Book Review: Growing Gills

I usually focus my book reviews on titles that are directly related to ME, but I’m making an exception today because I want to tell you about Growing Gills by Jessica Abel. This book is about creativity, not disease, but it is having a profound impact on how I live with ME.

I first encountered Jessica last year, through serendipity and a series of Twitter links. I took her Creative Focus Workshop because I wanted to figure out how I could write the book that I’ve been lugging around in my brain for a few years. The Workshop helped me focus, I set a daily word count goal, and I was off and running typing.

Until I did what I always do: I pushed too hard, and I got involved in new advocacy work, and my daily word count dropped to zero. I lost all my momentum, and proceeded to berate myself about it for months.

But here’s the thing: the book in my brain won’t go away. I have been in a vicious cycle of setting goals, failing to meet them, feeling like a jerk, ad infinitum. So when Jessica offered a reboot of her Workshop in preparation for her book release, I jumped on it.

And this time through, I actually understood what Jessica has been saying all along:

The secret to getting past your resistance is not about getting tough and forcing yourself through. The secret lies in divining root causes, taking them apart, and building support systems to buttress you against the specific issues you face.

I’m really good at the “getting tough and forcing yourself through,” which means I am also really good at exacerbating my symptoms and making myself sicker. Growing Gills finally finally finally got through my thick head that this is not the way to productivity.

Jessica’s view is that it doesn’t matter what circumstances are limiting your creative work. It’s not about finding more time, because everybody has limited time. It’s not about fear or stress or money, because everybody has issues with these things. The Growing Gills method helps you build a structure that will work for you. This book walks you through thinking about all your creative ideas, choosing one to focus on, and then setting up a schedule and system that will help you make significant progress in whatever time you have.

Growing Gills did raise my hackles in one way, and it was the key to finally understanding it. Jessica sees all personal circumstances as presenting the same kind of challenge, whether it’s a job, kids, or a disability. And this, to be honest, pissed me off. “ME is different,” I cried. “I’m disabled and I can’t get around that! It’s this big unmovable obstacle! How can I possibly write my book?”  It took me awhile to figure out why I had such a strong reaction.

Let’s say someone can only work on her creative project for an hour because of the demands of her job or because of time with her kids. After the creative hour, she does her job or takes care of the kids, and hopefully finds fulfillment in those activities. After my creative hour, I’m done. I don’t get to do some other productive/fulfilling thing. I’m stuck recovering from and thinking about that creative hour. And I’m also stuck with the consequences of choosing that creative hour over basic things like paying bills or cooking a meal. If I have to choose between writing for an hour or cooking a simple dinner, how the hell am I supposed to make that choice and be satisfied with it?

My challenge is not actually time because I have tons of time – way more open time than most people. It’s the energy and capacity that I have in such limited supply. A good analogy might be the parent of a newborn – does that parent snatch a nap between feedings, or spend that time creating art and suffering the extra sleep deprivation? The difference is I don’t have a sweet baby; I have a slavering monster determined to destroy my body.

All this sounds like I am justifying my defensive reaction to the idea that we all face the same trade offs and choices in our creative time. But this time through Jessica’s workshop and reading Growing Gills, I saw it differently.

Yes, I have a huge unwelcome restriction on my time and energy, and I did not choose that restriction. And yet. . . . I do make choices in what to do. I made a choice to get involved in advocacy, and write this blog, and take cello lessons. I make choices about “productivity” and “busy work” and how I spend my energy. Even in the way I deal with recovery time, I can choose to bang my head against the Wall of Nope, or I can choose to sit quietly for a bit and wait for it to fade.

Growing Gills is teaching me that the problem is not that I only have an hour for creative work. It is teaching me that I have to make choices in order to make the hour possible, and sometimes the choice will be to sacrifice that hour for a healthy dinner or a phone call with a friend. It is also teaching me to treat recovery time with the same respect as creative time: it needs to be planned for and then enjoyed without guilt.

Like I said, I truly excel at “getting tough and forcing yourself through.” It is partly how I have achieved what I have so far. But I am trying a new way, now. I’m trying to make choices based on a realistic assessment of my capacity. I’m trying to recognize when a barrier is actually the result of a choice. And I’m trying to be compassionate towards myself around my choices and the circumstances that are beyond my control. As Jessica writes, “Giving yourself crap over not working is how you dispel your creative energy. It’s literally counterproductive.”

If you have creative work but have been unable to make it happen, I highly recommend Growing Gills. It is practical and down to earth, and it is realistic. Whether you are blocked by illness, disability, job, money, fear, or family, this book will help you take an honest look at where you are, where you want to be, and chart a path between the two.

And if you need inspiration? If you need to know it is possible to have ME and still express your creativity? Look no further than BedFest 2017, a virtual concert by people with ME.

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12 Responses to Book Review: Growing Gills

  1. I guess I’ve mastered a lot of those things, and I’ve certainly had to make the hard choices. I AM a novelist – and it HAS taken everything I have to give. I’ve given it gladly and continue to do so as I write the second novel in the Pride’s Children’s trilogy – where a lot of that insight is used for the main character with CFS.

    Are you writing fiction or non-fiction?

    I’m a blogger, but it’s instinct, not craft.

    If you are writing fiction, and there’s anything I can do, me being a pretty determined plotter (not pantser), please don’t hesitate to ask. There are over 400 posts on my blog, and about half of them are about my learning to write, and then to self-publish, as PWC.

    I’m less useful for a person who hates any kind of outlining; but I may be able to point you somewhere when you’re stuck. I’ve certainly had much help from others! The SP community is awesome.


    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Thanks, Alicia! I am also an outliner and not a pantser. The book at the top of the idea pile is non-fiction, but there are some fiction ideas on the list too. I gotta get this nonfiction one out of my head, though. It’s getting too heavy to lug around.

      • Still available for general support if you need it.

        Also, consider whether you’re thinking about approaching a traditional publisher – which can be a long involved process – while you’re writing, or whether you need to start educating yourself on the SP path.

        A bit of thought about where you think you will sell the resulting book lets you learn as you go, and let the options and their details sink in a bit.

  2. C4C – to change to the email address WordPress knows.

  3. Brain not on today. C4C again.

  4. Ron Lakey says:

    Hi Jennie, your account sounded to me like a description of what I face due to ME every day, like you do. I possess creativity as well. But for the reasons you describe, I’ve lost touch with it. That’s one more disappointment for me. I’ve become more practical. I’ve come to accept my circumstances. So I strive to tackle my chores each day and partially fail each day. I have a book to write as well. But I just can’t see myself ever having the energy to write it. I just don’t see how it can happen. Perhaps I could be inspired. You’ve inspired me to comment. So maybe it’s possible. Keep up the good struggle. You make a difference. Peace and strength to you!

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Hi Ron, and welcome! I hope you can find a way to do a little creative work. I know what you mean about trying and failing each day to just get the bare minimum done. There have been long stretches of time where I’ve been more incapacitated than I am now. The Growing Gills method can work for even five minutes at a time. And here’s a post I wrote about DIY brain rehab. There might be some ideas in there that are helpful to you.

  5. Maureen M says:

    Once again Jennie, you are an inspiration — or the places you draw inspiration from are!! After so many years with ME, I find I have become very insular and because of the limits it places on energy do not often look beyond news about, or developments related to, this community. So it was wonderful to be exposed to the world outside, and to have you point out the universal truths in Jessica Abel’s Growing Gills. Your comments and the lessons you are taking from Jessica’s book add value for the ME soul — that we can indeed make time for creativity (which I know I have pushed aside) but also that we need to, and can, make time for ‘recovery time’ without guilt.

    Thanks too to Alicia for introducing me, in your comment, to the word pantser. This certainly describes my preferred writing/thinking style … being pushed to outlining/plotting only in very specific situations — establishing ‘recovery time’ may turn out to be one of them.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      I hope you will check out the book. I needed to go through Jessica’s workshop twice for any of the lessons to start sinking in.

  6. Marial Shea says:

    What a thoughtful review, thank you. I’m just reading Growing Gills myself. I’ve been following Jessica’s work for awhile now and whenever I hear her conduct Q&A’s she responds to questions about chronic illness with such compassion. I so appreciate that she recognizes the challenges of illness even though this is not her issue.

    In her last free web call, for example, she acknowledged that self-care simply has to come first. This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many other “experts” and coaches don’t get this. I worked with a high-end coach a few years back who insisted that if I got my life and creative priorities in order, I would no longer have symptoms –definitely NOT the approach I take in my work as a creativity coach.

    You just won a new subscriber! Glad to be here.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Welcome! So glad to have you, Marial!

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Much like you, I’ve told myself that my creative work was selfish, uninteresting, unnecessary, self-indulgent. It seems like there is excellent overlap between Growing Gills and your own coaching work.

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