The Everything and Nothing Girl
I have been told – by more than one person, and on more than one occasion – that the song “Non-Stop” from the Hamilton musical is my theme song.
I know why I’ve been given this theme, and I take pride in it. I am proud of the reasons that people look at me like I’ve sprouted an extra head when I tell them how long it takes me to write something. I get a thrill when I post a new chapter in a story the day after I posted the last one. I get to check that to-do task off my list and show the world the proof of my labor, and damn it feels good when I can repeat that process over and over again. Especially if I can do it without stopping.
Perhaps that’s part of my problem.
When I first started writing again, I kicked things off with a fanfiction called Tearing Down the Heavens (you want a lot of words and angst? Find it here). Actually, I wrote an abysmal 50k word novel in about a month that was a massive rip-off of the Dragon Age: Inquisition game, which was then cannibalized for the decent bits to make what became Tearing Down the Heavens, because if I was going to write fanfiction, I was not going to be an ass who pretended it wasn’t that because I changed the names.
When Tearing Down the Heavens was originally published, it was 100 chapters long and about 220k words. I started in March of 2015 and finished about 90 or so days later, because I wrote a chapter a day, sometimes more. There were days towards the end of the story where I posted two or three chapters at once. I would write, edit, then launch them onto the internet where people were waiting to see what happened next.
The validation was a high that I was chasing, so I produced content to get as much of it as I could. Writing became my drug of choice.
In October of 2016 I started another fanfiction called As Bright as the Stars, and much the same thing happened. I would create 1-3 chapters a day and post them as soon as they were done. I completed that story in February, I believe, and it is 110 chapters and a whopping 386k words long. It’s a massive behemoth, and I wrote it at a rate that is almost inhuman.
I make a lot of jokes about being a time lord whose powers only activate while I’m typing, but the truth is, I was massively unhappy while writing those stories.
This is not the fault of the story. The writing itself makes me ecstatic. Writing brings me joy like almost nothing else can. The way I feel when I find the right words to paint the scenes in my head, the metaphors that most explain the emotions rattling around in my chest, that feeling is the greatest feeling in the world. I love writing more than I love anything else, and when I’m hip-deep in a story like that, I’m basically on cloud nine.
The problems arose when the writing stopped. I would write, complete something, and the minute I took a break, depression would take hold. The feelings of dread and loneliness would sink their teeth into my thoughts, and I would experience emotional pain so sharp that it took my breath away. I remember, distinctly, there would be nights where I would stay up until 3 AM writing, publishing that last chapter to get it out there. I would smile to myself, feeling victorious, dragging myself to bed because I had to be up at 4:50 for work. I was exhausted, but it would still take me a few minutes to fall asleep, and in those minutes, all that victory and joy would disappear. I found myself, on more than one occasion, curling into a ball and bursting into tears until I finally slipped into unconsciousness.
That’s never the part that I remember easily, though. I know that it is a fact of my life, that it happened to me, that it was something that I experienced, but on some level, it doesn’t seem real. My mind doesn’t accept it. What it does accept, what it does remember, is the sense of victory and accomplishment. What it does let me feel is the rush of pride when I think of how fast I finished such a great story.
And I should be proud. Every time I complete a story it’s an achievement, no matter what speed I wrote it at. I know that, and I know that I deserve to be proud about it.
The thing is, I remember that pride, and now that’s where the bar has been set. So, a year later, I’m looking at my life and I’m wondering where all the words have gone. Why didn’t I write more last year? Why can’t I write more right now? What’s causing me to fail?
I want to be the person that writes a 380k word story in four months, but I also don’t want to cry myself to sleep. I’m in a much better place right now, emotionally. I’m keeping back the worst of the pain, I’m doing things that enrich my life and make me happy. I’m exercising, I’m eating well, I’m sleeping.
But because of that, I can’t pour 150% of my energy into producing words. I look at the me now and I’m so much happier with myself, so much happier with my goals, but then I think about my sense of pride over how fast I write, and I feel ashamed. I like being the girl that lifts weights and goes hiking. I like being the girl that writes 15k words a day. I feel like, to be happy, I need to be both. That I’m failing if I can’t achieve a balance that allows me to be everything at once.
I’m trapped in a loop of trying to be The Everything Girl, and I can’t get out.
Lately I’ve been walking across a tightrope. On the one side, there is my desire to finish every story I’ve ever started, and the blinding urge to finish them as fast as possible. On the other side is the desire to do and see more of the world, to broaden my horizons and become whole through that process. Stuck in the middle is a person who doesn’t have the means to walk between the two, and because of that I feel like I’m fucking everything up.
With that feeling of failure comes a lot of soul-crushing thoughts. After all, I have lofty ambitions. I want to write so many things, I want to get my stories out there to as many people as I can. I feel like, in order to be hired for the jobs I want or to work with the teams that I want to work with, I will need to be The Everything Girl. Anything less means that I’ll be lost in the shuffle, ignored and passed over. If I’m not everything, surely somebody else will be, and then it doesn’t matter what I wrote or when, because I’ll still be falling short.
Obviously, this mindset isn’t healthy. Trying to force yourself to expend 150% energy at any given moment is a recipe for disaster. If writing a chapter a day means that I must sacrifice my health, then it’s not a worthy goal. I know this, I know all the logical reasons that I shouldn’t push myself to that standard. Why, then, was I so miserable knowing that I couldn’t accomplish it? Why was I so fixated on being The Everything Girl, despite knowing full well that this theoretical girl was going to be dead in six months because she forgot to be a human while she was conquering the world?
It dawned on me suddenly, in the middle of journaling and trying to pinpoint exactly why I felt like shit on a brilliant day. In a moment of clarity that felt exactly like the eye of a storm, where the sun shone down and everything around me stopped, I could finally see the sky and say of course it’s blue, you idiot.
The problem, it seems, is two-fold. First and foremost, I’ve been measuring my success not by my own standards, not by how much I have actually accomplished, but by how much others would perceive that I was accomplishing. Nobody can see how many words I poured into an outline, how many hours I spent researching something for a story. Nobody sees the initial drafts or the rewrites. Since nobody saw it, I don’t count it as work. I wasn’t giving myself permission to count the process. All that mattered was the quantifiable evidence later, the chapter that I posted so that I could show people “See? I’ve done this thing, you can’t say that I haven’t.”
This led to two unhealthy mindsets: an all or nothing approach to things, and a sense of failure if I didn’t complete a task after starting it.
The all or nothing approach to things is a terrible one. I’ve known this for a long time, as you run into that fact on a lot of fitness and health blogs. They quibble about a lot of things in the fitness industry, but most trainers and nutritionists agree that treating diet and exercise with an all or nothing attitude is a recipe for failure. Just because you ate 50 calories too many doesn’t mean you should say fuck it and consume anther 5000 because you “blew” your goal for the day. Likewise, just because your knee is a bit sore and you can’t do your leg lifts, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go bench press whatever was scheduled for that day. The all or nothing approach, when applied to fitness and health, is what leads to binge eating and a hundred restarts where you never make progress because you keep falling off and beginning all over again.
I look at that, and I know that it’s a bullshit cycle. I look at all the articles I read warning me against such a mindset, and I think “yes, those are correct words, good advice, sounds great”. You tell yourself every day not to do it, but I don’t think it ever clicked with me on an emotional level because I was too busy not giving myself credit for my progress.
This went well beyond the walls of my fitness routines. Not only would I hate myself for not quite lifting as heavily as I wanted to in a given day, but if I failed to write as much as I said I wanted to, or failed to clean up an entire desk instead of just part of it. When I added something to my to-do list, I would say “do laundry”. That task would encompass collecting all the dirty laundry and putting it in the bin, washing and drying the laundry, then hanging up the clean clothes. There may or may not be multiple loads involved. With that looming on my horizon, I would begin the task, and if I did not complete each portion, the whole shebang, I would consider it a failed attempt.
And for every failed attempt, I would know that I had failed to be The Everything Girl, and because of that, it must, surely, make me The Nothing Girl. There was no in between as far as my subconscious was concerned. Progress didn’t matter without results, and if I failed to achieve the desired results, then I was nothing and no one.
This mindset, this process that looped around in my thoughts over and over, wasn’t something I was even aware of until recently. I mean, when you look at it consciously, it falls apart pretty quickly. You still did something, and that’s always better than nothing. As background noise, though? It leeches into everything you do, hanging out like a fog that keeps you from seeing the forest because you’re too busy running head-first into all the trees. That’s the problem with mental illness and the cycles within it. You don’t know how or why you’re self-destructing, you only feel the pain that results. It’s why so many people just wallow in it, unable to break free. You can’t see the sword you’re ramming through your own chest, you just see the blood that looks like it’s coming from nowhere at all.
Now that I see the sword or the forest or whatever other abstract metaphor that you want to use for this kind of self-imposed torture, the question then becomes: what do I do about it?
With subconscious patterns like this, it’s not so simple as telling myself to stop it. I mean if that worked, nobody would need antidepressants and therapists would be a quick in and out session once every six months (god, wouldn’t that be nice! We’d save so much time and money!). It would be great if being aware of the patterns worked like an inoculation, a quick shot in the ol’ thought box that made us immune to the bullshit our dumb brains try to pull.
The first step that I’ve taken is to examine the way that I talk to myself. The number one gear in churning this destructive cycle is the shame and guilt that I pile on myself, and almost all of that comes from the words I’m using to think about myself and how I do things. You wouldn’t think that it makes a huge difference, a simple choice of words, but it really does. It’s the same kind of thing as when someone misgenders someone else. It’s a small thing, really, just a single wrong word, but it gets under your skin and bugs the hell out of you until they fix it, or you punch them in their ignorant, selfish face (RESPECT PEOPLE’S PRONOUNS, YOU JERKS).
I found that some of the ways that I phrased things were setting me up for failure right from the start. Like the aforementioned to-do lists. Instead of saying something like “work on fanfic chapter”, I would put “do fanfic chapter” on there. This sets me up with a goal that has no wiggle room. Either I do it or I don’t. I either become the Everything Girl, or I’m the Nothing Girl.
In that same vein, I noticed that even when I was trying to be responsible and kind to myself and reschedule tasks that I no longer had time for, I was still thinking about it with words that implied wrongdoing. I would often say things like “I was supposed to go lifting today, but I’m still sore so I’m going to put it off until I’m recovered.” The sentiment behind the sentence is correct; I’m resting when I’m not quite ready to progress. I’m giving myself the thing that I need, which is good. The problem in that phrase is the beginning. “I was supposed to” implies that by not doing it, I’m doing something that I’m not supposed to do. I am immediately making myself wrong by doing the right thing.
Noticing these two things really amplifies the realization that I’m embracing an all or nothing mentality while telling myself I’m not.
To combat this, I’m rewording things, and I’m doing so with the idea that I need to embrace the process more. It isn’t about the results, it’s about the journey. Instead of putting “write a chapter” on my list, I’m promising myself that I’ll work on it. This gives me the room to do my best without hating myself for not being able to write 10k words in a single sitting. If I don’t have the energy because I’ve expended it somewhere else, then that’s okay. As long as I made progress, then I achieved my goal.
Likewise, I’m no longer telling myself that I was “supposed” to work on something or do something. I am making an effort to say “I had planned” or “I wanted to”. It’s okay when plans change or when I don’t get to everything that I want, and it no longer implies a sense of wrongdoing when that happens.
I know that this language change doesn’t seem like much, but I’ve already noticed some improvements. I’m able to accomplish more in the day because I’m no longer afraid of starting a task that I can’t finish. There’s no longer a burden to do everything at once or nothing at all, and it lets me move forward in smaller ways. This eases the overall guilt, and when my brain tries to tell me that I’m “not doing enough”, I can sit and list all the things that I have done to counteract that.
It is, currently, still a work in progress. I haven’t quite nullified that sense of guilt for not being able to be The Everything Girl. I’m still mortally afraid that it will mean that I’ll be The Nothing Girl, and that person will never achieve the things that I want to. I’m still making a conscious effort to acknowledge the process of getting where I want to be, and giving myself credit for the steps taken along the way.
After all, I’m still making progress, and I’m still on this journey. Any adventure story worth its salt will tell you that the journey is half the reward, so it’s time to start believing that.
So, here’s to the journey, and to making progress. Even if it’s only one step at a time.