What You Were Born to Do

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If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.

—Lord Byron

My senior year in college I stopped writing completely. That was in 1999 and I didn’t write again until 2006. Those seven years were among some of the most unhappy years of my life. I wasn’t just depressed, I was frustrated and itchy and couldn’t get any relief. It was like my mind was a horrible wool sweater I was forced to wear in the middle of July.

Not writing was extremely painful.

When I’ve told others about how awful I feel when I don’t write, many don’t get it. Some people have said I’m being melodramatic. In fact, I’ve even seen that attitude within the larger writing community. It’s a dismissive kind of energy that crops up in response to the artist’s claim that they must create or suffer severe consequences.

And maybe, because writers are artists, we are a bit more intense than the average person. We say that if we don’t write we feel like we’re going to die. Or that we have no choice in the matter, we didn’t choose to write, we were born to write. We try to explain that when we stop writing, it feels like we’ve stopped breathing.

Yes, these are heavy statements to make. But we make them because that’s what it feels like to us.

Our experience is valid.

Every person is born with unique gifts. Some people are born nurturers and dream of becoming a mother or father. Some are born builders and grow up to be engineers. Writers are born to create worlds that we bring to life for others. We are storytellers, and in order to be healthy, we must tell stories. It’s not something we do, it’s something we are.

Think of it this way: Have you ever seen a German Shepherd in action? These are dogs that are born to service. As police dogs, search-and-rescue, or seeing-eye dogs, if a German Shepherd is in service to someone, they are fulfilled. They have been bred to intelligently interact with people. So if you have a German Shepherd who gets to work and play with humans enough, you’ll find a very happy dog.

What if you stuck a German Shepherd in a crate 24 hours a day with no work and no play?

That’s a writer who is not writing.

If you are born storyteller and you’re not telling stories, your mental health will suffer. You will struggle with a constant depression that ranges from low-key to full-blown. Instead of admiration, you will be seized with fits of envy when you read writers you love. When you think about the future and what you will have done with your life, you’ll feel desperate, scared, and cynical.

These feelings are not a true vision of the way things are. They are skewed perceptions based on your deep, inner unhappiness. And that unhappiness is stemming from the fact that you’re not writing.

If you are in the grip of these types of feelings, you’ll have this little nagging ranting voice in your head that tells you that you’ll never be a writer, whatever you write is shit, and you might as well give it up before you even begin. This is the voice of your Inner Critic. It is the voice of your ego, which is terrified of you making any changes or taking any risks at all. It is not the voice of your heart. It is not the truth of your essence as a human being.

The voice of your truth is quiet and still, and it is patient. No matter how many years go by before you sit down and pick up the pen again, that voice that comes from your heart remains and waits for you.

It’s okay to be scared to start writing again. It’s okay to have no idea how to write a novel and start one anyway. You don’t need to be subscribed to all the best writing email lists, and adept at all the different forms of social media for writers. You don’t need any “expert” to tell you how to do what you already, deep inside, know how to do.

You are a born storyteller. All you have to do is take the risk of opening your own heart. All you have to do is tell a story.

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26 Comments

  • Reply potentlanguage 29 August, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Thank you! So well said.

  • Reply Steph Shangraw 29 August, 2013 at 9:56 am

    This is wonderful, and I wholeheartedly… agree? That’s not strong enough. Empathize? Identify? Being unable to write is maddening. I’m prone to episodes of depression even when I am writing; I know it’s going to be a very bad one when the stories start to go quiet. Under any other conditions, I must and will write. I’ve lost “friends” who couldn’t understand that imperative drive, and don’t particularly miss them. I’d much rather associate with people who are intensely creative, in whatever form, who understand that hunger. I used to call myself Shaharazad in some places online: I tell stories to stay alive in a very real way.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 29 August, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      I think you hit the nail on the head with this comment. It is SO important to have supportive people in our lives who “get it.” The intensely creative ones are definitely the ones for us.

  • Reply Setsu 29 August, 2013 at 10:14 am

    I always forget how important it is to write. It’s liberating and therapeutic and costs nothing but time. The comparison to a service dog in a box — couldn’t have said it better.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 29 August, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      Thank you. That’s totally how I feel when I don’t write. A sad dog penned up with no friends.

  • Reply JD 29 August, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Great post. I stopped writing in my twenties. Now I’m in my forties. What I’m writing now are newsletters not fun creative stuff, and I really don’t know how to get past my inertia to get going again.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 29 August, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Just stopped by your blog and am now following you. Also shot you an email 🙂

  • Reply Gina Rinelli 29 August, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    This… actually had me crying by the end. Beautiful.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 29 August, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      What an incredible compliment. Thank you!!!

  • Reply Anthony Zullo 29 August, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    I just started writing again after about seven years. While it didn’t hurt me mentally like you say, I do feel really fulfilled when I do write. It’s like I’m adding a piece back to myself. That inner critic is quite evil though.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      My inner critic is so evil…and usually takes the face of someone I know in real life. Which is even more creepy!

  • Reply Ginny Love Moore 29 August, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    I’m with Gina. Made me cry. Thank you for your words of encouragement. As always, you inspire me… You make me proud to own “writer” as part of my identity. Cheers, Laudable Lauren! 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      Thank you so much for this. Cheers to your beautiful and kind comments, which always keep me going!

  • Reply David Bates 29 August, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    It’s one of the more bewildering contradictions of the writing life is that many who were born to write often must be prodded along to actually do it. I remember a writers’ conference I attended a few years ago. It was the first workshop of the day, a drizzly Saturday morning. 8 a.m. The speaker opened with: “Some of you must have had to get up a lot earlier than you normally do to drive here from out of town … how many drove 10 miles? 20 miles? More than 50 miles?” By the end of this, most of the hands in the room are in the air. And then she says: “So if you love writing so much, why are you here? Why aren’t you home, writing?”

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 1:44 pm

      I totally agree with this. Writing is one of the most important things in my life, but I have ALWAYS had trouble doing it. To this day, I drag my feet whenever ti comes to sitting down and actually writing. And I’ve met so many other writers who are the same way. I really wonder why it is like that? Another creative mystery to explore…

  • Reply Constance Burris 29 August, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree! I am a born writer. I’ve tried not to write, it didn’t work. If I don’t do it, I’m not happy and life sucks. I don’t know if I’ll ever be successful at it, but just knowing i’m doing a little bit of something everyday to become successful makes me extremely happy.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 1:44 pm

      You said: “If I don;t do it, I’m not happy and life sucks.” That is it in a nutshell for me, as well.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 31 August, 2013 at 2:46 am

    I agree about the force within that makes you need to work creatively, but I think that can take many forms – and still be satisfying. I would think that because, as I child I wrote poetry and stories, and danced ballet (very seriously), as an adult I became a sculptor for twenty happy years. I then went back to school and became a research scientist – this creative project work gave me as much satisfaction as making sculpture. In the last twelve years I have been writing fiction (and some non-fiction). This too makes me happy. So I think there are many outlets for that urgent creative need that you describe so well.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      I agree. There are a few writers in my writing group who also have other creative outlets. One of our writers is a painter, and one a filmmaker. I think these added creative outlets contribute so much to one’s rich inner creative life. Thank you for mentioning this!

  • Reply Angela Brown 31 August, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    THANK YOU Lauren! and very well written piece. I have struggled so hard with even the consideration that I may (one day) call myself a writer — during a block that has lasted over a decade. I used to use writing to connect to my emotions and after trauma in my late teens I just stopped writing because and I didn’t want to feel those emotions. It has been torture. And even though I found a way to get by (writing without my heart and as a job for other people/causes) I know I am supposed to write creatively and personally, and I now realize there is no one who I have to ask permission to do so but myself. (and finally I asked and I said yes!)

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      I love that you asked yourself and got a big YES! It sounds like you are really owning the role of writer. Keep writing on strong!

  • Reply Melissa Janda 1 September, 2013 at 5:25 am

    I was that miserable German Shepherd before I finally discovered what I was born to do. I’ve even described that time in my life as a sense of being caged or trapped so I can totally relate to the analogy. I haven’t written anything new in over two months (just editing), and I’ve been feeling really down, okay, depressed. I’ve been thinking there was something physically wrong with me, like a heart ailment, perhaps. Now I know why. A writer who doesn’t write is like a bird who doesn’t sing. Thanks for putting a spotlight on it, Lauren. This is exactly what I needed to read today.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      I thought there was something physically wrong with me as well when I wasn’t writing. But then I noticed how much better I felt when I started writing again. Even if I wasn’t happy with the quality of my writing, the act of writing itself was enough to change the way I felt about my entire life. Thank you for your comment, because it was exactly what I needed to read!

  • Reply Jon 3 September, 2013 at 5:11 am

    How do you do it every time Lauren?? You capture the very essence of what writing is all about in each and every post.

    My Other Half always says I get moody and jumpy if I haven’t written for a while. She forces me into the spare room and doesn’t let me come out until I’ve written something, no matter what. True story 😀

    And now I’ve started thinking about the fact that I didn’t write for a whole week while on holiday, I can’t get the itch out of my head. It won’t go until I get the time to put in some edits on the novel.

    Thanks for the inspiration (again!)

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 September, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      Thank you SO MUCH for these kind words. I’m so happy I could inspire you. And hopefully the edits are going well! Editing is probably my least favorite part of the process 🙂

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