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
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.