The home office I’ve maintained in my recent years as a student had slowly become over-taken by piles of paper waiting for the shredder, over-filled files of class notes I’ll never look at again, and within the last year, a tall stack of storage totes filled with family treasures passed to us to safeguard. The truth is my office had become a junk room and not a place that felt inviting.
A couple of weeks ago, desiring to clear my thoughts and take stock of my writing life (both lack-of and intended), I awoke with the motivation to clear the stack of papers from my desk. Still in my pajamas, I boldly opened the door to my office and knew immediately: this was the moment. My office would no longer be a catch-all room, nor, for that matter, merely an office. I would make this a welcoming writing space. I went so far as to completely rearrange the bookcase — culling books for donation, moving others to another bookcase, and filling this one only with books about writing or by great writers. These shelves would be filled only with inspiration.
Sorting the piles on my desk necessitated finding a home for some of it in my file drawer, which necessitated going through all the files and, mercifully, throwing a good share of it in the recycling bin. It was not much of a surprise, though, to find in one of the files a piece of writing that documented my excuses for not writing. Composed in 2001, at a writers’ conference no-less, it listed all the things I told myself about why I don’t write: parenting should be a priority, I don’t spend enough time with my kids as it is, writing is self-indulgent, my writing isn’t good enough, if it does happen to be good enough I shouldn’t be seeking attention, and the gem of them all: I don’t need to write, I need a therapist.* I felt sad for my younger self, to see in black and white, the crap I’ve been telling myself — and believing!– since long before I ever thought to write it all down.
One of the most freeing concepts I’ve learned, just in the last couple of years, is this: you are not your thoughts.** Whoa! Wait — what? Let it sink in a minute. Thoughts are fleeting. They come and go — even the ones that keep coming back still disappear, if only briefly. We don’t disappear, though, as our thoughts appear and vanish and replace themselves with new ones. We remain, whole, intact. Not only that but what’s going on in our head doesn’t change who we are, only how we feel about ourselves. Why, then, do we continue to focus on negative messages and wallow in the misery (I know I’m not the only one) that exists only in our minds? Why, indeed.
Because I am not my thoughts, there is no reason to be as attached to them as I have been. I understand that thinking I’m a great cook does not make me one, so why do I believe myself when I think that I don’t measure up as a writer? Thoughts are not facts, and if I’m honest, many of my thoughts are flat-out wrong. The lesson in all of this for me is to quit automatically believing what I think (in all kinds of situations)– especially when it’s negative. Do I know that the driver who just cut me off is a jerk with no regard for other drivers, or is there a chance that something else may be the truth? Perhaps she is rushing to meet a loved one at the ER, or perhaps he’s distracted because he just lost his job. Those scenarios are just as possible as the one where the other driver is a jerk; so why hang on to the negative? And if I can give these drivers a break, can’t I give myself one, too?
Now that I know that my thoughts can be unreliable reflections of reality, it’s easier to pause, look at them objectively, and let them go if they are not serving my well-being. And that applies especially to my thoughts about writing and my excuses not to write. While cleaning up my writing space and going through those files, I found evidence that I’ve been a writer all along — even as I claimed for many years to be a writer who didn’t write. I am now a writer who has quit making excuses and started making space.
*Full disclosure: The part about needing a therapist did turn out to be true.
**Gunaratana, H. (2015). Mindfulness In Plain English. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. Chapter 3.