Last month, I hopelessly failed a daily writing challenge.
The first 15 days began swimmingly – I wrote every day, reveled in the creative prompts I was given, and felt gloriously proud of the works I’d produced. I felt good. Powerful, even. Each day, I’d sit down for an hour and emerge with a flurry of new pages I felt wondrously excited about.
But on the 16th day, I sputtered. On the 17th, I floundered. I flailed and fretted my way through days 18 and 19. On the 20th, I arrived once more at the blank page and found – for the fifth troubling day in a row – there was seemingly nothing in my brain. The well had run dry.
I knew full well the culprit for the drought. Life, as it so often does, had gotten in the way. A hundred different personal and professional obligations, deadlines, and concerns had converged at a brutal crossing in the middle of the month. My brain worried itself into exhaustion. As my stress and anxiety peaked, my creativity plummeted. My failure to complete a free, optional, completely voluntary writing challenge – and the shame I felt for letting a free, optional, completely voluntary writing challenge bother me so severely – sent me spiraling.
My brain is just trying to juggle too many tasks at once, I explained to my fellow challenge participants, who grew concerned at my sudden radio silence. There’s no working memory for anything else.
I’m all out of RAM, I joked.
I do this often, I notice: Compare my brain to a computer, a machine, as if one quick trip to the repair shop could set my worried mind aright. All my adult life, I’ve struggled with anxiety. All my adult life, too, I’ve reached for these mechanical metaphors. I like to describe reading as “defragging my brain,” a necessary act that clears clutter and leaves my mind in cleaner, more efficient shape than before. When my husband comes home and asks about my day, I answer on a scale of “productive” to “unproductive,” as if a day’s worth was only measured by tasks completed.
Maybe it’s a comfort, to reduce this messy, anxious brain I was born with to a series of neatly functional 0s and 1s. To seek order among the disorder, calm amidst the fray. To deal in metaphors that make me seem normal.
But when you constantly compare your squishy, wrinkled, gelatinous mass of a brain to a machine, you become frustrated when it doesn’t act like one. I realized I constantly expected myself to perform at 100%, every day, and grew frustrated or ashamed when I didn’t – even when the environment and circumstances in which I was trying to perform changed or shifted, I expected myself to stay constant.
To expect 100% performance is to guarantee failure, I’m learning. Even computers crash; even machines need reboots. The best thing I could do for myself and my writing was to install a little grace.
Which is why, the next time I start a writing challenge – and I will tackle another one – I’m beginning it with a set number of “Grace Days,” my own personal stack of get-out-of-jail-free cards for the days when I look at the blank page and Just Can’t. I’ll make more space in my calendar and deadlines, keep my fingers closer to the pulse of my mental health. I will remember that even 15 days spent writing out of 30 are 15 sets of pages I didn’t have before. Someday soon, I hope, I can extend that grace to my own brain – something more complex and spectacular than a man-made machine, for all its unpredictability and faults; something that still fights to find meaning amidst all the worry. On my worst days, I will pick up past pages I wrote and remind myself that no drought is permanent. Look what good can come from the messy brain you were given, I’ll remember. Look what can grow when given what it needs to thrive.
—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.Originally Published