When you are just over it all: being nice to yourself vs being kind

I am tired. My skin and bones and hair are tired. All I want to do is mooch around in my PJs and read undemanding novels with happy endings, and eat pancakes. I’m pretty sure this is a version of the post-PhD funk, but this time round it’s post-book funk, and the lingering effects of not taking a proper end-of-year break. And maybe I need to eat more vegetables. But, what I am struggling with is what to do with myself so I can actually keep up with work, and not let myself and others down by missing deadlines and generally just flaking out.

All my life I have been an over-achiever, and a people pleaser. ‘A’ student, school prefect, in all the school plays and concerts, putting my hand up to get involved in everything I could, hardly ever saying no or drawing healthy boundaries around my time. The overachieving was tempered at university, where I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond, but the desire to be the ‘A’ student, and the best at everything, and make people pleased and proud, remained. This carried over into my Masters and then my PhD, where I wanted to write the best thesis ever, and be the best student ever, and write the most amazing papers ever.

It’s not easy to live and work like this: it requires the presence of what I have always called “the mean voice” in your head. This voice’s job, basically, is two-fold (for me, anyway): on the one hand, she tells you to keep going, and say YES (not no) and take on all the things, and she kind of makes you get down to it and work. But, this means, on the other hand, that she’s not always very kind when you are tired and need a rest, because she might well call you a flake, and tell you that if you say no that work will never come your way again, and that if you don’t finish the paper right now, people will be disappointed and cross (a people pleasing overachiever’s worst thing). She’s mean, basically, and if you let her be mean to you about work and writing, it’s not too hard for her to be mean about everything.

I got to a point where I needed her out of my head: I needed to learn to be kind to myself and mean it, and take proper breaks, and say no and not second-guess that, and let go of this fear of letting people down if I did say no, and draw healthier boundaries around my time and energy. So, I went to therapy and I worked hard, and that mean voice is pretty quiet these days, about everything. I am much better at saying no, and not stressing (too much) over that, and also giving myself time to go slower and take breaks. This is all great. But, I am discovering that I actually miss the mean voice – specifically, her ability to cheerlead (however bossily), and get me off the couch and away from the novels and focused on writing, and reading, and supervising, and emailing, and adminning and all that. I don’t miss the mean-ness, but I miss the pushing.

I have found, in quieting this voice and learning to be nice to myself, that I have slowly become less good at being kind to myself, in the more critical sense of kindness. There’s a difference between being nice, and being kind. Niceness doesn’t really require care. You can say nice things without actually meaning them, and you can be nice to people without really caring about their welfare or wellbeing. Niceness is not about others, niceness is about ourselves, making ourselves look good and feel good.

Kindness, on the other hand, is all about others. The act of being kind is about actually considering someone else’s interests or feelings or needs, and acting in a way that shows consideration. Feedback is a useful example. I often explain to my students that if I just said things about their work like ‘this is a good draft’ or ‘interesting points here’ and nothing else, that may be nice because it would make them feel good and would make me look like an engaged reader. But, how would they get to draft 2, and to a better final piece of work? If I rather say ‘this is a good draft, but there is still work to be done on supporting your argument, using more updated sources, and deepening your critical engagement with supporting texts’, they might think ‘oh no, more work, she doesn’t think it’s (I’m) good enough yet’, and feel a bit bleak, initially. But, that feedback is kind because I actually care about you getting to a more confident and capable place as a scholar.

So, back to me: I think, right now in the wake of this post-book slump, I am being way too nice to myself and not nearly kind enough. I am giving myself too many free passes, too much time to loaf-off, and the more I do that the harder it is to come back to a place of focus and productivity. I am not sleeping well because I keep dreaming about all the work and writing I am not doing. So, starting right now, as soon as I post this rather personal post, I am going to be kind to myself. I am going to make myself send three emails I need to send, read three pieces of student work I was supposed to read yesterday, and finish two outstanding pieces of work that are overdue. Then, I will have a proper lunch, and give my own work some time, with some reading and writing in my reading journal. Day done. Then, tomorrow the same again: making kind choices that show my care for myself, and also for others that I have a responsibility towards.

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I reckon this is not going to be easy, and I’m going to have to work at this for a while until I get myself back into a different, more productive, less ‘meh’ place that I am currently in. But, if not now then when? These lessons we have to learn about ourselves — who we are, how we work, what we need to focus and be productive, and have enough energy for ourselves and for others — keep having to be learned and relearned because as we get older, and we change and our lives change, the demands on us change, as does the way we respond. This can feel like failure – why don’t I know how to do this properly already?? But, I am trying to see it more kindly, as an opportunity to reassess and reflect, to make different choices if I have to, to grow. I feel like this could make me a better teacher, colleague, supervisor, writer, and also a better mother, and partner to Lovely Husband.

So, if you are also just over it all, and tired to your bones, and lying on the couch in your PJs in a pancake coma telling yourself you don’t have to work today, maybe try a small act of kindness: get dressed, make the bed, tidy up, make a small list and answer some emails. Day done. Tomorrow, taking a few more steps towards the bigger things you need to do will hopefully be easier. And pretty soon, you’ll be back on a path of kindness, and Getting Things Done. I’ll be right there with you.

What I learned about being a writer in 2019

As I sit here at my desk, on the first day of what promises to be one of my busiest work years yet, struggling to keep the writing mojo with me, I am pausing to reflect on what I have learned about being a writer over the last year. Indeed, what I have learned over the last decade. What lessons can I learn, and what inspiration can I take forward into this new year and decade? What small nuggets of pithy writing wisdom can I share? Well, if you will permit me to try and share what writing wisdom I have gained, here goes:

1. The only thing that actually leads to finished papers and books is writing.

Profound, right? The thing is, I have spent a lot of time over the last year doing some serious procrastinating, and talking to my students about their lack of writing being done and sent for feedback. There has been a not-so-small amount of panicking, for me and peers and students, about the writing not being done. Yet, when it comes down to it, sitting down to write gets pushed further and further down the to-do list, and all the top spots on that list are filled with e-mail, and tidying, and faffing around. If you want finished writing, you have to write. Even if you hate every word, even if it feels like you press save at the end of each sentence. Even if you think it’s the worst thing you have ever written. You have to just do it, as often as you can – every day is best, but at least 4-5 days a week if you are working on a big project like a book or a thesis. You can’t really expect to produce a big piece of writing if you are only getting yourself to sit down once a week or less. So, you have to make your writing time a priority and protect it, from yourself and from others.

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2. Your writing is part of you; it needs your time, and you and your time are important and should be prioritised.

Too often, I have pushed my writing away because I have told myself that it is less important than the work other people have prioritised and are paying me to do. While I have to make a living, and pay the bills, I am not just a worker. I am a writer. This is part of my scholarly and personal identity, and as such it is important, valuable, worthy of respect. But it takes a lot of time to be a productive, competent writer. You need to read, make notes, plan, draft, revise, redraft, find the courage to seek feedback, use that feedback, redraft again. That time is too often given away to other tasks, big and small, important and unimportant, mostly because I devalue my writing, and in so doing, de-prioritise the time it needs and also the development of this part of my self. This is a version of balance, but rather than work-life, I have been trying to learn about work-writing balance. Rather than veering from one extreme to the other, which is not really sustainable (all writing and no work, or no writing and all work), I have been trying to create days that have both: writing first, before the email and busy-work, and then email and busy-work after. The days I get this balance right are few, so far, but they feel so good that I am motivated to keep trying.

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3. Writing is also work, and work is only one of the things that defines me.

This world of academia that I work in is hella competitive these days, and pressured. It is scary, as someone without tenure, to consider saying ‘no’ to offers of work: who knows if that offer will come around again, or if there will be another piece of work (and salary) behind it? There are so many people like me, looking for work, competent, driven. So, if I say no and they say yes, I’m out. That’s the fear, anyway. So, I tend to say yes to far too many things, and overload myself, and then struggle to find time and headspace to write. Making writing work, and not a special indulgence, helps: along with seeing it as a valuable part of my self, seeing it as valid work enables me to make it part of my work day and week, and not (always) feel like I’ve done nothing productive if all I have done is read or write of a day. Just because it doesn’t earn me money, doesn’t make it not-work. But, between all the writing-work and paid-work, there is a not a lot of time left over for life, especially if I am always competing and scared to say no. This year has been a big learning curve for me in terms of learning to say no, let go, and not panic or feel bad for doing so. Work of any kind is just one thing – an important thing, but ONE thing – that makes me, me. I am also a mother and a wife and a friend and a baker and a surfer and a reader and a person who likes weekend lie-ins. I have learned that I can be just as, if not more productive, if I learn to stop every now and then and have a day in my pjs doing nothing much, even in the middle of the week. That balance, between all the work and me and what I need to cope with my whole life, has been hard to strike consistently, but I’ve done more writing this year than any other since my PhD, and I have managed to be more balanced too.

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4. Writing can be enjoyable if you stop trying to create perfection.

This is my final nugget of wisdom from 2019. I spend far too much time trying to write The Most Awesome Paper/Chapter Ever Written, which is, of course, impossible. Perfect writing does not exist. But good writing does – great writing even. This writing is considered good or great because people can actually read it and judge it so. This means it is finished, published, out there in the world and not stuck in my head or my laptop. This quest for perfection is paralysing, and it makes writing too hard and too painful. If you want every word, every sentence to be exactly write on the first or second go, you are just going to hate your writing and sitting down to do it will feel like a punishment. In trying to get this book finally finished (and I have about 3 weeks left now), I have consciously let go of this push for perfection. Every single time I sit down, which is every day now, I tell myself out loud: “Just write. Get the words on the page and tomorrow you can re-read, edit and reshape this thing. It just has to be written for now”. What I am finding, as I let myself do this and get into a groove is that, even though I know some of these words and sentences will get the chop, or be rewritten, I am actually enjoying the process of creating these final drafts. I am enjoying this more than the earlier drafts, where I put way too much pressure on myself to write the definitive text on teaching in higher education. Seriously, what was I thinking? Any piece of writing, big or small, is just one argument, one contribution to knowledge, one grain of sand on the vast beach of knowledge we humans are creating. If I can’t have any fun doing this work, why would I want to keep going? I want to enjoy writing, even when it’s hard, and I don’t want to feel like it’s a punishment. So, I’m going to keep learning this lesson far more consciously, and look for the pleasure rather than the perfection.

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I’d love to hear your nuggets of writing wisdom gained over the last year – won’t you take a moment to share one for other readers in the comments? I hope 2020 is a productive, happy, balanced year for us all. Happy new year!

Turning your writing ship around: pushing back against individualism and isolation

In 2014, while I was deep into reading Cressida Cowell’s How to train your dragon series to my boys, I blogged about PhD theses and ocean crossings, likening the early stages to small, leaky, slow boats, and the end stages to faster, sleek racing ships. Writing can be a lot like this, as I also argued in a more recent post: that slogging is really necessary for sailing – the ‘bad’ writing says where the words are clunky and awful and the process is painful need to be worked through for the less common, but completely lovely and faith-restoring days where the words flow from your fingers and the ideas all work and you feel like a writing goddess. Last week I wrote about my AcWriMo fail, so far, and how I was trying to just write – anything, really – to get the month and the book back on track. These posts all touch on two things I want to blog about today: work ethic and resilience, and community, and pushing back against individualised, isolationist notions of success.

I currently work on a consultant basis, attached to different projects, teaching contracts and so on. This means that I work a great deal from my home office (aka the couch, most days), and that need to work between my own deadlines, and externally set deadlines. This requires a pretty decent work ethic, as the work I do is varied, and often amounts to a little bit more than a full-time job, because of the way the deadlines and workloads are distributed (i.e. it’s more like feast and famine than steady labour). But, my work ethic, like my workload, is not consistent. While I am super-capable of pulling rabbits out of hats close to a deadline, I find this immensely anxiety-invoking. The downside of this ‘feast or famine’ workload and concomitant work ethic is that I have more anxiety than is healthy, and this spills over into other parts of my life, causing me to snap at my family, or yell at drivers being stupid on the roads, and so on. In other words, the work anxiety feeds social and personal anxiety, and the cycle can become pretty nasty and stressful.

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The upside, though, is that in working through all the anxiety and getting the work done anyway, often on time but sometimes with kindly granted extensions, I am developing researcher resilience. I am learning to be resilient in two key ways, I think. The first is that I am learning that, as a friend says often to me, my work is not life-or-death. If I have a day in my pjs where I do no writing or productive thinking, no planes will fall from the sky or something equally catastrophic. Thus, I don’t have to treat every email and every request and every sentence as urgent. I can moderate, and balance, and take time. This is really important, because as the current Twitter threads around the UCU strikes in the UK are showing, balance and moderation are in short supply, especially for academics working on contract and in precarious income positions, as many consultants are. If I say no to this job, will I be closing the wrong door? Will more work and money come, or not? These are questions those in a contract-y space constantly battle with, meaning we probably don’t say no as often as we need to, to protect our own physical and mental well-being. We may also not often-enough say yes to help, for fear that the work and money may be diluted or assigned elsewhere in future.

This brings me to the second thing I mean by resilience. I am learning that I cannot, and should not, try to be Wonder Woman. I cannot do all my work things on my own, without help and support. I think those of us working in or around university contexts that are strongly influenced by shades of neoliberalism and corporate culture are pushed into different forms of a bigger liberal-capitalist notion of individualism. To achieve is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, work really hard, take no hand-outs or favours, and claim all your achievements for yourself, as the product of your hard work, focus and so on. So, we slog and slog, telling colleagues and friends we’re fine, and refusing offers of help because we’re fine, and because we need to claim our work and any success than emanates as our own. And if we have help, then is our success really ours alone? If you can hack this, you are pretty resilient, but at what cost? Like Wonder Woman, I can do it on my own, but I have more fun, I’m more able, and I probably recover faster if I have the Justice League with me to share the load.

While some disciplines have collaboration built in, such as in many of the natural sciences, where I work in the social sciences and humanities in South Africa, we still have to fight to justify collaboration and co-work, especially in relation to published papers, books and so on because of government funding formulas that reward sole authorship. As an early career researcher, with less symbolic capital and clout, it can be hard to fight against these systems, and the individualism they seem to encourage and reward. But, this brings me to the other factor my earlier-cited posts were about, and a key aspect of building resilience in research: community. The colleagues and peers you are able to surround yourself with and actually lean on and draw help from is a crucial part of pushing back against this overly individualised culture in academia. It’s not enough to have peers who will believe you when you say you are fine and are actually not fine. These peers need to be people who will offer some form of help and support that you can, and will, accept and also offer back.

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Community needs to be active and reciprocal to really work in helping researchers, especially earlier-career researchers, build resilience and a workable work ethic. Ideally, the community you connect with also needs to be composed of peers in a range of positions, in terms of empathy but also power and influence – your own form of the Justice League, if you like. If you are all early career researchers in precarious labour positions, you can offer a great deal of moral support and empathy, which helps, but you need people on your side who know the system and can help you find the means, courage and tools to push back where you can. For example, a big help for me has been joining projects on recommendations from my former supervisor, who has connected me with different scholars and enabled co-writing and co-researching projects to take shape and happen. I now have connections for new projects, and an experience of not working alone to bolster me in creating and running new, collaborative projects in the future. We need to seek out and nurture these connections.

This week I have turned my writing ship around with the help of a new online community, which I joined on recommendation from a new friend who found her way into this space during her PhD. My community is working for me this week, big time, but in a way that enables me to reciprocate and offer mutual support. I have gone from no chapter to an almost finished chapter, partly because the anxiety has finally turned from paralysis into action, as this rabbit must be pulled from the hat or else, but mainly because I have been brave enough to admit I am not fine, I cannot proceed on my own, and I need help to get writing and keep writing. This new community, in conjunction with my existing community, is helping me immeasurably to find my own inner strength and resilience and work ethic, and put it all into my writing. It has not been easy. I am slogging, for sure, and will have to keep slogging. But I am hopeful that this ship will become sleeker and faster as the finish line approaches, and that my communities – online and face-to-face – will be there with me as I cross it.

Creating bigger rooms for different bodies and beings in academia

In a small break from writing a very scary application for something I really, really want, I saw this tweet on friend’s Facebook wall:

This was pretty much exactly what I needed to hear, but it got me thinking a bit about all the rooms I have earned the right to be in over the years (and how I have felt like I should apologise for my presence in too many of them) and also rooms I have been allowed into not yet having really earned the right to be there, because of ugly things like structural privilege and systemic hierarchies (but this is for a different post).

As a woman (in academia, and in the world), I have learned over the years to take up just the right amount of space, or maybe a bit less than that. I have learned to be clever, but not so much so that the men in the room get uncomfortable (and some of the women too!); I have learned to be assertive, but not so much so that I am accused of being pushy and aggressive; I have learned to be ambitious, but not so much so that colleagues are threatened by me and don’t want to work with me; I have learned to dress so that people take me seriously, but not too seriously because then I’m not feminine enough, or fun enough. It’s #$%&ing exhausting. And it never ends.

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I enter many rooms because I really feel I have earned the right to be there, because of my years of study, my writing, my patience and endurance through poorly paid and not-very-inspiring contract work, tolerating obnoxious colleagues and public put-downs, surviving obscure bureaucratic mess-ups with contracts, salaries, student issues, and so many other things. But, and this is the thing that got to me about that tweet, I almost never really feel like I can just be, in many of those rooms. There are a few rooms where I can expand and grow and just take up the space I take up, and those spaces are all too rare, and wonderful. I protect them fiercely, and never take them for granted, because there are way more rooms in which I am taking the temperature, reading the crowd, judging how much space I can take up, and whether I will be allowed to even stay in the room.

Imposter syndrome is part of this perhaps – that sense that you really don’t have the right to be there, and that you’re faking it by even trying, and someone will know that and call you out and expose you for the fraud you are. But this is also what this tweet speaks to, for me: to speak back to that imposter syndrome, and argue that you actually are not a fraud. You have worked hard, and paid your dues, and you actually do have a valid voice that should be part of the conversation. This is not easy, because the Imposter voice can be loud, mean, and quite insistent. It’s harder to push back against that, and just walk into the room and stay there, and be just you. Especially if you are not someone who is already ‘in’ by virtue of being part of the dominant and overtly valued ways of being in the academy (i.e. if you are black or queer or a woman or a trans person or disabled or working class or non-mother tongue, etc. – and many different combinations of these things too).

I know too many younger scholars and academics just disillusioned by the ways in which academia continues to try – apparently quite hard – to gatekeep and police who gets to enter which rooms, when and for how long. There are too many people in my extended circle – in person and on Twitter and Facebook – who are just tired of having to fight to take up space they have earned the right to take up, many times over. It’s exhausting, and it flattens you the longer it goes on. We have to change the story, meaningfully, and open academia and the work it does – research, teaching, publishing, supervision, and so on – to new bodies, voices, knowledges, ways of knowing and being.

We can’t say ‘socially just education is vital’ and then keep pushing out people who would actually be able to enact that in new, interesting, challenging and meaningful ways. We can’t say ‘we value social inclusion’ and then shut out people who don’t conform to some tacit, unexamined notion of what the ‘right’ kind of scholar or academic is. That’s not meaningful, and that’s not change. This change has to come from all sides – from university management that has to actively enact policy change (see here for an interesting take on this broader issue); from academics already in the system who have the power to make changes in their practices, contexts and departments; and from us – the scholars bravely walking into rooms and refusing to apologise for taking up space in them, and for being who we are. It cannot all be on those already fighting to just be part of the conversation, and this happens all too often.

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For me, I am reminded that I have a voice, I have something to say and offer, and I need to just keep working on walking into the rooms I want and need to be in, and staying the course. And, as I do that and move through the system and accumulate relative power and freedom, to follow Toni Morrison’s exhortation to all of us who have measures of power and freedom within structures and systems: to use that which you have to empower and free others, to enable them to pay it forward too, and slowly but surely dismantle the systems that reinforce rather than challenge the status quo. It may sound idealistic, but in our current global moment, I don’t think a little pragmatic idealism is such a bad thing.

Book writing: blog therapy (and some writing help)

I hope you will indulge me a little, but I am going to do some blog therapy with this post. I am in a bit of a writing rut, and need to get out and get writing, but somehow Book Writing feels almost impossible right now. The thought of opening the file I am working on is paralysing. So, I am hoping that writing about how I am struggling to write will push me a bit further towards my file and the chapter I need to finish (by next week).

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This is a bit like pre-writing, I think. Pre-writing is a well known writing tool, developed out of Peter Elbow’s work on free writing, and writing to think and work out your thoughts. Pre-writing is not actually supposed to be shared with anyone, really; it’s just for you and for your own thinking and motivation process. The idea is that it takes some of the pressure off you by making the exercise of writing less ‘high stakes’ – no one will read it but you, it is scribbled in your own research journal, and it’s really just you talking to yourself about what you are working on.

But it is also not a “dear diary” entry, where you just ramble on about whatever. It does need to have a focus, a point. So, for example, if you are struggling to write at all (like me), you might do a pre-free-write on what it is about this piece of writing that is troubling you. That often helps me work out why I am so stuck. Or, if you have done a lot of reading, and need to now translate that into some text for a supervisor, you might write about what themes have emerged from the reading that are interesting relative to your research project. The point is not to write formally, or worry too much about grammar and spelling and stuff like that. The point is really just to write – get those thoughts out of your head and onto the page.

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There is a therapeutic concept behind this. I am not a psychologist, but I have done a good deal of therapy, and there is something quite powerful about getting the thoughts, fears, troubles that you are struggling with out of your head – to speak or write them ‘out loud’ renders them somehow less powerful. You can open them up to critique and analysis – you can make a different kind of sense of them, turn them over, interrogate them. In doing so, you gain mastery over them, and you start to work out how to behave or be in different, less fearful or unconscious ways. You become more and more the captain of your own ship, because you can see and manage the ways in which you ride the tides and ebbs and flows of your life.

This is not that different to becoming a more conscious writer, and thinker. If you keep your writing and thinking all to yourself, you can start to feel a bit like you are going mad. You can’t see straight anymore – is this a good idea or not? Is this a valid claim or nonsense? Is my writing any good? You can’t actually always answer these questions yourself. You need to show people – supervisors, critical friends – your ideas and writing, and ask for honest feedback. That feedback can then help you become more conscious of the aspects of your writing and thinking that are working, and those that are not. You can start to ‘see’ what you are doing more clearly, and learn to make adjustments and changes where these are needed, to improve the work you are doing.

You cannot do a PhD all alone, and stay sane. You cannot write a book all alone either. It is true that you are the one in front of the laptop, and the journal, and the books, reading, writing, thinking, writing some more, And that often this is a solitary pursuit. But it cannot stay solitary. You need to be able to get all those thoughts and ideas out of your head, so you can turn them over, make sense of them, see them differently. Pre-writing is one way of doing this. Oddly, even if you are the only person who reads this writing, the writing feels different than it does locked in your head. It’s you, but also not you. There’s something that happens when you say a thought aloud, or write it down: it becomes separate from you in a way, that enables you to make sense of it, fit it into a larger framework of thinking, and hopefully move forward.

Another way of getting out of the solitary, and often paralysing, space where you know you have to write, and even want to write, but can’t quite make yourself write, is to actually share the writing. That is a form of what I am doing here. Telling you all, in the great and lovely imaginary space created by the Internet, that I am having a really tough time right now with this writing makes me feel less alone. Less fearful that it won’t ever get written. Because it will. Maybe not today, or not very much today, but if I can just write 300 words, it will be 300 less to write tomorrow, and the next day and so on.

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Writing paralysis is scary, especially when you have Deadlines. And Expectations. But, I have learned – am still learning – that it is not a permanent condition. But, it is unlikely to get any better if I just stay in my head, freaking myself out, and trying to give myself half-hearted pep talks. So, I am sharing this piece of pre-writing in the hope that I will be able to now post this, open the file, and write for a bit. I hope that, if you are stuck too, that you will find a way out of the maze for a bit. Try the pre-writing. Buy a friend a coffee and talk it all through with them. And then sit down and write – even if it feels hard and painful and scary. The only way through it is through it, and we’re all in this boat together.