The Balancing Act

In the last weekend of April I went to the Nanaimo Spring Writes Festival to attend a creative nonfiction workshop by Angie Abdou (Between, The Bone Cage). I decided I had enough energy in me to drive the hour north, attend the workshop, and then drive home again in Friday afternoon traffic.
The workshop itself was fantastic—more of a conversation than a workshop. Abdou talked about her writing process for the CNF book she’s writing that’s supposed to come out next year. It was a relatively small group, and there was some good discussion of how we write, and how we write CNF in particular, as well as tips about the trade itself, like getting an agent and what they do for you.
I felt like I was there at just the right point in my writing process, because much of what Abdou said not only resonated deeply with me, but also applied specifically to one of my works in progress. My biggest takeaway from the workshop was the importance of having a strong ‘voice’ in your writing (which can be captured by doing timed writings), and of telling a good story using compelling scenes.
Of course, driving in Friday afternoon traffic was not fun, and by the time I got home I was exhausted. The next morning I slept in until 10am, which is par for the course for me after such a busy day.
While I knew I’d stretched my limits by going to a single workshop, I also felt I wasn’t getting the most out of the festival by just parachuting in and out. There’s a case to be made for immersing yourself entirely in a writing event, staying in place for a few days to attend readings, lunches, workshops, etc.
This past weekend I attended the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC) Society conference, which has been going on for 13 years. This is the third year I’ve attended—the first year in Victoria, last year in Banff, and this year at UBC. This weekend’s conference was particularly short, with an evening dinner and literary cabaret (anyone who signed up could read publicly for 3 mins), followed the next day by a flurry of panel discussions and workshops.
After my Nanaimo experience, I decided that I wanted to wring as much as I could out of my CNFC weekend. I decided to attend the Friday evening dinner, I signed up to read for the literary cabaret, I attended all of the panel discussions and the workshop I’d signed up for, and I even made small talk with fellow writers over lunch.
It was fantastic. I met new people, and I got some positive comments on the piece I read publicly. Listening to Deborah Campbell (A Disappearance in Damascus) and Joy Kogawa (Gently to Nagasaki), I learned a ton not just about writing, but about being a writer in the world and how we translate our experience into words that others may want to read, about how we make a difference in the world, and how even the most experienced and accomplished writers can despair about their writing from time to time. Andreas Schroeder also gave a good talk about the personal essay, which appears to be dying out in creative writing programs. Happily, I was able to share that it certainly isn’t dying out in science writing—many science writing pieces are actually personal essays, and it’s one of the CNF forms I find most comfortable to write in.
But by the time Saturday evening came around, I was officially done. I felt as though someone had run me over with an asphalt roller and squashed me as flat as a pancake. There was a Saturday dinner for those who were staying on until Sunday, but I couldn’t handle the noise in the pub where they were eating, so just got a burger to go.
Now it’s Tuesday and I’m still mentally and physically exhausted. I’ve spent half of each day in bed since I returned, and feel like I need to head back to bed pretty soon today.
You may think it’s odd that a conference would have such an effect on me. Perhaps you’ve attended something similar and felt a bit tired from being an introvert out in public, but you’ve recovered fairly quickly. Or you’re an extrovert, and you feel energized by attending such a conference.
In my case, a variety of factors contribute to make these events tiring.
Anxiety is the big one. When I’m in an unfamiliar place and have to be somewhere at a specific time, my anxiety goes through the roof as I make sure I know where I have to be and how to get there. I must have checked the transit schedules at least 3-4 times a day before I arrived in Vancouver, trying to imprint into my head the bus I could take to get to UBC from downtown.
Anxiety also makes me worry that my watch alarm will malfunction and I won’t wake up in time to attend a session. So I’m up at 3am, checking my phone to make sure the time matches what’s on my watch, to set my mind at ease that the alarm will go off at the right time.
As much as I try to maintain my daily routines, they get somewhat thrown off when I’m away from home. I get anxiety about forgetting to take my medication. Which leads to me, in the middle of the night again, standing in the bathroom reminding myself that yes, I have taken my medication, and for god’s sake, could you please get some sleep?!
Then there’s the actual conference itself. Anxiety makes it difficult to converse with other attendees without feeling as though I’m coming across as a complete idiot.
Anxiety also makes public speaking difficult—a difficulty many people share. And though I had no problems as a professor standing in front of a room of 20, 50, or 100 students, I don’t have that skill anymore. My anxiety skyrockets at having to speak in front of a group, and I feel like I’m going to be sick. Luckily I made it through my (brief) reading, and even got some good feedback afterwards. I was particularly pleased to get feedback since my piece was a bit different from a lot of the others that were read.
Then there are the cognitive effects of the bipolar, which make it difficult to concentrate and absorb information from a speaker, particularly if there’s any kind of ambient noise. Panel discussion are good because only the people at the front of the room are talking, but meals are more difficult given the high level of ambient sound. I find the more I have to concentrate, the more tired I get. Thus, as the conference progresses, I have to work harder to focus/concentrate.
The trouble for me is deciding how much to immerse myself without overdoing it. As you can see, I got a lot of good stuff out of the CNFC conference. But I’ve been fairly non-functional since I got home.
Was it worth it to concentrate my efforts on the conference and just accept the past several non-functional days? Should I have done less at the conference so that I’d be more ‘with it’ when I got home?
Looking at the bigger picture, should I push my limits regularly and just deal with the recovery required afterwards? Or should I maintain an even keel, and keep from having too many extremes?
I should note here that ‘pushing my limits’ isn’t like what happens with exercise, where you push a bit farther each time and your time, distance, or the weight you can lift increases. Instead, it’s more like hitting the same wall each time, which is the same distance or height each time, and requires a similar recovery after every event, depending how long you’ve been pushing against it.
My psychiatrist advocates for the even keel approach. Regularly pushing limits sets you up for a high/low swing in mood, which makes it more difficult to manage the bipolar itself. You push yourself and enjoy yourself to the point of getting a semi-high, then you crash into a low. His argument is that, if we manage and reduce the frequency and intensity of highs, at the same time we’ll manage the frequency and intensity of lows. Neither will get too high or too low.
The problem is that life is full of ups and downs. Is it practical to try to navigate a moderate course through these events? I guess the response is that bipolar isn’t ‘normal’ ups and downs but ‘extreme’ ups and downs. After this past winter, I can attest to just how low the downs can go, and that they aren’t ‘normal’.
The other question is how do you choose when you’re going to give something your all and damn the consequences? Because it doesn’t just affect you, it affects your family as well. If I decide to wring everything I can from the CNFC conference, perhaps I should do the same for our family vacation coming up next week? But I know I can’t because the events are too close together. And I know it’s no fun for my husband to have a wife in bed asleep half the time.
I think the best way is to approach each event on a case by case business. For example, PEAVI is hosting an editing workshop at the end of the month on Grammar Usage Woes and Myths. It’s taught by Frances Peck, who would be a great person to learn from. But I’m thinking about the fact that, by the middle of the month, I will have spent three weekends in a row away from home for some period of time. I’m not sure I’ll have recovered by the time the workshop rolls around. Plus, I did a Plain Language workshop through PEAVI at this time last year, and while it was fantastic, I know exactly the mental and physical toll it takes on me.
I guess I have to combine my knowledge of my response to previous events, the bigger picture of what else I might have on my plate, and taking into account my interactions with my family, to decide how to engage in different events. I just have to make sure I’m honest with myself, and that I make time and effort for my family. Not much else matters.
I just re-read this great article by Sarah Gilman about a canoe trip she and her friends did on BC’s Stikine River. It reminded me of a canoe trip I did with two friends down the Red Deer River in southern Alberta. It also made me wonder, given what I’ve written about above, if I’ll ever be able to do something like that again. Sure you’re supposed to make lemonade when life gives you lemons. But I think I’m tired of lemonade….

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5 thoughts on “The Balancing Act”

  1. I can empathize with the challenges these opportunities present, Sarah. To a lesser degree, I feel many of the same drains and pressures and doubts. You do a good job of articulating the realities of your situation — and in doing so are clearly working through what you need to work through. Carry on at the pace that keeps you healthy.

    • Thanks Lorne. You remind me that we all feel our limitations, for whatever reason. And we all have to make decisions/choices around those limitations. The key is to be aware of them and manage them appropriately, I guess.

  2. Don’t believe it. The personal essay is not dying out. If creative writing courses aren’t teaching it, it’s because it’s not easy to make money writing in this genre. Which is all the more reason to do it! It’s the ideal carrier bag. It can hold plants, history, cultural commentary, phrases of poetry, taxonomy, weather reports, recipes for everything from art pigments to meals for multi-cultural groups, to documentary and archival records. For instructors who come to the courses from broadcast or print journalism, there are always the old caveats. Is it verifiable? (Maybe not, but let that be part of the interrogation!) Did people actually say that? (Well, I wish they had!) The lifespan of a fact or the ongoing evolution of what we believe truth to be?


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