How to Talk Yourself Off The Ledge of Creative Despair

In Craft, Musings on January 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm

I’m standing up on a ledge that barely has enough room for my feet. Every micro-inch of movement kicks grains of pebbles down into a roaring abyss of traffic and noise. I got myself up here, but how will I get down? People I trust and love are standing just outside my line of sight, promising me that it will all be okay if I only listen, take their hands and trust, but I am frozen in place, with terror. What if I don’t make it?

This is the metaphor for the place I get to in my darkest moments of doubt about my writing. The ledge. Different things can send me up there: sometimes it’s feedback I’ve heard a thousand times hitting the “I don’t want to!” temper tantrum place inside me. Sometimes it’s missing the precious blank morning hours of solitude that I had to write in before my son was born. Sometimes it’s the latest news about the publishing industry, or the feeling that the “destination” I’m aiming at with my writing is just so damn far away and that I don’t have the stamina to get there. And every time it comes with the same thought: I am a fraud. Who am I to teach others about writing when I can’t even do it myself? Am I doomed to be the one who sees what must be done, but never the one to do it?

Thankfully, I can tell you the answer is no. When I was up on the ledge most recently, the wind chilling my face, the exhaust burning acrid in my throat, I wasn’t so sure either, but I got down. Here is my recipe for taking yourself down off the ledge when you think you might not otherwise make it:

1. Write it Out: The only way I make any headway is to first discover what I am going through. The only way I know how to do this, is to write about it. Journal, stream of consciousness, morning pages–whatever method you have that works for you, make sure you know what it is. You might think it’s one thing: you received a rejection, let’s say. When, upon writing, you discover it’s that you were rejected by a publication you didn’t really want to be published in…or in my case, I went to the place of: “I am just mediocre,” only to realize what it was really about was: “I don’t have the luxury of time I once had in which to work as hard as I know I have to work.” (ironically this is the very theme about which I want to be writing, balancing work and art, motherhood and writing…)

2. Feel it. Before you move on to step three, I find that if you can just give yourself a tiny bit of alone time to feel the grief or frustration, rage or disappointment, you will be on a much faster track to getting rid of it.

3. Talk it Out: After I know what’s troubling me, I have found that this artist’s despair gets lodged in the body, tugging down the emotions and the attitude with it, and that I must almost literally extract it from my physical person. The way I do this best is to talk about it, let it be witnessed, shine the light of other people’s wisdom, gentleness and kindness on it, purge it from me.

4. Walk it Off: After you get a witness to your pain, someone who can simply validate what you’re going through and offer gentleness, nothing like a good old fashioned walk, or yoga hour, or any kind of exercise…this will further help you to extract it from your body, where it leads to illness and fatigue and eating bad things.

5. Educate Yourself: So often I get stuck in know-it-all mode. Because I teach writing and write about writing, I must know all there is to know, and therefore be a failure when I can’t do it myself. That’s when it’s time to take a class. I signed up for a class I’ve wanted to take for ages, finally giving it to myself. Or, if you find yourself in the opposite situation, where you feel like you don’t know anything, sometimes the best thing you can do is pick a focus, just one thing to work on, and take a class, go to a lecture, a writing conference, or even just pick up a book, rather than trying to take on the whole thing at once.

6. Back on the Horse: Finally, the only way you’ll make any forward progress, is to come back to the painful source and start again. Whether it’s revisiting feedback on a piece, starting something fresh, switching projects, if you don’t come back, you are, in essence, stuck on the ledge, with the night bearing down, cold and lonely upon you. And that’s just no fun at all.

  1. Nice post, Jordan! We all go to that ledge from time to time, but what makes it feel really bad is thinking we are alone there.

  2. I know this may sound strange, but it’s a comfort to know that even the Great Jordan Rosenfeld has her doubts. It makes us lowly (unpublished) humans feel we might not be that far off the mark.I hope things are going well for you, and that this New Year is kind and generous to you!

  3. Thanks, Roz.

    Cinette: honey, that’s the nicest thing to say…but I hear Bestselling authors talking about being up on that same ledge. We’re not alone.

  4. […] overwhelmed as a writer? Read Jordan Rosenfeld’s  How to Talk Yourself Off the Ledge of Creative Despair and you’ll feel […]

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