Giving Up the Ghost

canstockphoto10341986I’m a useful sort of person. It feeds my ego to be needed, to be relied upon, to be allowed to demonstrate my competency. My office is organized, collated, labelled and efficient. I remember birthdays, dental appointments and people’s preferences.

On the flip side, I’m tense, terse and occasionally quite sarcastic. I don’t wait for others to catch up. I don’t have time for small talk or nattering or gossip. Which means you’d like me to do your taxes, but really hope I don’t show up for a party, where I will be dressed as a dark cloud with a 50% of rain. Part of it is that I’m an introvert, but a lot of it comes from my sense that time’s a-wastin’.

If there were a support group, I’d go to at least one meeting before I got irritated with all the time wasted on pleasantries. Intellectually, I know that these exchanges are critical parts of human interaction. It’s how we connect, how we are seen and feel part of a larger whole. It’s not that I’m above it or incapable of it – I just have things to do. Always.

In my fantasy life, I’m warm and generous and know how to put people at ease. But then I think about having to listen to the details of someone’s medical procedure or hearing them whinge on about why it’s unfair that their little Boopsy didn’t get into a higher reading group at school and it’s like nails on a chalkboard. I’m ripped out of fantasy land and I’m me again – impatient, easily aggrieved and temperamental.

Lately, I’ve been an ogre to deal with – at home and in the world at large. I finished up my paid job (egads – unemployed!), wrapped up a fundraiser and volunteer events and now I sit in the shadow of an old life. This moment is what I’ve worked for, what I’ve made conscientious decision after conscientious decision for, what I’ve fantasized about for years. Being an unemployed writer. I know, it just bowls you over with its grandiosity.

You’d think I’d be bursting at the seams with stories I’ve been dying to tell. That I’d pull out all those hastily-scrawled notebooks from college. That I’d be ready for this moment and embrace it will all the vigor of a POW at my first meal on the outside. I have some twisted form of Stockholm Syndrome – waiting for the call for financial reports or an urgent volunteer need. I’d be busy and comfortable again.

It’s an understatement to say change is uncomfortable. External change has happened. But here I am, still me. I don’t feel differently. I’m not inspired. I’m still procrastinating. This is the gray danger zone for any kind of change. This is where I’ll either breathe and relax into a new state, or I’ll find a new job, sign up for classes, volunteer to save the planet and make friends with someone really, really needy.

Every once in a while, a small smile will sneak across my face when I realize what I’ve accomplished. And maybe that’s the problem. I saw the means and the end, but nothing beyond that. If you focus entirely on getting somewhere, little time is spent on the itinerary once you’ve arrived. The goal posts have to be moved a little farther ahead. I’m here, but I have more steps in the journey.

And so, I write this clunky, awkward, navel-gazing post as the first step into this brand new shiny life. I haven’t written anything in weeks. I was so intent on finishing everything else perfectly, completely, with no regrets. It was merely procrastination dressed as dedication and competency.  I begin work on my second novel today and leave the gray zone. It doesn’t feel comfortable and I’m having to wrench even these words from my brain. But one step, one word at a time.


53 thoughts on “Giving Up the Ghost

  1. It may feel indeterminate and “clunky” to you, but as one who lives very near to the polar opposite end of the ambition-and-self-discipline universe from you and admires your take on the world, this post is an eye opener! I guess we all struggle with identity and purpose and merely have wildly differing tool kits with which to do the battle. Hope your journey goes spectacularly, wherever it does take you.


    1. I have a secret hope that doing what gives me joy (writing) will allow me to unwind, breathe, be more of the person I’d like to be – kinder, more patient, etc. But that’s a lot of pressure, so the focus on one word at a time will hopefully keep me from self-destructing in the face of an open horizon. This is the flip side of a structured, self-disciplined person – open space is scary. I don’t know who I will be without being constantly consumed by tasks, but I’d like to find out. Thanks for the kind wishes, Kathryn.


  2. I’m so like you, Michelle, it’s scary. I’ve come to realize that my behavior towards a lot of people is a mechanism to keep them at a distance because, frankly, I hardly ever want to invite the stories I hear from a lot of people. As an introvert, the words that we hear from others are more likely to be internalized and felt – felt as though we are them, experiencing what they’ve experienced. I’m thinking, though, that this is what can make you a great writer. And so, try to embrace your differences. Try to believe that you’re a decent person who simply has a comfort zone that may be far smaller than what others have. If you have to narrow your open space so that you can function better, then so be it. I think you’re marvelous.


    1. You’re so kind! I think what you wrote is absolutely true. It took me a long time to realize that I could not hear other people’s stories without internalizing them and often experiencing depression because of it. That’s not to say that I don’t listen to the stories and commiserate with close friends, but I have to limit it and constantly remind myself that it’s not my personal responsibility to fix everything for someone else. Like the character in my book is soon to discover, fixing things for someone else can end disastrously!


      1. Yes, we can’t save people. We can be empathetic and caring but not to the point it destroys our psyches.

        I can’t wait to read your book!


  3. Ohhhhhhh, can I relate!

    I am that person at work — well, except for the neat, organized part. I need that feeling of competence, but as an extrovert I can usually steer conversations away from Boopsy.

    But I joined up to do NaNoWriMo and what little I write has made me not want to write because I am producing such utter crap. I learned that I really love the words and the sentences that make up the story. If I don’t like them, I don’t like the stories because they suck. And so I watch my word count stay static and look for other uses for my energies.

    You, however, will persevere. Thrive.

    You are now where you are, and it is a good place. IN fact, I felt just this way when we scurried around preparing to move to Switzerland, a place I’d never seen. Everything was done in a rush from the decision to the flight over. And then we were there, in a foreign country, not knowing the language, not having a place to live, not having a clue. I spent a month stammering and trying to figure out who what why when how, all in a panic. And then I figured, oh, what the hell. I am so INCREDIBLY lucky to be here, doing what I’m doing. So I’m going to enjoy it.

    And I did. You will too.

    Me, I’m hoping that there is a market where they pay folks to write helpful blog comments…


    1. I try to recognize good fortune when it appears, but I feel a tremendous sense of pressure to “get it right”. I keep reminding myself that there will be a learning curve to adjusting to less busy-ness and more single-minded focus.

      The one thing I did learn about NaNo is that my inner editor is insidious. It sounds like your inner (and potentially outer, since you do this for work) is fighting you. My mantra is now “write crap”. Until you write the garbage, nothing wonderful can emerge. I have read all the articles on a writer’s process, but it is so intrinsic to the act that I didn’t get it. Something weird happens when you let yourself just blab. It’s such a cliche, but I’ve found it to be absolutely true.

      I have so often, in my life, been a stranger in a strange land, that it’s my normal state of existence. But this seems like something different – like all my imaginings of who I’d be have been brought to bear on this moment. Much like writing, I think I have to pursue something along the lines of “be crap” for awhile. Inelegant perhaps, but succinct. Hopefully what emerges is something better than I’d imagined.

      I think we know, after craigslist and 50 Shades, that there is a market for just about everything. Should I be expecting a bill any day now?


  4. My experience has nothing to do with writing, but I went through a huge change a year and a half ago, when we uprooted ourselves and moved out west after a lifetime on the east coast. To a place I’d never been, knew no one. It was something I had wanted for a long time, something I dreamed about and finally found a way to make it happen.
    The interesting thing has been seeing how many ideas I had about the way it would change me, the way I’d be different. None of that has happened. Making my dream come true has changed me, but not in the ways I imagined it would. But perhaps that is the whole point.

    I wish you much success as you navigate this change, and that your book gets finished and published!


    1. Thanks, Miriam. You make a very good point about what our expectations and ideas are about change. Unfortunately, I have somewhat of a “Extreme Home Makeover” mentality that I have to fight against. I have to remind myself that big changes don’t happen overnight. More often than not, positive change that stays, moves at a glacial pace. You’re absolutely right, though – it’s the unintended and unforeseen that is the whole point of change.


  5. Good luck with the shiny new beginnings – procrastination is something all of us ‘artists’ suffer from. I know exactly how you feel. About 7 years ago I left a well paid job to pursue my creativity – unfortunately for me, I never found my niche but I would still do it all over again. The process was liberating, exciting and scary all at the same time. We wait to hear how you progress.


    1. Thank you! Yes, the blight of procrastination drives me crazy and more so now, than ever before. As one gets older, time takes on more significance and I often get frustrated with myself for wasting so much of it putting off that which would likely benefit me. I like the spin often put on the time-wasting for artists. It’s fertile ground for our imaginations. Um, okay. I’m not sure a TV-watching marathon of The Closer will do much for my imagination, but let’s go with that!


  6. Good post. A lot of we writers have the same dilemma as you. I know I do. One thing I would warn you about. It happened to me. All that time can be a luxury. I retired for two years and managed to twitter away all that time. I’ve found that structure is my friend. And treating writing like I would a job. If I don’t schedule it in, I find I have gone a week with nothing done.


    1. Don, you are pointing out on of my biggest fears! I don’t want to be a year into this and wonder what the hell I’ve done with my time. I’m trying to put a little structure in – making myself prepare in the morning as if I’m going to work before sitting down at my desk. For some reason, I don’t think yoga pants 24/7 puts me in a working frame of mind! Like writing, writers are also works in progress…


  7. My hope for you is that you really get into novel number 2 and lose all track of time. Forget about the means, the end and simply write. And enjoy.:)


  8. I agree with Elyse – this state you are in is, in fact, a good one. Uncomfortable, but good. I’m a professional singer, and having realized a few important career goals this year, I now realize that there is so much more I’d like to achieve, but I have no idea how to get there. The goalposts have moved to another county, and I don’t have a map to find them! Keep procrastinating and writing and being unemployed. You’ll stumble on to something eventually!


    1. Thanks, Alison. Writing, after having not done it for even a few days is something akin to getting off roller skates. You have to learn to walk again and it feels really, really weird! I am grateful to have the kind of life where I can still feel uncomfortable – it’s the only way to grow and learn!


  9. This is a fascinating post Michelle. Despite being a polar opposite in many respects – apart from the strong need to demonstrate competence, which I had and nurtured for the longest time – I think I quite understand. So many times I’ve been there, in the beginning after a change that I had created without knowing anything about the road ahead. You will thrive, just don’t think too much, let loose and go with the flow of your talent. There is plenty of that to lean on. It’s a good place to be.


    1. Thanks – not thinking too much is a tall order for me! I tend to over-think everything. The whole “relax and be” thing is a foreign concept in my world, but I’m working to have more moments like that, especially since I’ve cut down my “to do” list significantly. I’ve always thought of this process as clearing my mental landscape of clutter, so that I could see more of what I’d like to see.


  10. Good luck with the new beginning. I am not a writer, but I can say that when I put pressure on myself to do something I always procrastinate more than I would have otherwise. It’s weird we do things like that to ourselves…


    1. Thank you! Procrastination is very weird. I find it incredibly irritating when I do something I’ve been putting off for weeks and it was easy. All that mental anxiety and energy was for nothing. My only goal these days is to shorten periods of procrastination. Apparently I can’t go cold turkey!


  11. Knowing how you think (okay, guessing), the perfectionism is probably grumbling under the surface and getting in the way. I’m just sayin’.

    When I became suddenly jobless, it was a huge adjustment. All that attachment and demonstration of “worth” was gone. Here’s what saved me: Going to my writing place (coffee shop) every day, 7 days a week; writing my Morning Pages (from Julia Cameron’s “The Artists’ Way”); writing Shitty Drafts. The Shitty Drafts were the break-through for me. I didn’t worry about being good. I just got the ideas, dialog, scene, whatever DOWN. The next day I’d go back to my writing place and look at it, revise it a little, then dive into the next Shitty Piece of the Shitty Draft.

    Sometimes I look at my output for the day and panic. Then I remember, “Oh, yeah. It’s supposed to be shitty. Cool.”

    Some day I’ll come up and we can hit a coffee shop together and crank out shit in tandem. Wouldn’t that be fun?


    1. Perfectionism, for me, is just another version of procrastination. Intellectually I can see that, but the actuality is that I will probably be fighting my inner critic every step of the way. On the flip side, that critic will be needed at some point.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head with the attachment of ego and worth to a paid job. I say “paid” because I’m trying to treat writing more like a job, albeit unpaid. The paid job thing is a societal construct, but from a human perspective, we want to feel like we’re doing something that holds intrinsic value.

      This is what I need to work on, differentiating true meaning and value from that of paid employment. It’s the same argument I’ve had with myself ever since leaving a full-time office job 7 years ago and working part-time at home. It turns out that I make a grumpy and inefficient housewife, my cooking is sporadic at best and I think garage sales are a cult ritual that should be outlawed. Much like now, my ideas of how things will be, will prove to be wholly incorrect.

      It would be lovely to have coffee and write complete shit with you!

      PS – I’ve heard mixed things about The Artists’ Way publications – have you found them useful?


  12. First – let me say that you write a wonderfully written post on any subject – I love reading your work. I find that I am more of a process person – that I plan out the process to get to something, but then I tend to drift. I have found that the change of pace without structure can be inspiring as long as I have some accountability – to a friend or something. Without it I can get lost in reading and movies and napping and all the less productive things that come so easily when I finally have that hard won free time on my hands. Sometimes it just takes a few days for it all to soak in.


  13. I swear… every post I read, my head is bobbing up and down in agreement. I can completely sympathize with the desire to be this patient, tolerant person, but the reality falls short. I can’t count how many times I’ve been called rude, cold, or stand off-ish, simply because I don’t have time for foolish games and stories of “well jimmy john met sally at the bank. they waited in line so, so, so, so long.” People just go on and on, and about nothing! Like you, I know this is all part of our social structure, but c’mon! How much patience does one person need to have?!

    I hope with you being able to follow your real dreams now you feel more relaxed and patient 🙂 When you get there, please throw me a life jacket!


    1. I wonder, too, how much of the social expectations for women to be warm and friendly is wearing thin. I have been called similar names and frankly, I would rather someone just said I was a prick and moved on. Let’s not soft-pedal it because you think I should act like June Cleaver. To be fair, I do well one-on-one, but in small clusters of people, I generally feel like running away.

      I’m having a lot of weird moments as I unravel from the stress of juggling too many things for so long. It’s uncomfortable when you’ve been going at break neck pace and you slow down only to discover what a nut job you’ve turned into – on the other hand, I’ve had some lovely moments where I thought “wow, I really missed doing this…”


    1. I do have an appreciation of the gray zone, but I’m a little fearful that I’ll waste my opportunity here. I’m hoping, at bare minimum, that I can shift my paradigm enough to appreciate making deliberate choices with my life. It’s a tall order – most of my life I’ve felt like an Anne Tyler character – an Accidental Tourist.


  14. I made this shift a while ago and I can relate to your feelings of “What’s next?” especially since we live in a culture that values paid work, preferably if someone else is writing the check, like a regular employer. You’re a good writer, committed and I believe you’ll do well. I’ll keep reading your work…


    1. I’ve worked in an administrative/financial/managerial capacity for the last 20 years and I think I saw those roles for what they were – a way to pay the bills. Since leaving an office environment and transitioning to a home office 7 years ago, I’ve slowly stripped away parts of my identity that I took for granted. You just never realize how much of your value is tied up in paid employment until you’re no longer paid!

      I’m looking forward to the challenge and have some curiosity as to how it will all turn out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – it’s always good to know one is not alone!


  15. So many things in this post were eerily familiar so I entirely missed the clunky part. If there is a way to stop over analyzing things, I have yet to discover it. I wish you well on the journey. It sounds like a great plan now there’s just that little execution part.


    1. I have always heard comments such as “stop thinking so much”, which I find bizarre. Isn’t that what differentiates humans from other species? I turn things over until I have looked at an issue from every angle and I doubt that is a habit that will change anytime soon. I like to spin it as “mindfulness”, not over-analyzing!

      The execution part of any plan is always the clincher, isn’t it?


  16. Easily aggrieved and tempermental,
    I don’t have time to read all the previous comments so this has likely been said before: getting off the treadmill is tough after all those miles. I like that you are wandering about and ready to drop into something new.
    (really really needy)


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