Lately, I’ve been focusing most of my energy into finding my purpose, which I think sounds a bit dramatic and over the top, but it really just boils down to finding what makes me happy and living my life in accordance with that. I have never been the sort to wander through life listening to other people’s desires. I am very much the sort of person that does what she wants to do and follows her heart.
The times when I’ve done as others wished me to do have been the times I’ve been the most unhappy. I have a lot of trouble going against what I feel is the right thing for me, which is not to say that I move through life living as selfishly as possible. I mean only that I don’t let my friends or my family or society as a whole influence the choices I make.
I understand the norms and I understand the things that other people value as important, but these things – going to the best school possible, getting the highest paid job possible, attaining financial stability and therefore success – have never been my focus. I have always felt that my path was somewhere else entirely.
The problem is that until very recently I hadn’t stopped to wonder what that path is. I have listened to my heart and made decisions based on what felt right to me at the time. But I have always felt like something was missing.
I have known for most of my life that I wanted to be a writer. When those around me stressed out about what they wanted to do with their lives and what to study and what to become, I felt sad for them. I couldn’t relate. I was 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and I already knew what I wanted to be because I already was what I wanted to be.
I knew that supporting myself financially might be a struggle and I was prepared to work at whatever job I needed to work at because the job itself didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was a writer and nothing would ever keep me from that.
Moving to France
I made some important, life-changing decisions when I was 24. I decided I would put my fears aside and follow my heart again. I’d fallen in love with someone in a different country, in a different continent, even, and I knew I had to choose between being miserable and apart, or taking a chance and being together. So, I took that chance and moved.
Since moving, I’ve had to adjust to many things. In part, I’ve had to adjust to the differences in culture and language. But the main thing, the most challenging thing, has been facing my myriad of flaws. While I was living in New Jersey, I was comfortable and stable. I was making enough money to pay the bills and go out and hang out and travel when I needed to. I wasn’t rich by any means, and my living situation (sharing a house with 4 people) was less than ideal. But I was used to it and I was comfortable.
Moving forced me into uncomfortable situations. Suddenly, I had to sit through conversations that I didn’t understand. I had to face the embarrassment of being spoken to without knowing what was being said to me or how to express what I felt or thought. These are situations I am still facing and it’s my own fault that I’m still facing them.
While I moved here with the intention of learning French as soon as possible, I lost track of that goal very early on. I got sick and lost part of a semester. I got sick again and lost half of another.
At the same time, I was carving out a new career path online. I was getting paid to do what I thought I’d always wanted to do: write. For a while, I thought, “This is it. This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” But as time passed, my enthusiasm wavered. I felt lucky to have a job that most people envied. I was making a healthy amount of money doing it and I felt like something was wrong with me because I wasn’t happy. I felt like I was going through the motions and it didn’t feel right.
As time passed, I lessened my workload. I thought perhaps I was just wearing myself out and trying to do too much. I cast my fiction writing to the side because I spent all day writing articles and didn’t have much energy left for writing anything else. I convinced myself that since these were the things I was being paid to write, these were the things that truly mattered.
Only, that didn’t feel right.
I started to get depressed and my work suffered. This only made me feel worse about myself. I’d try to pull myself back up by saying, “You have to do this. You have to work harder.” And I would and then I wouldn’t and the cycle would continue.
I’d go back to my fiction from time to time, because I could never truly abandon it. There were times when I felt like I was truly back on track, when the words were flowing, and the novel was moving forward. Then it would go away again. And the cycle would return.
This went on for years.
During those years, I knew that I wasn’t altogether happy and I knew that things had to change, I just didn’t know what I was unhappy about exactly. I just knew that something in me and in the way I was living my life was causing me to wake up each day and feel dread instead of excitement. My writing had come to a complete standstill and I felt like I was spiraling downward.
Sometimes bad stuff leads to good stuff
It wasn’t until the past couple of months that things began to change for the better.
The main thing that happened is that I lost my job. At first I was in a state of panic about what to do with myself. I wasn’t writing fiction and now I wasn’t writing blogs and soon I would not have a paycheck to speak of. I felt like a loser and a failure and I felt aimless and lost. I didn’t know where to begin rebuilding. I didn’t know what to rebuild.
For a week or so, I did very little besides housework. I thought perhaps this was the perfect opportunity to get back to working on my novel but each time I launched the Word file, nothing would come. I told myself not to despair.
I spent a lot of time watching television and playing Guitar Hero and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I couldn’t understand how I could’ve known that I wanted to be a writer my whole life and suddenly feel like I was nothing.
It occurred to me one day that I missed the blogging. I actually missed writing about Grey’s Anatomy. And I realized that the community I’d built over the years would still be there if I moved to a new domain. Or at least some of them would be. So I bought greysnews.com and launched a new blog. This proved to be a really good idea because while writing about Grey’s Anatomy is not my life’s ambition, it gave me something to do and something to focus on.
Suddenly, my day had a bright spot in it. Suddenly, blogging was fun again. I got to design the site the way I wanted to design it, and I had total control over the content. It felt freeing. I spent a few weeks working on optimizing the site.
I began to ponder other blogs. I thought, maybe writing about television shows is exactly what I was meant to do with my life and I’d simply been going at it the wrong way. Maybe I could launch a whole bunch of blogs
and build an empire and eventually use it to take over the world.
But a little voice inside my head said, “This is not it.” And I frowned at the little voice, but decided to listen to it. I opted not to launch any more blogs about television shows, because I could feel that it was the wrong path for me.
Back to the drawing board
I have always been fascinated with productivity and personal development. I have a plethora of feeds in my Google Reader dedicated to these topics, but I hadn’t read the articles in a very long time. Reading “ways to improve your life”-type posts had always intrigued me but the content never resonated. I always felt that the advice was aimed at someone else, someone who’d already found their starting point and I hadn’t yet found mine.
Then one day, I found myself reading a random blog post that outlined the different ways to use Evernote. Evernote is a piece of productivity software that’s quite popular. I’d had it on my iPhone for over a year because I kept reading that it was so great, but I had never used it because I didn’t know what to use it for. But the article I read motivated me a bit into giving it another shot. I went to the website and downloaded the desktop software. I installed it and then I stared at the blank spaces where my deep, meaningful notes were meant to be. I thought, “This is hopeless,” and minimized it.
Later, I went back to it and I thought, “Well, I should write something.” I created a notebook (folder) and called it “Lifehacking.” It seemed appropriate. I called my first note “Dailies,” which made me think of World of Warcraft. In it, I found myself writing the following:
Do something that improves my life
Do something that improves someone else’s life
Write something: anything, anywhere
Read something: anything, anywhere
Learn something new
All of this felt doable. I decided to start small.
That day, I got up and I cleaned the apartment. I had been bothered by some of the clutter and I wanted it gone. I considered this something that improved my life. I thought it would also improve K’s life, but I didn’t want to do one thing for both of us. I knew that she’d been asking me to switch the old power strip for the new one she’d bought so that she’d be able to plug in one of her external hard drives. It had been sitting there for weeks and I hadn’t done it. So I made sure to do it before she got home.
I had already written at Grey’s News that day, so I considered my writing part done. I had already read several articles so I considered my reading part done. And I had learned uses for Evernote that I hadn’t considered prior.
It felt like a productive day even though I hadn’t done anything monumental.
But it felt like a beginning. It felt good.
From there, I went on to add more notes and notebooks to Evernote. I organized my Thunderbird calendar (something I had never bothered to do before) and broke my day up into a simple tasklist. I fixed my sleeping schedule by setting my alarm clock and actually waking up (this is still a challenge because I’m a terrible insomniac and very rarely fall asleep before 4am). I started a short exercise routine. I started to think about what I wanted to accomplish in life. What did I really want? The main thing, the most important thing, was getting back to my novel. This meant I had to find a way to get unstuck.
I knew that whatever I had tried before had never worked for very long. I had tried at times to force myself to write 1000 words a day – this would only work for a few days. I tried to force myself to write by opening the Word file and telling myself I couldn’t do anything else until I wrote something. This never worked. I knew that whatever approach I took toward breaking through my writer’s block had to be something I hadn’t tried before.
It occurred to me that part of my problem was frustration. I’d sit there for hours unable to write and get angry and frustrated and in the end accomplish nothing. I didn’t want to waste away my days feeling frustrated. So I pondered ways to avoid the frustration.
The idea came to me while organizing my daily schedule. Normally, I would’ve given myself most of the day to work on TBSOL. Instead, I decided to give myself an hour. I would write as much as I could in an hour and at the end of 60 minutes I would save the file and go on with my day. If I didn’t get anything written, I’d only wasted an hour, and at the very least I’d tried.
At first, I worried that giving myself an hour would end up being really unproductive because I thought I’d likely spend 40 minutes staring at the wall and then the last 20 minutes stressing about the time running out. So far, though, my days have not turned out that way. I found that with the iPhone ticking down the minutes, I wasted a lot less time than usual. I open the file and I get to typing right away. Most days, I feel like I got a lot done. Some days have been more painful than others, but no day has left me feeling frustrated. Even on days when the words weren’t coming out, the feeling of productivity remained. Yesterday, for example, was a terrible writing day. I think I wrote a sentence. Today, however, I finished two scenes.
And while all of that has left me feeling really productive and has motivated me to venture into other projects (such as a the daily photo project and redesigning my website and exercising regularly and launching a new personal blog, etc) none of those things told me what made me truly happy. None of those things told me what I wanted to do with my life.
A work in progress
I’m still in the process of figuring everything out, but I’ve realized a few things:
What made me fall in love with writing back when I was 10 years old had nothing to do with publishing books or becoming famous or having fans or collecting awards. Back then, I wrote because it made me feel better. It made me feel less lonely. Later, when I started to share my stories with my small group of friends, I found that they enjoyed them and that their enjoyment of them made me extremely happy. Writing, for me, has never been about creating a marketable product. For me, it’s about creating something that expresses how I feel and then sharing that. If someone says, “You made me laugh,” “You made me think,” that is priceless to me.
And while, on some level, I have always recognized these things as true, it’s the first time I realize that they aren’t a pleasant side-effect to writing, they are my reason for writing. That what makes me happy and energized and joyful are the moments when I remember why I write. It is the moment when I separate everything else – expectations and editors and publishing houses and guidelines and rules and Amazon ratings and reviews – all the stuff that doesn’t matter and focus on what does matter, which for me is making people laugh and making people think and inspiring people and giving people hope and making people know that they should never be ashamed to be who they are or love who they love. Making one person laugh, making one person think, inspiring one person … that’s enough for me. That’s all that really matters in the long run.
And so, after all of these years of pedaling backwards, I’m beginning to see that I’ve been on the right track all along. I’ve only just had to shift my perspective.