What to Do When You Feel Stuck
The middle of a project is the worst, I’ve decided.
In movies, the middle is the most exciting—all action and intrigue, surprises and drama.
But when you’re the protagonist—the person actually fighting the battles, dealing with the surprises and mysteries and missteps—it’s not as much fun. You don’t know the ending. You don’t know if your efforts will get you where you hope to go.
You don’t know if any of this is going to work.
That’s how I feel, in the middle of developing a book about going for dreams. The thrill of beginning is gone and the end feels too far away, if not impossible. I wonder if I should have started this at all, if perhaps instead of being one of the best things I’ve ever done, it’ll turn out to be the worst.
Have I wasted all this time and money? Am I the waste? Maybe I should have never stepped out from the fray to do something on my own. Maybe I don’t have what it takes.
I spent the first year and a half of the project interviewing 120 people about their dreams. It was one of the best times of my life.
That part is over. The interviews are over and now it’s just me and Florida and my IKEA desk and 800 pages of interview transcriptions that I need to turn into a book, one that weaves 120 different stories into a cohesive whole.
While the people who make up those 800 pages made my life better, the 800 pages are crushing me.
What once seemed so clear about this book is now ambiguous. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I have no idea how I am going to turn these 800 pages into a book. My original plan for the way to outline it and tell these stories doesn’t seem right anymore, because somewhere along the way, the stories changed me and my thoughts on dreams.
The book I started out to write is not going to be the book I end up with. I have changed; but I have no idea how to change this book.
I stop and look around and realize I am in a hole.
I feel like the only option is to crawl back to where I started, leaving the 800 pages buried behind me, taking shame as the only souvenir from the journey.
But the more I try to go back, the deeper the hole gets.
I try sitting still.
I stop sinking. The hole stops getting deeper. It lets me sit. It lets me breathe.
With not much else to do down there, I pick up the 800 pages and start reading. I let the voices and the experiences of these dreamers and doers keep me company.
I rest. I get a puppy and plant a garden. I read. I think.
A single word pops up, one that the people in the 800 pages whisper to me, something the puppy and the garden underline: learn.
What if, instead of turning back, I learn forward?
What if I turn my face to the dirt and move it around? Instead of letting circumstances push me deeper, what if I dig deeper myself? What if learning more helps get me out of this?
I open my fingers wide and press my hand against the dirt before me like I’m signing the first cave drawing. I start gliding the dirt around and remember that my hands can still move things.
I sign up for a Stanford creative writing class online.
I make first attempts at writing parts of the book. I share the parts for feedback. The dirt kicks back on my face.
It destroys me.
The hole gets deeper. This time, I’m the one in control. But it still hurts. A lot.
I tell myself that even if this lands me in the middle of the earth—a total failure, lost in a hole she dug for herself—at least I’ll be so far down no one will notice.
I keep writing, digging, digging, digging, digging—faster, bigger handfuls of dirt, manic. I look forward and there is still an endless wall of dirt in front of me. I look back and see the light is gone in that direction, too. I’ve reached the middle where the light has disappeared on both sides. It’s so dark and I can’t see a thing.
I stop and have a good cry. Why am I doing this to myself?
I keep digging.
Every week I read comments on my writing in the Stanford class, and for some reason the words of love evaporate like water on a hot stove—it’s the critiques that perch on my bones and whisper, “See you’re not good at this. No one wants to read what you write. See!? You’re wasting your time.”
The feedback is helpful. It’s everything I signed up for; it’s exactly what I want. I want to get better. I want to be refined by fire. I knew it would hurt. I didn’t know just how much.
The class makes me cry every week. I’m sharing my writing at a time when I don’t believe in my writing anymore—at a time when I don’t believe in myself anymore but am trying anyway. It’s a brutal combination.
But then, four weeks into the class, I find myself writing, reading feedback and refining—and suddenly, I know what I need to do.
I force my face into the dirt and inhale.
Eight hours later I have an outline for the book.
I’m surprised when no dirt fills my lungs. There’s air. Light. I’m somewhere new, somewhere I don’t recognize, my head above ground.
What I thought was a hole was actually a tunnel—a passage to somewhere better than I’d ever imagined, a place accessible only by falling, failing, digging and learning.