I used to write so much

Photograph out a large window at an autumnal scene. A notebook with some handwriting is blurred in the foreground.

A few weeks ago, I did a lesson on multimodality for the introductory composition course I teach. My students have had two major assignments so far this semester, both essays, and the last major assignment is a multimodal remixing of one of those essays. Based on some conversations I’ve had with my students, this is the first time they’ve done this kind of project.

And so I did a “speedrun” of a multimodal project. Every semester I try to do the assignments along with my students partly as a way for me to keep up my own writing practice (I write things I turn in for my classes sometimes), and partly to experience for myself what my students experience when I walk them through a multi-stage writing prompt, or set draft deadlines at certain intervals. And so I had (incomplete) drafts of the two essays I had assigned for them. I chose one–a narrative essay about times in my life when I really struggled through feeling motivated to do the basic tasks of living–and thought about remixing that essay into a multimodal project.

The conclusion of that essay talked about ways I was able to cope with those low points, and how these ways are tied to my favorite fictional characters. I wanted to take that conclusion and turn it into some multimodal motivational message to reach someone who’s struggled the way I did, but a social media post felt static and easy to ignore, and I didn’t want to do something more complicated than that. And so I decided to create desktop backgrounds featuring quotations from one of my favorite characters*. A generic motivational message is not going to actually be all that inspiring, after all. If I am reminded of my favorite character all the time, then I’ll actually be moved.

Lately, my journal entries have contained some version of the phrase, “I haven’t been feeling like myself.” My journal entries have been about how I know I’m “better” than how I am right now, and I “should” be able to handle the various responsibilities I have because I’ve done it before, so I can do it again. And this is a tricky thing to think. It can be a demotivating thought, a chastisement that dampens my momentum. Or it can be somewhat hopeful, maybe aspirational and inspirational: I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.

My journal entries are more hopeful. I haven’t been feeling like myself lately, but I am feeling like I’m returning. The fact that I am writing in my journals at all is a good sign. This year is the first year since 2015 that I didn’t officially participate in NaNoWriMo. I’ve lost before, and have won twice. And the years I won were some of my most prolific writing years. In 2016, the last time I won, I had achieved my Camp NaNoWriMo goals as well as my November NaNo goal. During the April Camp NaNo that year, I wrote blogs every day in addition to writing a 30,000-word novella. I used to write so much. At least, I used to publicly write so much. When I think I used to do something, but I’m not doing it now, I get overwhelmed by feeling inadequate.

In past composition classes I’ve taught, my students kept a blog-type ePortfolio throughout the semester. In that ePortfolio, they’d write reflections on their assignments, learn basic web management skills (at least on WordPress), and at the end of the semester, they’d have an understanding of how to put together a cohesive portfolio of the things they’ve learned. These ePortfolios were private, but the act of blogging can be useful even if someone is sharing their learning, not necessarily their expertise. When I used to write so much publicly–blog so much–I was unconsciously doing this thing. My blogs were directionless and meandering, but I was sharing what I was learning.

I’m still learning, but not sharing it as much as I used to. Part of that is this feeling that I should be an expert by now, having earned a Masters and am now in a PhD program. But I don’t feel like I’m an expert. I don’t feel like I’m saying anything innovative or insightful about writing. Call it impostor syndrome, call it anxiety, call it the lingering effects of lockdown–whatever it is, I know that I get caught in this spiral that when I feel this way, I tend to not write, even privately, which makes me feel worse, which makes me write less, and so on.

But I know I’ve done this before, this writing. I’ve done this before, and I can do it again. I think I just forgot how much my writing was built on my routines. Before grad school, I had very particular rituals to get me through a 9-5 work day. I used to spend fifteen minutes, at least, at the start of every day setting up my notebook pages with my to-do lists, meetings, and everything just right. On Mondays, it would take me longer because I was setting up my overview pages for the week, too. I had multiple redundant systems–calendars, planners, notebooks–that all organized my information, sometimes having the same information in three different places. Perhaps it was “less efficient” but it was what I needed to get anything done.

This is the part where I’m supposed to say that I set the images I made as my desktop background, and that magically cured everything. That’s not entirely true, nor entirely false. I do feel somewhat motivated when I look at my desktop background, the one with “I am made of the small things I do every day” as the text over a photo I took of Lake Okoboji. I feel a little proud that I made that thing (in Canva, using the stuff I had free access to). But the small things I do every day tend to be things like staying up too late watching K-pop music videos like I’m in high school again, or reading 50,000 words of fan fiction in a night instead of the 70 pages of reading I was assigned. So I’ve also put sticky notes with gently sarcastic reminders to go to bed at a decent hour around my computer monitor. I have a page of habit trackers in my planner, and to-do lists in Obsidian which I sort into tiers from “Mission Critical” to “Menial.” I write things in my journal, over and over.

“I am made of the small things I do every day.” For a while, I lost sight of what those small things are. I’m slowly getting back to them, a little bit at a time.

*I tweeted these images out and said that they’re “motivational desktop wallpapers for the embarrassed sports anime fan.” The sports anime is Haikyu!! The character is Kita Shinsuke. Technically the line is “I am built upon the small things I do every day,” but I think “I am made of the small things I do every day” looked better in the graphic.

Published by Caroliena Cabada

Caroliena Cabada is a writer currently based in Lincoln, Nebraska. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, Fiction, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her writing has been published in online and print journals and anthologies, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.

2 thoughts on “I used to write so much

  1. Wow, we’re similar in so many ways. First of all, isn’t it great to reread your journals and notice patterns you were totally oblivious to?

    And I use Obsidian too. I use it for everything, in fact. From writing my novels to keeping my journal.

    Anyway, we’re all the sum total of the tiny things we have done, so that’s a great thought to keep in mind. Thanks for sharing!

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