I often joked that the Other Job was eating my life, and that’s why my presence as an author was slowly fading. I did an undeniably poor job of keeping up with friends, staying active in writing groups, and staying on top of schedules for my blog and Patreon– not to mention actually writing books.
But in a very real sense, the Other Job consumed my life. I lost touch with most of my local friends outside of work (although I made new friends at work.) After I got out and started to try to reconnect, I learned that several of the people I knew had died. Others are gone, moved to parts unknown.
Worse yet, for me, the other job consumed my ability to write and be creative. It happened so gradually that I didn’t even feel it happening, and what I did notice was easy to attribute to stress and lack of sleep. As in, “I’m just tired, I’m sure this’ll be easier after I get some sleep.” Or “I’m just stressed out– I’m sure I’ll be back to normal when I’m not.”
So it came as a shock that, once I left the other job, things didn’t go back to normal. I wasn’t the same person, and I still couldn’t plot complicated stories or focus well enough to write. And that was absolutely horrifying.
Does Operating in a High Stress Environment While Perpetually Exhausted Change How Your Brain Works? Indications Point to Yes
It’s important to note that I didn’t lose my ability to write completely. I still could– and sometimes did– craft flash fiction pieces and short stories. Unfortunately, putting an idea on paper was wholly dependent on my ability to pin it down and write it out, usually in one shot, before it lost its spark. Once that spark was gone, the story was dead. I might as well have tried to rekindle a fire at the bottom of the ocean.
My ability to write long form fiction hinges on my ability to keep track of a complex network of inciting incidents, motives, surprise twists, character and place descriptions, and even whole scenes in my head for years on end. It also hinges on my ability continue developing those ideas in the back of my mind as I work on other things.
I consider myself not a plotter or a pantser, but something of a weaver. When I get out the threads of a story and start mulling them over, new threads often appear which flesh out the narrative, keep the story moving forward, or pull the tale in new, exciting directions. Sometimes they don’t work with the direction I have in mind for the story, and get discarded. Sometimes they do, and then I figure out how to weave them in, creating new threads in the process.
Past jobs I’ve had were physically demanding and often involved long hours, but none was as exhausting or consumed as much mental energy as the Other Job. What I did there demanding precise, constant attention to hundreds of detailed tasks– not only of mine, but also of all those under my leadership (which often included the entire Cargo department.)
I abandoned pretty much everything else and threw all of my energy into the day to day battle of avoiding catastrophe. The days where I worked only 12 or 13 hours felt like short days. Sometimes, when things started to slow down at 6 or 7 pm, I’d realize I hadn’t eaten since 5 am. I struggled to keep up with even the most essential obligations outside of work.
If you’ve ever seen that episode where Spongebob forgets everything he’s ever learned in order to become the ultimate waiter, then has a mental breakdown when a guest asks his name because he accidentally forgot that too… Well, what happened to me feels like that in some ways.
In order to constantly hyper-focus on the tasks at hand, to simultaneously tune out distractions while listening for any sign of something going wrong, I unlearned how to relax. I unlearned the ability to let my mind drift. I unlearned the ability to daydream. And in the process, I apparently also lost the ability to weave stories.
This change took place so slowly and insidiously that I didn’t even realize it was happening. It certainly wasn’t deliberate. If you’d asked me, I would have told you that I’d just learned how to focus really well. Had I given up anything in exchange for that ability? Nah, of course not!
After I turned in my badge and keys, I took a few days off to celebrate. Then I pulled out my metaphorical box of story threads, blew the dust off the lid, and opened it up. There were only a few faded, dusty scraps of thread inside. I laid them out on the floor. I tried to assemble them. Nothing happened.
Realization, Recovery, & Regrowth
I meant to jump right back into writing, but that didn’t happen. It took about a month for me to confront the fact that there was something seriously wrong. It took another month for me to feel out whether it was going to be permanent, and if there was anything I could do to fix it.
About three and a half months post-Other Job, I can say with decent confidence that it’s not permanent. My mind is healing and my ability to write longer stories is starting to come back. My memory still isn’t nearly as good as it was before the Other Job, but it’s getting better. On good days I almost feel like myself again.
I know some people may be looking for more of an explanation, a recipe for healing the kind of damage I sustained. Unfortunately I don’t have one. The best I can offer is this: try not to add to your own stress. Don’t spend days banging your head against your writer’s block; change gears and try something else. Work on a more appealing project. Go for a walk. Spend time on the activities that helped inspire your stories back when writing came easily.
All of these helped me, although they were often easier said than done with the need to turn writing into a profitable enterprise breathing down my neck. Time, and distance from the Other Job, were also noteworthy healing factors.
It’s a bit like a forest growing back after a fire or a flood: it just happens. Gradually the brain heals and connections reform. New ghosts join the old ones in the mental forest, and stories regrow in the whispering darkness between the trees, full of what-ifs and maybes.
If you’re like me and trying to recover from something that shattered your ability to write, I wish you good luck and the fastest recovery possible. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ve been through a lot.
If you follow me for my writing, don’t worry. I’m back to working on some of the projects that have been set aside for the last couple of years, and new ones as well. You can join me on Patreon for monthly short stories about an escaped police cyborg named Frank, as well as updates and excerpts from projects like the sequel to Necrotic City. I’m also doing my best to get back into a regular posting schedule here on the author blog.
Thanks for reading, and for sticking with me through all of this. Until next time, stay safe out there, be good to each other, and keep making the world a better place!