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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

I've done it again; I've way oversubscribed myself. I'm going to a two-week writing residency at The Vermont Studio Center and I've given myself approximately one thousand things to do while I'm there. While I'm looking forward to having uninterrupted time to dedicate to my work and am planning to be uber-productive, maybe finishing three books in two weeks isn't exactly realistic.

This is what I do. I write myself a to-do list ten miles long then feel defeated when I only scratch a few things off. I set myself up to be disappointed in myself. No matter how much I accomplish, with two jobs, two volunteer jobs, and three books (four if you count a poetry collection I recently sent out) underway, there's always so much more to be done. This is the work of an artist, which never ends. I can never shut off from thinking about writing - a new idea, fixing something I've written, something I want to write. Because I'm juggling so many projects, even when I get something done on one, the others are beckoning, taunting me with what I haven't finished. Instead of feeling proud that, this week, I wrote a new essay, wrote a draft introduction to an anthology I'm editing, revised and submitted a poetry book I haven't touched in like a year, and workshopped an excerpt of my memoir with my writing group, I glare at the words "submit stories" on the ol' to-do list, and lament that I haven't touched them all week. I feel guilty for what I've neglected, instead of proud of what I've done.

My therapist and I discussed this week setting realistic goals for myself. I know I need to distinguish for what is reasonable to complete in the time I have, and what are longer term goals. "Finish three books" is bound to result in disappointment, especially since at least one of those books is going to need significant more work and I've even moved on to Round II for a large grant to complete it in the next year. It doesn't need to be done tomorrow, and it won't be. I can set the goal of revising the sections I've workshopped with my writers groups recently, read through the book and identify revisions, even if I don't get to them all right away.

It seems to me that women in particular tend to have ridiculously high expectations of themselves and over-commit. I have a hard time setting boundaries and saying no, so I often end up taking on too much. Somehow, it usually works out in the end, but I've probably caused myself unnecessary stress and anxiety.

I had my first panic attack at twelve. I was in what was called Industrial Technology class and was basically Woodshop. We were building bridges of plastic straws in teams. I wasn't feeling well. I hadn't really been feeling well all day, but, now, I felt outright sick. The class was right after lunch, where I had had to perform in a trio to promote the play I was in, Annie. I was playing one of three Boylan sisters and we sang "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile." I had a solo and I was nervous. It was a little out of my deep range and everyone in the cafeteria was looking at me. My voice cracked. People laughed. I was mortified.

Minutes later, in Industrial Tech, my throat felt constricted, my stomach bubbled, and I felt like the room was spinning. A boy in my straw bridge group mocked my singing and I coughed until I cried. When I couldn't stop either, the teacher sent me to the nurse's office and she called my mom. The nurse asked what I had on my plate and I listed off the school play, hockey, soccer, piano lessons..."That sounds like a lot," she said. "Maybe you should see if you can cut back a bit. You seem stressed." She told my mom that I'd be fine after some rest. I threw up on the car ride home and Mom stopped to get me gingerale. I took a long nap and felt like a different person when I woke up. I quit piano lessons after that.

In order to maximize and manage my time while I'm at the residency, I've made a few commitments to myself: delete social media apps from phone, only check email and student messages once a day so I don't obsess over replying right away all day long, set goals for the time I'm going to spend on one project in a day and alternate/balance projects so I don't get bored or stuck. Submit stories or revise my memoir in the a.m. after my run/yoga, reread all submissions for A Tether to This World: Mental Health Recovery Stories, an anthology I'm editing (there's still time to submit!), and email acceptance messages in the afternoon, respond to student messages before dinner. Read before bed (it helps me relax). If I stick to that schedule, I should be able to get a lot done. And I'll do my best to convince myself that that's all I can do, and not set impossible standards for myself. When I look back, I can (hopefully) recognize all that I've done, not just all that I haven't.

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