Things to Do When Writing Nonfiction Puts You in a Pit of Self-Loathing and Existential Despair

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I love to jump into new projects. Finishing projects is harder. I tried to write a novel when I was in early middle school. It lasted about 5 notebook pages. In high school and early college, I tried to be a slam poet. Fairly recently, I dabbled in songwriting, when I researched and tried to start writing a sad serial-killer song cycle—turns out we can’t all write about evil people in the nuanced, humorous and sympathetic way like John Darnielle does, let alone do it while playing the piano. I’m leaving that to the pros.

The trickiest projects for me are the ones that make me turn inward, which is rough since I love storytelling. Submitting yourself for judgment is scary, and not fun—and if you want to treat yourself as your protagonist rather than your projected ego, it’s even worse. When I’m working on a memoir piece, I sometimes find myself feeling panicky, anxious and self-loathing. It’s smart to criticize yourself, but not to that extent–it’s unproductive and self-centered.

These are some activities that have helped me when writing about my life has made me burnt out on…my life.

  • Close your computer. This is the most important thing. Nonfiction-induced despair can lead to desperate behavior like recreational Googling, Facebook stalking, and LinkedIn creeping (which is so much worse). If you can’t get off your computer, open Facebook chat. Go down to the section where it shows people you don’t talk to. Say “hi!” to one of them. They will probably not respond, and if they do it will be weird. But at least you’ll have tried.
  • Remember that you are irrational and crazy. You really are. We all are. You’re bopping around in the randomly firing synapses that make up the human mind, which scientists who are way smarter than you cannot understand. The universe is chaos. It doesn’t care. Allow this information to be calming.
  • Read a book. Definitely fictional, and ideally in hard copy form. I just cracked Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, though you might choose something with less secrets and personal intrigue.
  • Eat something. Either get out of the house and walk to the nearest restaurant, or go to the kitchen and start making something of your own. Following a recipe to make something delicious is therapeutic and takes your mind off yourself.
  • Drink. But only with a friend, and in moderation.
  • Go to the movies. Horror movies are great for this. Again, it helps if you go with at least one friend. Socializing is your friend right now.
  • Walk a dog. I’ve been walking two chihuahua mixes and an American bulldog for the past week, and it’s great. You get to play with a dumb, adorable creature, and they need you to walk them and pick up their poop and not be all up in your own head. Plus, it gives you fresh air, and possibly money.
  • Tackle your fear. If you’re writing about a painful interaction with someone in your past, and you know you won’t be able to let it go, reach out to that person. Say hi and be nice. It will probably be okay. The odds are that they don’t think about the issue nearly as much as you do. Don’t do this if you know you it would be bad, though. I’m just writing it because while I was doing my daily panic today, I spoke to a friend from high school I hadn’t spoken with in years, and it was thoroughly pleasant. (The piece I’m working on involves my high school self–ugh.) Sometimes there’s no better reality check.
  • Update your dumb blog.
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