The worst years of my life were the ones when I took a “break” from writing, including journaling. I did it so I could focus on my career because writing took up a lot of my time and mental energy (I spent a lot of the time I was not physically writing thinking about what I wanted to write), and it was very difficult to switch from thinking of writing to thinking of work. And it looked too much like “wasting time” (which I now believe is a concept that does not truly exist–maybe more on that in a different post someday).
So, I put that part of myself on hold to focus on getting ahead in my career, thinking that once I plateaued and found a routine at work, then I could write as my hobby in my spare time. I did, eventually (obviously), pick it back up and start writing again, but not because I found a routine at work. I picked it back up because I just had to. I was miserable and felt like I had lost so much of myself when I quit.
And when I did start writing again, I learned four things (well, more than four but these are the big ones):
- I am happier when I write, even if it is just journaling for myself. Whether it is due to the happiness or the mental relief writing brings, I am more productive at work when I make it a habit to write in my free time. And being productive at work also makes me happy.
- I was very unhappy during the years I did not write, and while that was the result of many factors (one of the major factors being competition: constantly comparing myself to my colleagues and constantly being compared to my colleagues by others), I probably would have been much happier and more sane and more productive/successful if I had continued writing and journaling, rather than abruptly stopping as I had. I did not realize it during those years, but not writing contributed greatly to my unhappiness. (This point may sound the same as Point #1, but Point #2 is that I did not know how unhappy I was during those non-writing years until I started writing again.)
- It was, therefore, one of the dumbest decisions I ever made, to stop writing/journaling.
- Going from journaling and writing regularly for ten years to not at all for three years was also a good thing because I was forced to start over once I started again.
I lost myself in those three years that I quit writing. I was trying to be someone else, someone who could compete in the environment I was in (biomedical research), and the environment I was in had no room for creative/fiction writing.
One day when I felt particularly hopeless about my negative-results-streak (for those who are not in research, the reason you never hear about negative results is because nobody wants to publish them, so they tend to be particularly discouraging because even though they tell you a lot, they “mean” nothing in terms of success–maybe more on that in a different post someday), I picked up a blank notebook at the store and started jotting down thoughts, mainly abstract/critical thinking/philosophical thoughts that were not connected enough to my research to go in my lab notebook. It was immediately a new, yet familiar, escape, like going into a playroom in a house that I had not been in since I was child. I was familiar with it and knew it well, but absence made me see it so differently that though it appeared the same, it was not the same at all.
It was hard at first. The thoughts were incomplete and mainly just notes. I did not pick up where I left off. Ideas and complete sentences and pages did not flow as they had when I decided to quit. And that was very frustrating.
But it was also exciting. As I had to rebuild the skill, I noticed that it was not settling back into the way it used to be, but rather it was developing into different way of writing and a different style. For example, where I used to just sit down and write, I found that my new style was to first jot down an outline at the top, little reminders to come back to because my thoughts were racing within my mind faster than I could write them out.
And my new style of writing included many more diagrams than before. I used to be all words. My new writing was mainly words, supplemented with figures and diagrams. And my new entries did not flow from beginning to end as they did before. Instead, they had side anecdotes, often ones that linked to other entries, so I had to reference them.
About two years after picking up a blank notebook for ideas and concepts, I started journaling again, after a hiatus of about five years. I was shocked at how unnatural journalling was for me. I had no idea what to write. I felt like I had nothing to say. And yet, I wanted to start journaling again because I had so much to say, so much to catch up on and analyze and think about in my life and the people and the world around me.
Beginning journaling again after five years was very foreign. And hard. (This was 3 years ago, and now when I look back at those entries, it is incomprehensible that I did not know how to journal, that I had lost such a core part of myself and a foundation of who I was. I love overanalyzing everything until I think I’ve figured it all out. How could I not remember how to do that!?!?) My entries back then were literally lists of what I did that day. Because I had nothing to say about them (how!?!?!?). All I could do was just write what I did.
I was so broken and lost, I did not even know how to write about my day. I had no feelings or opinions, just facts. I no longer knew how to write subjectively.
Here’s an example:
I packed in the morning and took the 11am bus instead — I already spent the weekend preparing work stuff to leave, so I had some time. I went to work, did some chores that needed to be done around the lab, and wrote out a protocol before going to the airport.
Only one hour and ten minutes from airport entrance to gate
Pathetic, right? I didn’t even write if I was tired (clearly, I was exhausted) or excited about my trip or the holidays (clearly, I had not yet had time to think about them) or that the time from door to gate at the airport wasn’t bad, considering it was the holiday travel season (the only indication of this feeling is the word “only” in that note. It’s just a word, but there is so much opinion in it when the rest of the entry is so devoid of emotion).
To give you some context, that was the first journal entry I wrote after ~8.5 years of not journaling. I know I wrote that it had been five years in the paragraphs above, but I’m not going to go back and correct it so that you, too, can feel the shock I felt when I did the real calculation a few seconds ago. That’s 3.5 years longer than I thought it had been! Damn. No wonder I was so bad at it.
Anyway, I started journaling again because I knew I wanted to capture my thoughts and daily life so I could examine it and use it to grow into a better version of myself. And I chose that time because I was about to visit my family and friends, and I wanted to document it. I suppose I also figured I would actually have time to write because, being out of town, I would not be able to go into the lab and spend time there.
I wrote every day for the next sixteen days, and they were all similar to the example above: a list of some of the things I did that day. They read like the journal of a zombie, which is not far from the truth, considering how I lived then, doing the actions to get through the day.
It was not until the seventeenth day that I finally had something to say:
Today is a tired, dead day. I did not do anything last night after my workout. Today, I did not do much at work and instantly felt overwhelmed when I realized my experiment isn’t working and I will have to figure out why and probably start again. I did not have the energy to deal with it today and will work on it tomorrow. Why? 1) I only got 5.5 hours of sleep last night; 2) I did not have coffee this morning (I had black tea; then bought 12-oz regular coffee at work, but it was not enough).
Still pretty pathetic, but at least I had feeling. And within a month, I was writing less lists and more like this one that actually had thoughts and opinions and context and (a little) growth. And now, my entries are as long as this blog post (ie, probably too long).
The point is that because I had to start over, I had to find my voice all over again. So in starting this blog, I also feel a little lost in terms of knowing how write. (I’ve read so many blog posts that give advice on how to write blog posts, and I tried to write blog posts the way those blog posts said to write blog posts, and I hated the blog posts I wrote, and that makes sense because I don’t really like the blog posts I read that told me to write that way. Soooooo…yeah. That’s why this post does not read like those do.)
But I also look back at the past three years and see that, like then, I am now at a beginning. And, like I did then, I will eventually find my voice on here. If you actually read all of this, I humbly bow and thank you. I imagine that your alternative to reading this was extremely boring and/or painful, and I truly hope you were at least slightly less bored and/or in less pain in the minutes you spent reading.
Thank you, and (raises a glass) here’s to finding a voice.