“You are not a book factory.”
I’m sure when my MFA advisor wrote those words, she was elbow deep in emails from anxious graduate students looking for reassurance that the thousands of dollars they’d sunk into this program wasn’t one of those obvious life mistakes. You know the ones: the cringy, life-altering mistakes even your friends are too embarrassed to sit you down and talk to you about over a microwaved cup of weak breakfast tea they found in the back of their medicine cabinet. Tea doesn’t spoil, right?
“Elle, your writing is shit, and you should’ve been a geologist.”
No one ever told me to be a geologist, and I don’t really like rocks (minerals?), but even a career in the only subject that kicked me off the honor roll seemed like a wiser choice than professional writer. Imposter syndrome must be a prerequisite for both graduate school and a career in the arts. It sticks to you like that gloopy muk demon from Fern Gully, dripping tar onto everything you create until you can’t see the story anymore, just the doubt.
Last year, I’d written about five doubt-slicked thesis chapters when my daily word count plummeted to zero. Yes, zero. And it stayed there. I stared at my manuscript like a lost, time-traveling explorer wondering why someone wrote this mess, what did it even mean, and what was I going to do with it?
Feeling student-loan-interest-rate pressure, I scoured the midnight internet for tips and tricks from successful Twitter writers on how to increase my word count, maximize my productivity, and turn this expensive life mistake into a win. I stumbled across self-help titles like that spirit-breaking 5,000 Words A Day book and keyword-riddled blogs with writing tips written in ALL CAPS. I’ve grabbed a few of my favorites below, and I suggest you read them as if a jacked anthropomorphic pencil is shouting at you. At least, that’s how I heard them:
- YOU SHOULD BE WRITING
- STOP THINKING; START WRITING
- DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT
- JUST GET UP EARLY AND WRITE
- JUST STAY UP LATE AND WRITE
- NO EXCUSES; START WRITING
- MAXIMIZE YOUR TIME & WRITE WHEN YOU SHIT
Listen, we all need motivation. Hell, even I wrote a blog post about writing during those “lost moments” like waiting in line, stuck at a doctor’s appointment, or, yes, while pooping. These tips aren’t bad. They’re just tools, but like every tool, their impact depends entirely upon the user.
Enter the Oppression Olympics: Special Writers Edition.
If you’re not familiar with the Oppression Olympics, it’s a term used to describe the competition between two or more people or groups to decide who’s life is suckier. I’m not kidding.
I’m not a fan of the Oppression Olympics. Spouting self-righteous variations of Nike’s Just Do It because someone out there may have it worse than you ultimately silences people who need help, support, and community. Identifying our differences, listening to marginalized folks, and practicing intersectional feminism is critical. Creating a virtual shouting match about who has it the worst but is still doing better than you—you lazy piece of shit—helps literally no one. In fact, it hurts.
As a chronically ill person, I battle with productivity vs. pain. I never feel I’m doing enough. When my disease flares, I stutter in choppy chunks, skidding against rock bottom until I crash instead of hitting the breaks early. I don’t feel I deserve the time, rest, and grace I need to navigate my chronic illness, and the Oppression Olympics adds to this.
Online, I see people objectively sicker than I am literally managing an empire, hustling for that paycheck, and slinging those side gigs while still having enough time to pose in desaturated photos by their infinity pool. How do they do it? Do they have access to resources I don’t have (probably) like childcare, affordable healthcare, and financial support? Or is it true that all my excuses are just that, excuses, and I should push myself beyond rock bottom into the depths of productivity Hell where every breath is manufactured and monetized?
I mean, haven’t you heard of that bestselling author, lawyer, supermom, and school board president who wrote their romance novel at 2 am after she tucked her twelve breastfed children into bed? Isn’t that so inspirational?
Or is it accusational? After all, if this single mother of twelve (did I mention she also runs a rescue for high-energy dogs?) can do it, Why. Can’t. You. Why are you crying at your computer instead of writing? You think you’re in pain? You think you’re tired? That’s just an excuse! And excuses don’t write books; words do!
Maybe it’s time to face facts: you’re just not a good writer.
Throughout my two years in graduate school, I balanced a chronic illness, a job loss, a divorce, a pandemic, and a suffocating depression. But these were no excuses for why I’d hit a wall. Other students had it worse, and their books were simply better.
Or, at least, that’s what I told myself as I tearfully wrote an “I can’t do this email” to my thesis advisor. I had a 4.0 but still felt like I was drowning, like everything I’d handed in before this moment was smoke and mirrors. Attending graduate school was one of those cringy obvious life mistakes, but I could fix it by jumping ship now.
After I hit send, my shoulders relaxed, and I sank into the warm, gloopy embrace of that imposter syndrome shadow. Confident my thesis advisor would earnestly agree everything I’d ever written was absolute trash, I moved my work to an archive folder on my computer and opened a pint of brownie batter ice cream. She responded before my spoon hit the chocolate bottom, and I was unprepared for what she said:
“You are not a book factory.”
I read those words again and again and again. Sure, the generous response also contained paragraphs of anecdotes, curated quotes from famous authors, and a motherly amount of unexpected kindness, but it was those six words that stuck.
“You are not a book factory.”
I’ve told the rest of this story before. I graduated from my MFA program last year with a weirdly prophetic but finished book, a perfect 4.0, and many new, supportive writer friends. However, it wasn’t talent or even grit that got me through graduate school. It was grace.
We need more grace in the writing world. People are not book factories. Motivational quotes have their place (and sometimes that “done is better than perfect” quote literally gets me through a deadline), but we need caring quotes too, forgiving quotes, and quotes that acknowledge not just the writing but also the writer.
If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that our knee-jerk reaction to others (and ourselves) shouldn’t be judgment but empathy. If you’re pushing back deadlines, asking for extensions, falling short on that word count, or lacking the drive to just sit down and write, I give you permission for a soft landing. Rock bottom isn’t lonely, it’s crowded, and we’re all just figuring out how to rebuild one step at a time.
So here, let me give you your first brick. It’s a good one. Perfect for a stable foundation:
This is what we need to remember and thank you for doing so. Sometimes life does become too overwhelming and writing suffers. Be nice to yourself. Do something else you love, do something mindless. Sometimes that kickstarts your writing brain again and words just spill onto the page. Thank you.
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