The Overwhelm

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.

By the time I get to Thursday, I will have spent an entire two weeks without a single day to myself. There are all sorts of reasons for that, mostly teaching (I’ve been holding student conferences, which sometimes means meeting with students for five hours a day) and Boskone, which was a wonderful convention but also exhausting. I have all sorts of things I need to get done, most of them by the end of the month, and I’m simply overwhelmed with work. I suppose the good thing is that it’s work I want to do: teaching and writing, mostly. But that doesn’t help much when you’re feeling the overwhelm.

That’s what I call it, the overwhelm. It feels like a place I’m in the middle of, as well as a state of mind. It’s a place where I haven’t gotten enough sleep in a long time, and so I’m tired and a bit despondent, and wondering why I’m doing any of this anyway. It’s a place where I doubt myself.

It’s a place where I don’t want to talk to people anymore. Where I just want to curl up in bed, eat almonds and chocolate, and read murder mysteries. Or watch Murder, She Wrote, one episode after another. Anything having to do with people killing other people, and then a clever detective (preferably female) figuring out how and why. I suppose it’s a misanthropic impulse, as well as a sign of empathetic burnout. The last thing I want to do is feel anymore. I want clean, clear rationality, a sifting of clues.

But of course I can’t do that. Tonight I have to prepare for class tomorrow, and I have emails to send. People people people — it’s all about people, isn’t it? It’s all making contact, either in person or electronically. And the truth is that I love people — I find them fascinating. If I didn’t, I couldn’t be a writer. I love teaching: my students are smart and interesting and funny (sometimes unintentionally so), my graduate students are brilliant. But people are overwhelming, for an introvert.

I’ve been an introvert since I was a child. When I was a teenager, I use to have a fantasy: that I could go away and live in the forest, in a castle, and be a sorceress. That would be my job description, sorceress. I would have a magical mirror, in which I could see whatever was happening, all over the world. But I wouldn’t have to participate. I could just stay in my castle . . . I suppose it’s a classic fantasy, for an introvert.

Sometimes I wish I could just write — live in a small house in the forest and write books, stories, poems. That’s the more realistic version of being a sorceress and living in a castle, I suppose. I would still have the internet: that would be my magic mirror. I could watch the world. But I know people who’ve done that, just written, and it’s very, very hard. Hard to eat, hard to pay rent. Not many of us have the luxury of cutting ourselves off from the world.

So what should I do? The only thing to do, really, is to become the forest, become the castle. To do what I have to, participate to the extent I must, but create a space within myself where I can be calm, where I can rest. Where I’m not so worried about getting up, getting where I need to go, that I set two alarm clocks in the morning. I mean, I still need to do that in real life. But there must be an imaginary life I can create where it’s not necessary. And I do have to get to Thursday, when hopefully I can rest just a little, before I start the mad scramble of trying to catch up.

Sometimes I think life shouldn’t be quite so overwhelming, but that’s what happens when you want to be a teacher and a writer. If I were trying to do less, it would all be easier, so really I have only myself to blame. Still, it’s a hard place to be, the overwhelm. Especially when you can’t see when you’re going to get out of it. (Thursday, I tell myself. On Thursday, I’ll get some rest.)

The truth is that I didn’t even want to write this, because that’s more communication, with more people (although you are lovely people, who read this). But I haven’t written a blog post for a while (and this is why), so I thought I should. And also, it’s good sometimes to talk about the things that aren’t working, that aren’t the way you want them to be. I want to do everything I’m doing, but I don’t want to be overwhelmed by it, and I want more than five hours of sleep a night, and I want to be able to do laundry, and shop for groceries. I want to write new stories . . .

This is what it feels like, in the overwhelm. It feels exhausting, and anxious, and filled with doubt. Will I ever be the writer I want to be? Will I ever be able to do the things I want to?

And then, because I’m a big girl, I look at my to-do list and think, one step at a time. Do the things, cross them off, it will get done. Have dinner, rest for a little while, get back to it. Sometimes you just have to keep your head down and do the work. That’s what it’s like in the overwhelm, but there is another side. I remember what it was like, that summer I went to Budapest and lived alone for six weeks, and wandered around the city, and took Hungarian classes. I remember being blissfully happy, waking up in the morning to birdsong in the park and sunlight through the windows. That exists, and I’ll get back there. In the meantime, I’m going to do the work, hoping it will get me to my goals. As, honestly, even writing this blog post has.

Illustration by Charles Robinson

(This is future me in my castle in the forest. I have invisible gardeners, because of course I do. The illustration is by Charles Robinson.)

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16 Responses to The Overwhelm

  1. Duncan Saunders greenmanharper says:

    I, for one, am so delighted that you found the energy to write this entry about not having energy and wishing for a castle fit for introverts that still allows one to survive in the real world.
    Your writing is so good, that if you just posted your grocery list, I think I would be happy to read it.

    Write when you can, for you give riches of images and ideas.


  2. Sofia says:

    Thank you for this, Dora. Don’t know if you saw this but I clocked my hours last year and… I feel you.

  3. ctanwriter says:

    Oh goodness I’m feeling this right now. The best thing for me about starting to have some financial success at my writing is it finally gives me a justification that most people will accept and understand about why I have to go be in a room by myself to play with my invisible friends. But even though I’ve tried to lock myself in a room to meet my latest deadline the past week has demanded so much interaction. Today I had four conference calls…! (No, five!) Take the time to take care of yourself Dora, maintaining your healthy introverted inner life is worth it even when life seems to demand otherwise.

  4. helen says:

    Oh, I’m sorry you’re in the overwhelm. And even if you know it’s not for ever, sometimes it’s hard to take the long view all the time. Teaching is a terrible job for ebbing and flowing. I hope that you are feeling a bit better already. šŸ™‚

    It’s nice of you to take the time to post. I love the idea of becoming the house and the forest, and I love that picture by Charles Robinson. If you have a tiny minute, do find his illustrations for The Secret Garden, I’m sure they’ll help too.

  5. Martin says:

    ‘This, too shall pass…’ But I propose a ‘what if’. I notice in your magnificent posts that you often refer to yourself as a teacher first and a writer second (twice in this post). What if that was reversed – that you refer to yourself as a writer first and a teacher second – might that help to alleviate some of the pressure you feel from teaching (in your own mind at least); the ‘real’ world notwithstanding?

    Just a thought….

    • Actually, I think it’s the other way around. If I think of myself primarily as a writer, I will blame myself for not writing more. If I acknowledge that I am primarily a teacher, that teaching is my primary source of income and that’s what I have to spend most of my time doing, I’m easier on myself and allow myself to put writing second, for now — as it has to be. I don’t have the luxury of prioritizing writing, for reasons that have to do with food and rent. If I accept that, it’s much easier to deal with my schedule.

      • Martin says:

        Well, I’m an old, retired ‘land use consultant’ (i.e., private side urban planner) but even tho’ I well remember the days of overwhelm – long gone now (along with most of the $$).- I reckon my perspective has become skewed a bit after years of having much more time on my hands than a lot of other folks.

        Anyhow, I wish you well – please, just remember to breathe….

  6. David says:

    As a fellow introvert university professor who is also feeling The Overwhelm right now, thank you! Reading this tonight helped more than I can say.

    Hang in there!

  7. Beautiful … I share that same dream of living in the forest. Except I would also paint, as well as write, and it would hopefully be a small castle … in France. Thanks for sharing these thoughts… I think you’ve articulated what so many of us feel in our hearts, at times!

  8. maerykrose says:

    I like that idea of being the forest and the castle yourself so they are always carried with you. And getting more sleep. I am really trying to prioritize that one as it would make the rest easier if I wasn’t sleep walking through it.

  9. Oh, my. I get it. I’ve felt the same way, dozens of times–that’s a nice twist on the idea, though: to be the forest, be the hideaway. Be the writer! Hang in there.

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