Every single writer I’ve ever met or seen online has at one point or another berated themselves for how they’re not writing enough. I know I’ve done my fair share of it.
Although I’ve gotten better at it, it’s something I still struggle with, especially this year when I had so much time on my hands at home to be able to write. There were so many posts and jokes about writing a book during a pandemic, and I thought, “Great! Here’s my chance for uninterrupted time and energy to finally finish my book!”
I’m sure you can guess how that went.
Not only did I not finish my book, my word count actually went down drastically–almost by half. (No, I’m not in the revising part of the writing process where cutting my word count would actually make sense.)
The problem was, even though I suddenly had so much time not only to write but to rest, I was still exhausted. No matter how hard I pushed myself, I just couldn’t gather enough energy or focus to make a significant dent in my writing.
Recently, Robin LaFevers shared a post on her Instagram about this very thing that lead me to an epiphany that not only helped me give myself grace but made me rethink my expectations and how I structured my day and writing time. It made me realize that I am doing enough already, even if I didn’t finish my book, and I hope to pass that feeling along to other writers.
LaFevers posted about writer’s burn out and the Spoon Theory from a series of videos by writing coach Becca Syme. The Spoon Theory has been going around for awhile, but Symes takes pushes the metaphor a step further.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Spoon Theory, it was created by Christine Miserandino of “But You Don’t Look Sick” to help explain the difficulties people with hidden chronic illnesses go through on a daily basis.
The Spoon Theory goes like this. Most people have an unlimited supply of possibilities each day. People with hidden chronic illnesses, such as Lupus, Crohn’s, anxiety, or depression, however, have a limited amount of these theoretical spoons they start out on a daily basis. Each task that is effortless for most people costs those with chronic illnesses a spoon or two, which quickly causes their small supply of spoons to dwindle away until they have no energy left.
The Spoon Theory is an apt metaphor for writing not only because writers and artists overwhelmingly suffer from anxiety and/or depression but because the act of creation itself inherently comes with a limited amount of theoretical spoons that can easily be taken away by day-to-day life.
Becca Symes takes the Spoon Theory a step further and says that different tasks require different types of spoons. For example, simple or menial tasks may cost a copper spoon while a higher level creative task may cost a gold spoon.
For me, generating new words costs a gold spoon. Revising costs a silver spoon. Formatting only costs a copper spoon. The theory helped me to realize why I sometimes switch back and forth between writing and formatting in order to take mental breaks as I’m writing. It also helped me to validate that simpler formatting tasks is still a valid form of writing, even if I’m not spending a gold spoon doing it.
Each day, we have a limited amount of these gold spoons. As much as wish otherwise, writers don’t have an unlimited supply of gold spoons so that we can constantly create new words (unless you have a writing problem like Brandon Sanderson). And when you’re out of gold spoons but keep pushing yourself to write, you’re borrowing spoons from tomorrow and the day after. Eventually that debt is going to snowball, and that’s how writers burn out.
Furthermore, there are things in our lives other than writing that costs gold spoons. Shocking, I know. But the more we become aware of it, the more we start to realize that perhaps we’re giving away our golden spoons to things that aren’t actually helping us.
As I started paying attention to my habits, I noticed that everything I decided to check on how things were progressing with Coronavirus–just to stay informed, I told myself–I walked away with fewer gold spoons. The more I scrolled through the news and statistics, the greater my anxiety built, and the more gold spoons I had to feed my anxiety just to stay calm.
I also realized that I was literally setting myself up for failure with my after-work writing routine. My goal has been to write every day after work, even if it’s just for 30 minutes, and every day after work, I re-watch Schitt’s Creek instead. My word count was stagnant for months, and I beat myself up about how I was shooting myself in the foot by watching TV instead of writing.
While I was definitely shooting myself in the foot, I’m starting to realize that it wasn’t because I wasn’t writing.
My expectations were the problem. By the time I got home from teaching 100+ freshmen, I had no gold spoons left. They were gone and spent before I even made it to 7th period.
So I changed my expectations.
I no longer expect myself to write when I get home. I know my gold spoons are gone by then. Instead, I get to work 5-10 minutes early and write on my phone in my car while I sip my tea. (Scrivener’s newest update has an amazing computer-to-mobile syncing option that’s done wonders for my writing routine.) During lunch, instead of scrolling Instagram or Reddit, I spend another 10-15 minutes of solid writing while I still have spoons left.
I’m not writing thousands of words a day, but I’m consistently growing my word count, and I’m celebrating these small steps of success. Becca Symes and the Spoon Theory helped me to realize that I can’t control how many gold spoons I have, but I can control how I spend those spoons.
I learned to prioritize my writing to the moments in my day when I still have enough gold spoons to give. Most importantly, I learned that I was already doing enough. I just needed to guard my gold spoons a little more carefully.