A few weeks ago, I wrote a short poem for my publication’s contest, even though I really wasn’t “feeling it”.
Exploring an online word site, RhymeZone , I pumped out a creepy, ambiguous poem (my favorite kind), titled with a “word of the day” I found on an android vocabulary app called Orphic. Free writing tools rule!
I was really happy with the result. Happier than I’d recently been when it came to writing, which was strange bordering unsettling. It had been several months since I’d escaped my comfort zone to frolic with creativity.
Writing is my stress-relief, my happy place, and my one big hobby. Writing has been a significant investment of emotion, money, and time. If any hobby has ever given me a sense of purpose, it has been writing. If it was no longer bringing me joy, I needed to figure out why, pronto…
Does Production = Purpose?
My partner is a PC gamer and probably spends more time at his computer than I do, which is really saying something. His hobby sometimes stresses him out, and when we argue about his need to take a break from it, he often reminds me that ‘writing stresses [me] out too, so what’s the difference?’
“The difference is PRODUCTION!”, I say with defiance.
One of the biggest beefs I have with his hobby and the stress it causes, is that he isn’t creating anything. He’s giving so much time and energy to it and in the end, there isn’t anything to show for it.
But me? I am producing!
And isn’t production tangible proof that my hobby is useful, even if it isn’t giving me all the good vibes that it used to? Surely production is purposeful, even if I’m feeling more drained than replenished after?
Purpose is a feeling. Production is a number.
Which one is easier to measure?
Back in April, I shared a self-reflection piece encouraging writers to consider how much their time was worth before they spent all of it writing for what would likely equate to a very small hourly income.
The article was a promise I made to myself as I ventured into the world of publishing non-fiction — that I would remember my worth and not burn myself out.
After all, getting paid to do something we love is a common dream, but swimming in pennies isn’t exactly what we envisioned.
The gamification of any hobby can be addictive and addictions are stressful. The slow-rise of in-game currency, or real-life currency, no matter how small, can carry us to new heights of hope. We can be easily swept away by an attempt to best our high scores, or at the very least, encouraged to keep plugging away at whatever is giving us minimally-satisfying results.
And income isn’t the only statistic that drives us. There are many numerical indicators we can focus on as we attempt to feel more purposeful through production: how much are we writing? how many readers do we have? fans? likes? followers?
We are highly motivated by numbers because they make progress measurable, but when we make the mistake of measuring our purpose this way, we are compelled to continue meeting or exceeding our past achievements.
It is normal to begin focusing on productivity without questioning purpose because it’s verifiable and allows us to justify all the time we are spending on an activity. But it’s dangerous to confuse one for the other.
If purpose is defined by achievements and supported by productivity, we might begin to lose passion and energy when we are no longer meeting our own expectations — when our measurements begin to drop.
Losing passion leads to burn out, and sometimes burn out means leaving something behind that once brought us a significant amount of joy, something that might have been our calling.
Numbers are fascinating, intoxicating, but they are not enough — not forever.
Have you forgotten the reason you do [xyz]?
Take a break and you might remember.
What signs let me know I am developing an unhealthy relationship with an activity I used to do for fun, stress relief, or a sense of purpose?
- Compulsion to participate
- Guilt when I take a break
- Emotional fatigue every time I step up to bat
I’m almost always suffering from all three when I finally recognize that enough is enough.
Just two months after I started writing non-fiction (almost exclusively), I began feeling the burn out.
Even though I wasn’t producing much more content than I had in the past, I was thinking about content a lot more often. I was writing notes to myself about things I wanted to write. It was almost as if I couldn’t have a thought or a feeling without wondering if it was something worth writing about.
I created an entire spreadsheet with links to all my drafts, everywhere, and realized that I had over 100 unfinished stories.
I thought organizing my unfinished writing would be a good thing, but really it just made me more aware of the ways I was failing to be productive enough.
Every night that I wasn’t pushing myself to do more than the last, I had that creeping sensation that I wasn’t fulfilling my purpose. Any activity that I saw as unproductive — video games, television shows, naps, and even reading — was interrupted by pangs of guilt.
I developed this fantasy that people were counting on me, relying on me somehow, to be online, to keep posting — and that kept me clicking, clapping, networking, and writing, even when I wasn’t feeling up to it.
The reality: the only person setting such unrealistic expectations for my productivity is…ME. It’s just really hard to tell myself to shove it.
Writing personal non-fiction is meaningful and good at increasing numbers, making me feel more productive, and in turn, more valuable to the community. Writing more caused a temporary increase to my feelings of self-worth. But moving away from fiction and focusing on my personal life as a source for production magnified the struggles of reality instead of allowing me to escape them from time to time.
Without any conscious decision on my part to take a break, I crashed. I didn’t write anything for two whole weeks. It may sound like nothing, but that’s the longest break I’ve taken in almost a year.
For the first week, I didn’t even realize what had happened. I kept coming home from work, heading for the computer, sitting there for five minutes, and then going to lay in bed.
I had a lot of guilt, but guilt wasn’t motivating me to write.
At the end of week one, I logged on to handle necessary communications and publish a couple of things for other people, then an hour later had a panic attack that almost led me to the Emergency Room.
As my partner and I went for a walk in 95-degree heat to force-stimulate my body as a distraction, we discussed my anxiety and pointed it all back to “writing”. Not just the act of writing, but all the things that come along with writing in a network, writing for people other than yourself, writing for more than just the release of putting thoughts on paper.
I was no longer doing any of it out of passion, but out of a false sense of purpose.
When I began writing again in 2017, it was after a 10-year hiatus. I was going through a difficult time in my life, had just been laid off from a job and struggling with my identity, and suddenly remembered that writing had once been a huge passion of mine. I wrote an 8,000 word short story that very night — a surreal, fantasy-sci-fi tale that seized my psyche and pulled me away from spiraling sorrow. Writing is friggin’ magic!
And since, that magic has become a critical factor in my life.
But when you’re sharing your writing with other people, or there’s money involved, it’s easy to get side-tracked when it comes to maintaining purpose.
I’m really sensitive to stress, meaning, I detect my rising stress levels in relatively short order…but it also means that my stress levels rise quickly.
Fortunately, I’m also fairly resilient and can recover quickly, but the only thing that stands between recovery and rebound is a thorough understanding of how and why I fell in the first place.
Before I got back online and back to writing, I needed to ask myself, “Why?”
Why aren’t you happy when you’re writing lately? Why isn’t it making you feel better when you’re anxious? Why are you struggling to write fiction as of late?
If there was no chance of making money or of others even reading your writing, would you still want to tell stories?
For me, the answer to that last question is a resounding YES. There is purpose outside of productivity, joy in spending several hours constructing a paragraph you are really proud of, empowerment in writing something amazing and keeping it all to yourself for a while.
This article took me around five hours to write and restructure over the course of several days, and I found it calming to take the time to say things how I really meant to, rather than worrying about churning out content.
Some people write for a living, and they’re tied to their productivity in a way I don’t have to be. I don’t want to run to keep up. I’m slowing back to a walk.
I don’t want be a fast-paced writer, I just want to write to my own standards, and if it helps a reader too, that’s a cherry on top.
Writing, for me, must be done when my heart is behind it, when I have the energy for it, when it energizes me in return. I don’t need to be “productive” to have purpose — no matter the pace, my words will still have meaning.
This doesn’t just apply to writing…If you’re beginning to feel the drag of “Ugh! I don’t wanna!” when doing something you used to love, take a pause and remember the purpose. Consider how far you have strayed from your original intent. May you find replenishment and renewed meaning in the stillness of rest and reflection.