of a late autumn day. Because as I sat down to vomit the 1,550 words needed to meet a self-inflicted requirement, I found myself in pain. A deep gnawing pain that I had felt many times before over the years but had ignored. The pain of not wanting to write at all.
The still, small voice
I did a quick self-awareness scan: was it self-doubt? Fear of failure? Writer’s block? Laziness? Or something worse, such as lack of talent? What if…what if despite what I had believed and fought for and sought to claim these many years, I just wasn’t a writer after all? Was I ever a writer?
For the first time in my life, this wasn’t anxiety or self-doubt or insecurity or fear talking. It was a real question. An inquiry from the seat of my soul that I knew I had to answer with a straightforward “yes” or “no,” leaving nothing open-ended.
A voice answered simply: no.
The darkest night
My body reacted immediately. Deep inhale, tightening chest, flushing face, welling tears. It felt like learning I’d been lied to about something I believed with all my heart and soul to be an immutable truth. The identity I had sown for myself for the majority of my life was false. Talk about life’s magic carpet being pulled from under you. And I was the one yanking the rug.
That’s a hard blow, a disheartening lesson to learn when you’re looking at the horizon line of your life and wondering what the future holds. My “what’s next” was now open. A completely blank sheet of paper. A completely white canvas. A completely dark sky.
A new hope
And that’s when I thought about the original Stars Wars movie (because why wouldn’t I?) One of my favorite lines from the film is when Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia says to Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip Governor Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
In my case, I had taken the one thing that I loved more than anything in the world, and I had crushed it in my fist, killing it. In my quest to be a writer, I had stripped everything precious and life giving from the act of writing. I was too focused on the outcome and not enough on the journey. I was more focused on the tangible thing and not on the experience.
I failed to recognize that we should treat our dreams, our desires, and our “art” with reverence and care, like they have a tiny beating heart. By keeping an open palm, you let the light in. That’s how things grow and thrive.
In my quest to be a writer, I had stripped everything precious and life giving from the act of writing.
A recipe for recovery
For years, I had suffocated my writing with possession and lost the joy of it. I was addicted to words strung together like lines of cocaine across a glass tabletop; I inhaled so much I was numb. No feeling, just the need for the fix. And I needed an intervention.
But when your art is your addiction, only you can choose to be sober.
In that moment, in the late evening of a late autumn day, I decided to quit cold turkey. To stop writing for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. I chose to clean the slate. Start fresh with a dream: what do I want to be when I grow up?
All the never realized or abandoned daydreams were game, and suddenly, I felt like a kid again. The thrill of being a novice; the ecstasy of the beginner’s mind. I could do anything I wanted now. Pick up knitting. Take a pottery class. Blow some glass. I didn’t have to feel guilty that time spent in another activity was time away from writing. I no longer had to judge my self-worth through the tip of my pen.
Ah, that was the rub. My writing had become so intertwined with my value, that I had lost my sense of self. I had to be constantly doing, achieving and completing to win merit in the world. Just being wasn’t enough. But I realized just being was everything.
Start fresh with a dream: what do I want to be when I grow up?
The unbearable lightness of being
Taking time off from a professed passion is a lot like holding your breath for too long—there’s a sense of dread and then a little lightheadedness before the exhale. Not writing felt like that; I walked around feeling oddly giddy and pleasant.
This lasted for a few years. I recommitted to knitting, created some collages, and picked up photography again, a pastime I had let go dormant for more than 25 years. I made more home cooked meals, flirted with a having social life despite being an introvert, and basically did whatever seemed like the best use of my time in the moment (including a cultivating penchant for single-malt scotch and cava. Not together, of course.)
It was like living an eternal teenage summer, lounging at the swimming pool, where I felt like I had nothing especially pressing to do, and nowhere especially to be. The warmth of the sun on my skin, a good book in my hands and the distant cacophony of kids playing, all lulling me into some fairytale utopia. But even novelty loses its luster after repetition.
Slow and steady reentry
Most people know that once you’ve learned how to ride a bicycle, it’s unlikely you’ll forget how to do it the rest of your life, even if you haven’t been on one for 10, 20 or 40 years. It’s the type of activity stored in what psychologists call, procedural memory—the part of the brain that just knows-how to do something.
Writing is like that for me. It’s something I feel in my whole body. It’s a reflex I can’t control—it just…happens. And it did, ever so slowly, over the past few weeks, days and hours. Writing found me again. Like your breath coming back in a mad-rush of an exhale when you’ve held it too long. It’s what you’re bearing witness to now.
Although I haven’t “written” since 2015, not writing was not all that different from writing for me. I still wrote in my head—made up stories, invented characters, crafted turns of phrase—but didn’t have the guilt associated with not putting it on paper. No guilt maybe, but definitely sadness. All those words piling up and tangling into a fist-sized knot of grief constantly pressing on and constricting my diaphragm.
So that’s why I’m here. To open that fist, and let the light and air in.