Overwhelmed? Blocked? Try Reverse Empathy

There is still much to learn about women’s creative processes and how to create the conditions that foster our creativity without negating the importance of relationships in our lives. Our culture and socialization still hijack a woman’s creative process, creating barriers for the woman writer. By barrier, I mean any persistent event, condition, or circumstance which inhibits a woman’s ability to both begin writing at all, and also to continue after she has begun.

Bell Hooks said, “Most women I encounter (with the exception of a privileged few) feel that we are still struggling against enormous odds to transform both this culture and our everyday lives so that our creativity can be nurtured in a sustained manner” (Art, p. 128).

A woman’s desire to do creative work is, in the experience of many women, treated as an indulgence, and hooks warned women that they cannot wait for ideal circumstances to be in place. She said, “Each of us must invent alternative strategies that enable us to move against and beyond the barriers that stand in our way” (p. 130).

In addition, I think women are culturalized to be overly empathic. An article published by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley said, “Overly empathic people may even lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, and may lack internal resources to give their best to key people in their life.”

This sounds like many women writers I know.

So what should we do? Here’s one alternative strategy you can use to move against and beyond your barriers: when faced with cultural and social messages that affect your ability to write, while waiting for ideal circumstances to be in place, when struggling for that bit of writing time, treat yourself with empathy. Yes, empathy. Empathy is acknowledging the humanity of someone (you) who was raised to think differently. So what I’m really talking about is reverse empathy, instead of feeling empathy for those round us, feel empathy for yourself. This a practice that allows you to pay attention to another’s needs without sacrificing your own, because it requires you to pay attention to your own needs.

Often when we are given writing advice, we try to follow tips and ideas that don’t really work for women, because of our conditioning and our circumstances. Instead of feeling like a failed writer, we should try and view ourselves through a reverse-empathetic lens. When we do, we learn to identify our own frame of reference, then we can take compassionate action toward ourselves. Then we can find, make, create, win back our writing time.

You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play

What’s your passion?

I want to write more. Let me streamline that a bit: I want to write more, send more of my work to an editor and/or agent, get published more, and make more money. You probably want something similar (that’s why you’re reading this, right?)

Now, I could ask myself, why aren’t I? However, a more interesting question that I’m pondering is, What pain am I willing to put up with in my life to work on my passion?

The pain is:
* the early mornings or late nights spend writing,
* the hours spent writing when I *should* be doing something else,
* the tough conversations about why I don’t have time to do ____ because I’m writing,
* the days that are so full that i have no mental energy left over at the end of the day to write,
* the fear that I’ll never make a “living wage” as a writer.

But you can’t win if you don’t play.

So, ask yourself, what pain are you willing to put up with in order to write?

Woman, Writer, Warrior

I’m personally and academically interested in the choices and compromises talented female writers make, more specifically why some women have difficulty giving themselves time and permission to do their writing.

I struggle with my roles as a woman: wife, mother, PhD student, professor, nurturer, and I run out of time and energy to do my creative work. But it has never truly been a problem of time management or writer’s block. Rather the issues run deeper, and for my PhD dissertation, I chose to write a novel and to document my own fluency and resistance as part of my contextualization.

I work up this morning and thought, Holy cow, where did the week go?

This has been a tough writing week for me. I’m 69 thousand-ish words into a draft of my 70 to 80 thousand word romantic mystery novel. And I’m totally overwhelmed about the fact that I’m not writing fast enough, worried that summer, which officially started yesterday, will be over before I can finish my novel, and freaking out because my life is boring (read: wake up, drink coffee and write, and worry about writing).

To put it bluntly, I am, like so many other women writers do, having difficulty giving myself time and permission to do my writing. Even though I need to!

The novel is part of my PhD dissertation – so I have “permission” to write it. If you’re a woman and a writer, you get what I just said – all those hours and hours given to a writing project that were not given to family or work.

I’m trying to cut through and write. But I keep thinking about all the stuff I need to do: clean the house, do the laundry, check work email, call the kids, feed Feral Cat. Feral Cat is a beautiful, but matted tuxedo cat who now lets me pet him, so I’m trying to figure out how to cut his matted fur off without him freaking out. I could do that instead of writing *wink*

So today my plan is to become a writing warrior. To create a writing culture for myself and other women writers that bears witness to the woman writer’s experience.

Have any writing advice for me? Let me know in the comments below.

Writing Tip #3

An oldie, but a goldie, especially for a woman:

“If you want to write, you have to cut through and write. There is no perfect atmosphere, notebook, pen, or desk, so train yourself to be flexible.”
– Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (p. 101).

Our True Priorities Dictate Our Time

We get told this over and over: We all have the same 24 hours a day and how we use them is up to us.

As if, somehow, we’re focusing on things that aren’t important to us. And that’s what hinders our writing.

But, let’s be honest, there are always competing priorities for a woman writer’s time:

Our job – because we all have bills
Our relationships – dealing with kids, partner, parents
Our health – exercise, leisure, sleep

For women, our true priorities – our relationships, our children, our work – dictate how we spend our hours each day.

We can’t, as so many advice-givers advocate, just make time to write. We have to schedule our writing time around our priorities. We focus on things that ARE important to us.

In addition to being a wife, mother, and writer, I am a college professor. Today is graduation. I MUST be at graduation, right. It’s a school requirement, I can’t skip it and write.

Should I feel bad about that? I think not.

Like me, you have challenges in your life that are personal to you. Your job is to determine your true priorities and manage your time around those priorities so that your challenges do not create barriers.

The solution is not to in time management, it is in priority management.

Writing Tip #2

Keep writing. Your words matter. My words matter. Life gets in the way – everyday, every freakin’ day! – but we can’t stop, won’t stop writing. Don’t. Stop. Writing.

A Writerly Life: Mary Oliver

“Believe me, if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day – which is what I did.”
— Mary Oliver