Ask Ellie: “Help! I’m a writer spread thin.”

September 8, 2021

“Ask Ellie” is LARB’s advice column, drawing wisdom from the great myths and stories to navigate the terrible, glorious weirdness and difficulty of modern life. Please submit your dilemmas, midnight anxieties, fear, loathing, and confusion to askelliehere@gmail.com.

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Dear Ellie,

I have the lucky problem of having a few writing projects and gigs going at once. (Sometimes I even make a living off of these.) I love each project when I’m in one, but I feel like my mental health and creativity suffer with the constant act of switching between. Multitasking is, as we’ve all read in pop-psych articles, not the healthiest option. There is no joy or peace in flitting. But it’s hard to see another path given the nature of the gig economy and TV world. No matter how far along in my career, it will always look something like this. “Deep work” feels like a great privilege these days.

I’m also feeling that manic quality to the hustle that has to do with not knowing for sure where the next paycheck will come from. And I have been progressing down a path of Buddhist learning that is making my dis-ease grow stronger — juxtaposed with my brief glimpses of emptiness and open-hearted mindfulness, the hustle around it grows more garish. And it feels like there is little bandwidth left to be of service, which undermines the “why” of it all.

In short, I always feel spread thin, underwater. I have a to-do list that seems never-ending. I constantly dream of quitting the “hustle” and moving to the woods, or switching to a more “stable” career (like what? No clue). I do all the self-helpy things: I go on long walks with my dog, hang out with trees, take breaks for friends and healthy food, and meditate a lot (but to that, too, I would love to devote deeper work, but am always out of time to get enlightened, darn it!). Since I can’t magically change the system and conjure a UBI, and probably shouldn’t up and move to an ashram, how do I spiritually and logistically hack my brain to reframe this, and find the energy for it all?

From,

Spread Thin

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Dear Spread Thin,

You’re describing what it is to be a creative person under late capitalism, for everyone but the lucky, tiny minority who have “made it” financially. The rest of us often feel like we’re trying to get off a treadmill by running as fast as we can upon it.

I’d like to start with this image, “spread thin,” because I think it’s instructive. It brings to mind a product — a tube of paint or toothpaste, maybe. Something of which there is a finite quantity, being made to stretch more than is comfortable. Perhaps being made to stretch to the point that it becomes useless.

But you are neither finite nor a product. In fact, creativity wielded wisely and with joy is one of those things that’s impossible to wear out: the more you use it, the more of it you have. The question is how to wield it wisely and with joy.

That starts way before you even begin to wield it, with the way you receive the world. John Cage famously made no distinction between art and nonart, between the intentional and the accidental. During performances of 4’33’’, the audience was forced to listen intently to all the accidental sounds they would usually ignore during a concert: the coughs, the squeaking of chairs, the crying baby or the traffic outside. Like you, Cage had a devoted Buddhist practice — Zen, in his case — and he longed to experience, and help others experience, life and the world directly, unmediated by the heavy baggage of cultural frameworks and personal history.

In other words, in Cage’s view, “art” as a category doesn’t exist. Nothing is art, which means that everything is art. A tree’s shadow dancing on a sidewalk is every bit as much art as a painting hanging in a gallery.

And that, my friend, makes your whole life art. Can you start to experience it that way? I’m not suggesting you get all manic-pixie-dream-girl on us. This switch is not performative; in fact it’s very internal. Somewhere inside you there is a pure, primal soul that wants nothing more than the full sensory experience of each moment of this brief life of yours. If you can nourish that soul through presence, through welcoming the accidental as much as if not more than the intentional, through enjoying your body, through worshipping each day of your life as the aesthetic masterpiece it truly is, even if all you’re doing is sitting in front of a laptop — if you can do this, your creative well will never run dry, no matter how many projects you’re juggling.

It sounds like you’re already doing a version of this, or trying to. You’re doing “all the self-helpy things,” including a committed meditation practice. But there’s a world of difference between living as though you inhabit an inexplicably breathing body on a miraculous, forested, watery rock spinning through space, and giving yourself a bunch of “self-helpy things” to tick off the list each day, on top of your other to-dos. The latter will drain your tube of paint; the former will make an inexhaustible supply of paint ooze from your pores.

I’m sorry — that image was mildly revolting. Let me try again, because images are crucial here. You mention your frustration with the eternal sense of “flitting between” projects, and how much it exhausts you. I would earnestly entreat you to abandon that image. Banish it from your mind. I’m serious. The way we visualize the ineffable and intangible elements of our lives matters a great deal, and right now, you’re trapping yourself in a draining, self-defeating visualization.

You are not a hummingbird, heart beating 1,200 times a minute, rushing from flower to flower just to survive. You are the soil in which those flowers grow. You are the lush, sure, generative ground from which everything you create will bloom. This means you have to nurture yourself. Yelling at soil to be more productive doesn’t work, and neither does trying to strike fear into it about the next rent check, and sure, fertilizer or coffee or something might work for a while, but not if you want to grow things that give life, and keep doing it for a long time.

With soil, the only thing that really works is nourishment (which for humans means bodily, mental, emotional, and spiritual nutrition), plus an environment that agrees with it and — as every farmer knows — fallow time.

Yes, I’m going to advise you to rest more. I’m sorry. I know it’s obvious and maddening. You have rent to pay, you have ambitions, you’re trying to keep all these plates spinning. There’s no time to rest. Trust me, I know. I spent five long years thinking I had no time to rest. For five years, I would wake up before dawn every morning to sit in a cupboard and work on a novel before cranking out copy for clients all day. If you’d told me then to step away from the project and rest, I would have told you to go fuck yourself, because finishing that novel was the one thing that might change my life, and I badly wanted my life to change.

But you know what I found? When you crank out creative work miserably because you’re desperate to change your circumstances — it shows. The despair is palpable on the page. And that can make all your efforts a complete waste of time.

This mode of creating doesn’t work because stories are living beings. Traditional cultures know this. That’s why they revere storytellers: because the stories have chosen them as their channels. We, meanwhile, act as though stories are things we make up ourselves, in our silly little human brains — which means we end up with silly little human stories and a literary landscape in which, as Christian Lorentzen put it, “the dominant literary style […] is careerism.”

What I’m saying is, I know how utterly counterintuitive it feels to step away and rest or even — heaven forbid — have some fun, when you have 18 creative projects on the go and bills to pay. But the really good ideas — the ideas that might truly change your life or even the world — are only going to choose you if you seem like a person who’ll give them the time of day, who’ll slow down and get curious about them. Great ideas arrive in the accidental, the curious, the marginal things most people ignore, and then they take a while to grow. The more obvious ideas — the low-hanging fruit you can get to in a rush — have already been claimed a thousand times over.

So: rest, give yourself fallow time. I want to tell you it’s the best investment you can make in your own future, and that’s true, but don’t do it for that reason. Do it simply because this is your one and only life, and you might as well live it.

If you can ease your grip on your projects and reconnect with the things and people you love, you’ll also gain clarity about the way you spend your time. Which of your projects are driven by careerism? Which do you not care about anymore? Which are truly important? Which are annoying but entirely necessary if you’re going to make rent?

If you do this, you’ll be more constantly connected to — in your words — the “why” of it all, and when you’re consistently in that space, the winnowing you crave will happen naturally. You simply won’t be able to muster the energy for projects that only serve your ego.

And truly, what a revolution there would be if all creative people started working out of something bigger than ego. I love (and constantly, irritatingly quote) Adam Curtis’s line: “We might look back at self-expression as the terrible deadening conformity of our time.” Meaning: there’s some cultural conditioning at play in today’s disproportionate drive towards creative careers, and the possibility of a great freeing of life and resources for both individuals and society if we’re willing to resist that conditioning. Maybe the really punk thing to do right now is not to spend your whole life trying to be some punk artist.

Which is not to say that you should completely abandon your creative dreams! Let’s not chuck the baby out with the bathwater. A culture is built on its stories; stories will always matter. But only some stories matter, and they’re rarely the ones churned out of careerism. Which brings me to my final suggestion, the simplest but most revolutionary: how about getting a new job?

Imagine spending your day — or part of it — moving your body, being outside, working with people, working with animals, working with plants … doing something that is very much not sitting hunched over your computer, trying to dredge up ideas or hammer out sentences. One writer friend of mine recently started working at a horse stable and raves about it. If you could find a way to bring in some income while refilling your soul with sensory experience, with living beings, with the glorious, shimmering world out there, you’ll come back to the page a different, more rooted, surer person — and the stories that matter will be much more likely to pick you.

And always remember: art-as-commodity is only a very small part of creativity. Every moment of your life is an act of creation.

Xx Ellie

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Ellie Robins is a writer published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The TLS, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, and the translator of Alan Pauls’s novel A History of Money(2015). You can follow her on Twitter @ellie_robins and subscribe to her newsletter at tinyletter.com/here.