I’ve been in this cycle lately where I compare myself to other people, which inevitably sends me into a depression, which then shoots me into a “not to worry, I’ll just work even harder!” and then into a depression again. I have the straight-A-student mindset (curse) where I need to know where I stand in the “class.” I organize my dreams like a to-do list in my planner, as if once I achieve them I will graduate into something else, or win at this writing thing or win life in general.
I know intellectually that every writing career looks different, and that we aren’t in competition, but emotionally I get fixated on moments where I fell short or was not ready for an opportunity or didn’t follow up and be loud about what I wanted or just plain failed. And then that failure and self-loathing become my entire personality for a bit. (Sorry to all my friends.) And those fixations make me blind to anything I actually have accomplished or to the potential of the current moment.
As a way to try to break this cycle and to put moments of my life in a little perspective, I’ve started a spreadsheet called “My Life’s Work.”
On one tab I am listing all my short fiction, any awards or publications each story has received, word count, and year (sometimes a guess-imate) when it was written. I’m also including any stories I still have a full draft of that I shelved permanently, maybe never submitted for publication at all, that will never see the light of day again. They live on in the spreadsheet as a lovely grey row – because writing those failed stories were part of my education. Many of them I wrote as a baby writer, often with little to no real mentorship or community, and so my own words were teaching me what I knew. There are 44 stories so far on the list.
On another tab I’m listing all the full-length plays I’ve written, which are easier to track in their lumbering size. Outside of productions, awards, readings, etc, I try to list where I wrote it and what year. There are two grey-ed out plays on this list – one that was terrible and could never work (I took one of the characters from that and put him in another play), and the other I’m turning into a novella. So nothing is wasted, but I can see how those failed plays taught me some hard lessons. I’ve color-coded the others too – ones I think are actually solid, ones I wrote with Rogue Artists Ensemble (my home theatre company), ones that are “eh,” and ones I think are still in their development “has potential” phase. At this moment I’ve written 18 full length plays. Maybe greying out only two of them is being overly generous, lol.
Other tabs are starting to collect short plays (which are, for me, harder to trace and harder to remember), screen and audio and mixed media stuff, and directing.
I think I was drawn to doing this because I stopped journaling years ago. I need a way to reflect and process how I’ve spent my creative life. The narrative in my head can easily twist into “I just threw away the last three years – I did nothing!” but when I look at the spreadsheet I can actually see what I was actively working on, what led to a triumph the following year, or what ended in failure but what led to something better. Being able to step back and actually look at a map like this, to try to see the bigger picture and shape of my energy, has already helped calm me down and give myself some GRACE.
There is a danger, of course, of something like this just reinforcing the habit of straight-A-student syndrome, of racking up the numbers and comparing them to other people’s life work that I can’t and never will see the depth of. But I intend and will work to keep it as a tool for Grace, a tool to understand how I traveled to this moment, so I can best prepare and celebrate the work ahead.
I understand that this is very career and creative project-focused (but this IS a blog about writing after all), and does not (yet) include other life things, like the goings-on of family and friends and travel and day jobs and hobbies. And to best think through those things, I’ll probably need to start journaling again.
Your “life’s work” is never just your actual work, of course. But I’ve started here because, like any little drama kid, I’ve marked phases of my life in whatever-play-I-was-working-on-at-the-time. This is how life makes sense to me because it’s how I’ve demarcated and oriented myself in time since I was 14.
Your “work” is not all there is of you, but I think for a writer or creator it is a part of you; you can trace your growth and sadness and curiosities as you trace the stories you were working on at any given moment. Even without writing a memoir, I’ve written a memoir.
This exercise might not be helpful for everyone. But I can guarantee, if you’re feeling like you haven’t done enough, haven’t accomplished enough, that you are lightyears behind everyone else, you are probably ignoring huge chapters of your story. Maybe you need to take a step back and give yourself some grace.
Here’s to a life’s work that is never done until it is, well, done.