The Most Violent Word in My Vocabulary

That I put too much pressure on myself is not new information.

In fact, this is one of the oldest things I know about myself. My own expectations of what I should be achieving have shackled a yoke to my shoulders since I was a boy.

It’s the reason I took on five casual jobs last year, and subsequently burned out.

It’s why, a few years back, I made the reckless decision to complete an Honours degree in Writing whilst also doing a Diploma in French and a professional certificate simultaneously, alongside four day jobs. This was the workaholic version of sitting at a table in a burning house and saying, “Guys, I’m fine. This is fine.”

And I can track this kind of learned behaviour back a long way. It’s why I had a massive meltdown in the first few weeks of year twelve: I was trying to overachieve, and take on every opportunity that came my way, and it was utterly unsustainable.

It’s easy to look back on a bright (if slightly neurotic) sixteen-year-old boy and tell him to chill the fuck out, but at the time it wasn’t such an easy task, because I kept telling myself I should be doing more … and I still am.

In fact, the word “should” has always been the most violent word in my vocabulary, especially when I apply it self-reflexively.

I tell myself I should be:

  • More determined.
  • More disciplined.
  • More hard-working.
  • More successful.
  • More celebrated.
  • More productive.

The last one is the real kicker. It’s actually impossible to satisfy my expectations of how productive I should be, because every second I spend Tweeting, or at the gym, or napping, or playing video games, is a second my brain tells me I could have been writing. There is always more I could be doing.

Somehow, my poor brain got snared on a belief at a young age, and I still haven’t ripped the hook out of my bleeding mouth.

The belief is:

If you aren’t as productive as possible, you are not good enough as a human being.

Recently, I’ve realised just how common this self-flagellating behaviour is among fellow writers. A fellow Perth-based author was recently on Twitter having a mild freakout about her own (perceived) lack of productivity. Having just finished a novel a couple of months ago, she felt like she was not really a “writer” anymore because she hadn’t written anything since. She was promptly reassured by many, including myself, that this was totally normal, which was encouraging to see – and emblematic of the supportive culture among authors.

What struck me about this, though, was how very easy it is for me to be kind to another writer, and how hard it is to be kind to myself.

I have a good sense of what expectations are reasonable for an author and what is too much –but when it comes to my own career, I am a tyrant. Nothing I do is good enough. Even amazing steps forward in my career only delight me briefly, and then it’s back to, “Well, what have you achieved lately?”

Sometimes I feel like if I don’t achieve anything substantial – meaning I receive external validation in some way – in any given week, it was a failed week. If a whole month of this goes by, I am a failed author.

This showed up most recently when I did my writing residency at Varuna. The weight of expectations I placed on myself to churn out absolutely phenomenal writing and make shitloads of progress on my third novel was extraordinary, and so cruel.

And it’s happened since I returned home, too. Even though I know my calendar is particularly rammed until June, leaving me incredibly time poor, I’m still riding myself like a meth-fuelled jockey. I should be making faster progress on my third novel. I should be writing some new short stories and submit them to journals and competitions. I should release something new as an e-book. I should blog more frequently.

Should, should, should. Same old mantra.

perfectionism

In one way, it’s heartening to know, via Twitter, that so many other authors are going through these same inner struggles.

But in another way, it’s tragic, because it means we are all being so fucking hard on ourselves.

So, what am I going to do about it?

Well, I already know how to be kind to other authors, so I’m going to make sure I keep doing that. The big challenge ahead of me is to start being nice to myself. To ease the pressure off a little, and be happy with excellence instead of perceived (and unattainable) perfection.

I will never, ever be as productive as I want to be in my mind. I am a human being. I will get busy, and I will get tired, and sometimes what I want to do won’t always be realistic, or reasonable, or kind. Some days, I’m going to get home from work and will be in that general “fuck the world, I’m not doing anything else all night” mood. I think this is okay sometimes.

So I’m going to replace the word “should” with the word “want to”, and use that as the test of whether or not I ought to proceed with something.

Will I continue working hard on my third novel? Of course, but because I want to, not because I feel I must. My ambition and my drive won’t falter, but I’m going to make sure my self-care ranks as just as important as my goals. It will be an eternal balancing act, and I’m sure I’ll fuck it up several times as I learn my way.

But, eventually, I should get it right.

Holden