If a hummingbird strikes your window while you write: When to compartmentalize and when to stop
“Writing a story is like going on a date — you will spoil it if you aren’t living in the moment.” — Pawan Mishra, On Writing Wonderfully: The Craft of Creative Fiction Writing
Halfway into my morning writing session, I heard a thump. I looked down at the deck. A hummingbird lay on her back, shaking. In a daze, I went out and stared at her. Her wings didn’t look broken, but what did I know?
I called my partner and my mom. My mom said hummingbirds need sugar water, so I found an old container of grape jelly and made sugar water. I fed her with a water dropper, put her in a box, and she slowly improved. I called the animal rescue people, and they eventually came and took the sweetie away after a few hours of feeding. Though I didn’t hear what happened after that, I’m sure she recovered.
My writing day vanished. I felt bad for even feeling bad about losing that time. Poor hummingbird!
Even if I had more time to go back to writing, I was too emotionally distracted to focus. That was the problem, not necessarily the loss of writing time. Now, the hummingbird was a one-time event. Even though I knew this writing session was over, there would always be tomorrow. But what about those of us who let ourselves be tossed about like a rubber duck in a bathtub — letting every life-event distract us from writing?
Let me be clear I’m not referring to someone who is just trying to survive and is so emotionally and physically drained they need to attend to their basic needs first, including their family’s needs. Nor am I addressing those with clinical depression and anxiety. These techniques will not necessarily work if you’re in one of these situations.
Back to the question: How can you finish your writing while still being human?
“Compartmentalization is not about being in denial; it’s about putting things where they belong and not letting them get in the way of the rest of your life. You can’t just ignore your issues and expect them to go away, but obsessing on them won’t help either.” — Dr. Barton Goldsmith
Despite its name, compartmentalization is messy. Too much of it and you become a cold-hearted robot. Too little of it and you’re an emotional disaster, unable to do much of anything.
So how do you decide if you should keep writing?
This is an important question on any given day because if you let other people’s problems distract you, you will break your habit of writing. Moreover, you will break the promise you made to yourself — to write.
Scenario A: Environmental Choice & Behavior
You get up and are ready to write. You already made an agreement with yourself yesterday that you would write from 7–8am. Fine. You have your coffee, a full belly, and then sit down to write (that’s habit stacking). But then, a thought pops into your head: there’s a chance you might receive some good news about your fellowship application.
It won’t hurt to check email — just for a minute, right?
Bummer. Not only is the fellowship application email not there, but a student has sent a complaint about your teaching to the chair of your department. You read it, incensed. Your morning peace has vanished. How dare the student contact the chair! Your brain then concocts what you’ll say to the student, the chair, and a colleague who has the same student.
It’s now 7:15.
Your jaw is tight and your shoulders are scrunched up to your chin. Should you answer the email? Maybe it’s better to let it sit. But then you’ll stew on it. No, it’s better to answer it later, you tell yourself. Then it will be more professional and less angry.
Now it’s 7:20.
Better get back to writing, your brain says. You stare at the open document, but your mind keeps going back to that student. You stare at the document, write a few words, and shut the computer. You go to class, angry. Class is fine, but you’re distracted and the students can tell you are as well. You return to your office and check your email, ready to fire off your response to the chair.
An email from your chair has just arrived. You brace yourself as you open it.
Then you let out a sigh of relief. Your chair has said she already dealt with the matter. It turns out this student is a chronic complainer about every professor in the department, so the whole matter has been handled. No need for you to worry about it. You’re relieved. Then you’re frustrated that you gave away your entire morning, including the quality of your class, to one email that resolved itself anyway. If you hadn’t checked your email until after class, you wouldn’t have even been angry because you would have realized the student wasn’t targeting you in particular. You would have been gratified you had such an astute chair.
The obvious lesson here — particularly for academics (there really is no such thing as an academic emergency unless you’re a dean or higher) — is that you let your email control you. You let someone else’s emotions control you, all for nothing.
Why did you open your email in the first place? Perhaps it was a sense of excitement of playing the dopamine lottery, or your inner critic was yelling at you so you decided to distract yourself.
You can tell yourself a story it was the student’s fault, but you know it wasn’t. You were the one who let that student into your home, your office, and your mind.
I say this not to shame you — heaven forbid! — but to point out it was your choice to go down this path of checking your email, or notifications, or your phone. The pleasure or satisfaction of writing is all about sometimes sitting through a few minutes of discomfort.
Scenario B: Leftover Emotions
Let’s repeat the beginning of scenario A, but say you wake up this morning, still unsettled by the argument you had last night with your partner.
You sit down to write but feel awful and distracted. Perhaps your partner left you a text! So you check it. Nothing. Then your thoughts spiral into wondering if this is it — if they still love you, why haven’t they texted? Perhaps you get angry all over again.
It’s now 7:30.
Too late to focus on anything, you think. So you close your laptop and move on to the rest of the day, still unsettled. You check your phone. A text pops up with an apology. Turns out the text was delayed.
How could this have unfolded differently?
In the above scenario, you’re letting your external circumstances drive your emotions. I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel your emotions, but in this case, you’re letting an issue that has been resolved — or will be in the near future — distract you from your deep work. If you were still feeling bad before you sat down to write, you could have sent a quick emoji text to your partner and turned off the phone without checking anything else. You could have told yourself you’d check after you finished writing.
You could have decided to put aside 15 minutes to worry/ruminate/sit in your emotions about this (see this technique) after writing, by which time the issue would have resolved itself or you would have probably already felt better. Or, you could commit to meditating for 15 minutes after your writing.
The bottom line is that nothing you did during your wasted writing time actually resolved your feelings or the situation. You just sat in them as a distraction. While you may agree with me that nothing was resolved by sitting in your emotions during your writing time, you may object to the quality of your writing during that time.
That’s what editing is for. I’ve also heard many other writers say they looked back at their manuscripts after the first draft and couldn’t tell the days they felt bad or good. The difference was minuscule, and as I said, it would all come out in the wash anyway once you edited it.
Scenario C: The Trauma is in the Writing
You wake up, ready to write. Again, you’ve already marked out your writing time and know what you’ll write about.
But you’re writing about a traumatic historical or current event, like racism, murder, and structural violence. You know how important the work is, yet you dread reading and writing about it. It can be traumatic to write about trauma. Following the advice of my friend and colleague, Angelique Davis, you’ve batched your writing so you only have to face this subject (at least in your writing) once or twice a week. You’ve also followed the other tips in this article about secondary trauma.
And yet, you still struggle. This isn’t an occasional welling up of tears, disgust, or anger. It’s persistent to the point of doing anything to avoid the project altogether. So you sit in an anxious loop of anger, avoidance, and self-loathing for an hour. Not productive and now you feel even worse than when you started, which definitely makes you not want to sit down again.
You may even find yourself in Scenario A where you’ll do anything to distract yourself.
Are you afraid that if you don’t feel the tragic emotions connected to your subject all the time you’re writing that you’ll be less human? What if you gave yourself permission to feel the feels and then move on? What good will it do you or the people you’re writing about if you don’t write/publish this article?
Finally, you’ll want to make sure this isn’t a sneaky perfectionist inner critic who is stopping you. Is she saying that if you get this wrong the public consequences will be enormous because you’re writing about a sensitive topic? Find out if it’s a loud, angry inner critic. Ask her to leave while you write, because what you write now isn’t the final product anyway.
Scenario D: Emergency
I mean a genuine emergency, not your daughter knocking on the door saying she cannot find her hairbrush.
Hopefully, real emergencies pop up relatively rarely in your life. If they do happen frequently, such as they might in caring for a relative with special needs, then you know better than I how you might plan accordingly (and yes, I recognize this presents unique, challenging scenarios). If this is the case for you, then focusing your writing muscle exercises on writing at strange times and in strange places (perhaps dictation) will be great things for you to explore so you can get at least some writing done.
If a real emergency happens, then you obviously know what to do. You can always come back to the writing tomorrow because you know this isn’t a daily occurrence. Notice, here, however, that if you’re in a long-term position of stress due to an unknown outcome (such as waiting for test results), writing may be exactly the sort of world-shifting distraction you need.
Which brings us to using writing as a healing tool.
Writing As Healing
“I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.” – Alice Walker
Sometimes we think of words as healing, and that is certainly true.
But sometimes it’s the act of writing — devoting time, space, a hot beverage, and quiet time for ourselves that brings the healing. Look at it as a legitimate excuse for time alone, if you must. If you’re dealing with difficult emotional issues, distracting yourself by writing can make these emotional issues less all-consuming, and can often put them in perspective.
I look at it as a reset for your emotions. Sometimes, we know we must move on, but we can’t seem to shake it. Just like physical exercise can help, so can the intense focus of writing. You are completely present with the words, and when you come back up for air, things often look different.
And sometimes, you just need to have a solo dance party near your desk to shake it out.
Then sit back down and try again.