Stress!

The end of the semester is coming, and (as you may have guessed from the title of this post) I’m a bit stressed. I have some big assignments coming up, so if I disappear from the blogosphere for a week of two, that’s why.

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Today, I would like to talk about stress. We all know what stress is; we all experience it at some point in our lives. What can we do about it?

According to some psychological theories, there are two basic ways we respond to stress. These are called “emotion-based coping” and “problem-based coping.” In problem-based coping, you attempt to resolve the situation that is causing your stress (solve the problem). In emotion-based coping, you don’t try to solve the problem; instead, you try to change the way you respond to the stressor by focusing on your emotions.

Both of these methods can be helpful or harmful (in psychology parlance, “adaptive” or “maladaptive”) depending on the situation. If you need to take action in order to keep a problem from getting worse, emotion-based coping isn’t going to help you. However, if you honestly can’t do anything to change a situation, it’s far more adaptive to accept this and focus on the things you can change, such as your emotions, rather than trying to fix an unsolvable problem.

To apply this to writing, I think many of the things that cause us stress in our writing have components that we can change as well as aspects that we can’t do anything about. For example, if a piece of writing that you’ve submitted somewhere as been rejected or if you’ve gotten a bad grade on an essay, there is nothing you can do about this. It’s more helpful to use emotion-based coping such as taking a walk, drinking tea, or talking to a friend to deal with this aspect of the situation.

However, the negative response to your writing could also cause you stress as you consider submitting your work somewhere else or turning in your next assignment. In this case, problem-focused coping is the adaptive response because you can take actions to reduce your stress: paying attention to any feedback you received in the past and making sure to proof read, among other things.

In my situation (three large papers due) I’ve been using both emotion-based and problem-based coping. I drew up a battle plan today (aka a “to-do” list) to help me plan out what I need to do in the next few weeks. I’ve also been trying to do things that reduce stress such as listening to music and spending time outside.

Ultimately, though, I know the only thing that will really get rid of this stress is finishing these assignments, so that’s what I’m going to do. To quote Anne Lamott, “You’ve got to keep your butt in the chair. You’ve got to just do it!” I may have to break these assignments down and write them page by page, piece by piece, but I can do it. And I’m going to.

I think this blog post has been a kind of emotion-based coping response, because I’m trying to convince myself that I can get through the semester. Haha. But I hope if you’ve gotten this far that it has also been somewhat helpful for you too. Thanks for reading!

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Saying yes, saying no

In her book The Soul Tells a Story, Vinita Hampton Wright says, “In order to say yes to one thing, I must nearly always say no to something else.” I have found this to be true in my own life. For example, if I say yes to watching television with my friends, I get caught up in the storyline and visual experience and become less inclined to create my own stories and word pictures. By saying yes to this experience with my friends, I am satisfied to live vicariously through others’ plot lines and story worlds; I say no to the story that I perhaps could have written if I was not spending my time in this way.

Even when I say yes to my writing, I am saying no to other things. If I choose to write a blog post or a poem for my own satisfaction, I say no to reading or writing for my classes during that time. When I only have a limited amount of time and creativity, saying yes to my academic responsibilities means saying no to the short story I could have written if I weren’t so burned out.

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I’ve always been very aware that I can’t say yes to everything that I would like to do. Because participating fully in my classes is important to me, I have had to say no to extracurricular activities such as writing for my school newspaper. While I would like to do these things and I know that they would probably look good on my resume, I am afraid of over committing myself, and so I say no.

I want to say yes to my writing. I want to say yes to both the things I want to do and the things I know I ought to do. But when saying yes to one thing always means saying no to something else, how does one chose when to say yes and when to say no?

I try to prioritize, putting the things I absolutely must do first and occasionally peppering my day with the things I want to do, just so I don’t go crazy. I actually do accomplish quite a bit, although you wouldn’t know it sometimes by the way I talk. In the future, I’m going to try to affirm the things I have accomplished rather than mourning the things I couldn’t.

And perhaps it isn’t really “no” that I’m saying to these things, but “later.” Not as a cop-out, but as a promise. I may have to say “no” now, but I will say “yes” at some other time. Because I’m human, and I can’t do everything, but I do what I can.

 

I’m not ready

The other day, I accidentally published a post on this blog before I had completely finished writing it. I must admit, my first response was to panic a bit. I couldn’t stand the thought of other people seeing what I had written when it was in that state. I wasn’t ready!

This is a common experience for writers, I think. It doesn’t always happen because of a mishap like mine; sometimes we have to turn in an essay before we think it’s good enough because it’s due that day, and sometimes we have to nerve ourselves up to allow someone to read the story we’ve been working on, even though it isn’t perfect yet.

The fact is, our writing will never be perfect. If we try to wait until it is, we will never be ready. Sometimes, we have to be willing to take risks, willing to let go, and willing to allow others to share in our writing process. At times, our feelings of unreadiness are just procrastination in disguise. We say we’re “not ready” to let someone else read our writing, but really we just don’t want to put in the work to make it ready.

There are steps we can take to make sure that we are as ready as we can be to share our writing. Before we take the plunge and let another person read what we’ve written, we can help our writing be the best it can be by writing multiple drafts and being willing to make both large and small changes. Sometimes, letting your piece sit for a few hours (or a few days, if you have that much time) will help you come back with a new perspective and revise with fresh eyes.

In addition, we can ease into sharing our writing, taking it to to someone we trust and allowing him or her to be the first reader. If you are still in college, the tutors at your school’s writing center would be more than happy to look over your writing. Although sometimes it may feel as though your writing is like a first-born child, all parents need to learn to let their children grow up and find their own way in the world.

Just as parents can only attempt to prepare their children for the challenges they will face, writers can only attempt to prepare their pieces for a larger audience. At a certain point, you have to acknowledge that you have done the best you can in the time you had to do it. You have to learn to let your writing go out into the world and say what it has to say. Perhaps it will make friends, perhaps not. Still, you have to let it go.

Speaking of letting it go…. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Don’t fail this way

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you do anything at all in this life, you are eventually going to experience failure. It is impossible to be successful 100% of the time. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be good for us to be successful all the time, because failure can be an important learning experience.

If this is true, then why are we so afraid of failing? To be more specific, why am I so afraid of failing? There are times when I let my fear of failing prevent me from even starting. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to find a job out of college, so I’m afraid to even apply for one. I’m afraid I won’t be able to write the story that I envision in my head, so I never start it. This list could go on and on.I realize that my failure to try is in itself a kind of failure, and it’s the wrong kind.

Here’s another example of the wrong way to fail:

When Irish author Flann O’Brien submitted the manuscript for his second book, The Third Policeman, to a London publisher in 1940 it was rejected.

But rather than admit this lack of success to his friends, he pretended the manuscript had accidentally blown out of the boot of his car on a trip to Donegal and had been lost forever.

“This was a ruinous thing to say because he couldn’t then turn around and say, ‘Oh I’ve found it again,’ so the manuscript sat very openly on his sideboard until his death,” says Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright. She has selected O’Brien’s story to appear in an exhibition entitled Fail Better at the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin.

“The year after [O’Brien’s] death, his wife got it published to a keen reception.”

If O’Brien had been more open about his failure to get the book printed, he might have seen his work published within his lifetime

 

This story appears in a BBC news article about failure. As someone who fears having my writing rejected, this story really struck home for me. What opportunities am I missing because I allow my fear of looking like a failure turn me into someone who only tries once, or who never tries at all? If you respond to failure correctly, you become a more resilient person, but if you don’t, it’s like you’ve failed twice: once in the actual failure and again in not learning from it.

Thinking more about failure doesn’t make it any less frightening for me, but I am trying to change my attitude towards it. First of all, I don’t want to let my fear of potential failure to cause me to actually fail by never trying. Second, if I don’t succeed, I want this failure to spur me on, not stop me in my tracks. I want to start looking at my mistakes as learning experiences rather than as crippling, permanent errors that will be branded on my forehead forever.

I want to be a successful failure.

 

Technical Difficulties

This weekend my computer decided to go on the fritz. Most things still work for me, but Microsoft Word keeps freezing. I can barely type my own name before it becomes non-responsive. (I’m writing this post on one of my school’s computers).

My laptop is almost four years old, so I guess it’s only to be expected that I would run into problems eventually. Of course, I have a paper due that I wanted to write on my own computer in the comfort of my apartment, but I ended up writing it in a computer lab.

This experience has made me realize just how much I depend on my laptop when I’m writing. I can write longhand, (in fact, that’s how I do almost all my prewriting and journaling) but when it comes to actually sitting down and turning my random jottings into something worth sharing, I really appreciate the flexibility my laptop gives me.

The nice thing about a laptop is you can take it anywhere, even outside (if the weather is nice enough and you have a power source or long battery life). If I want to write in the library, no problem! I just bring my laptop and set up in a cozy study cubical. If I want to write on the floor of my living room, that’s fine too. I can spread out all my notes and make as much of a mess as I want.

I’ve always disliked feeling chained to a desk, but I guess that’s the way it’s going to be for a little while. I’m optimistic about the overall prognosis of my laptop; one of my friends is working on it now. Hopefully it will be fixed soon, but until then, my writing routine’s been interrupted.

How about you? Has your writing routine ever been interrupted by something beyond your control? Tell me about it in the comments!