Writing While Female and The Big Freeze

Pack ice and icebergs, Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea, Antarctica, Polar Regions
Pack ice and icebergs, Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea, Antarctica, Polar Regions

So it finally happened to me last week—the big freeze. People often remark on my high level of productivity, and it’s true. I write a lot; I hustle hard; I get a lot done. But last week, I hit the wall. Suddenly fear, dread, disorientation, and procrastination overtook me like a tsunami of ice at ten weeks from my publication date.

People talk about the twin fears: fear of failure and fear of success. My fear of failure is what keeps me productive and on my hustle. But the fear of success shows up when things get too good.

In looking at responses to trauma and stress, people often cite “fight or flight.” But when I was trained to think about trauma for a social justice organization, my trainer, also mentioned the “freeze” reaction. Freeze is crucial because it disproportionately affects women—freeze is our training. Maybe the training is either freeze or trip in your high heels just as the monster is about to catch you. So last week I froze. It was due to a combination of factors. I got good news: a great review in Library Journal, and a possible interview for a high profile publication. I got more challenging news: some people I had reached out to for help in publicizing the book would need more nudging with a personal touch. I think that’s what sunk my ship. I had to ask somebody for something. The more casual group ask hadn’t netted the response I had hoped for, so it was time to make a personal appeal. And here comes the brutal side of my female training: I’m bugging them. If they wanted to do it, they would have done it already. And here’s the biggest one: Who do you think you are you to be demanding anything from people?

My female training tells me to ask once, politely, in a low pressure context (group email, anyone?) and then leave it there. But of course, it doesn’t work that way. Folks need follow up and special handling. I know when I’m on the other end—when people I know and support are asking something of me—I need them to bug me until I say yes or no. Yet it feels so awful to be on the asking end.

When I had to send emails asking people to read and endorse the book, I could only send such emails while binge watching season one of “UNreal.” Otherwise, I was too panicked. And when I think about it, the freeze began to set in a couple weeks ago, when I had a hard time attending to various logistical details of my life.

To procrastinate, I was writing book #2, THE BOSS. Which is a good, productive activity. But it’s also a bit of a head-in-the-sand activity, immersing myself in the imaginary world of the second book, because the real world tasks of launching the first book are too scary.

And here’s the other part of writing while female: the emotional labor is flowing away from me, not toward. If I were many of the male writers I know, I would have (or certainly have access to) a female partner whom I could confide in with all my bruised feewings, and she would console me with “oh honey, you’re such an amazing writer, I know this is going to work out!” She would model for me how the world was just waiting to selflessly support my success.

But such is not the case in my life. My partner has a challenging career of his own, long days, and little bandwidth to play cheerleader to my writing career. My daughter—six years old—will listen to a sentence or two at dinner about my day, and offers several monologues about what happened at school, as well as imaginary scenarios that may or may not involve time travel, warfare, and mash ups with historical social justice struggles and magical creatures. I listen. I believe that’s part of my role as her mom. Plus I’ve just finished a semester of teaching, in which I am underpaid to listen and support young adults in college.

But an amazing panel on invisible emotional labor at the Oakland Book Festival showed me the degree to which such labor is flowing out of me, and I am rarely the recipient of such nurturing. So of course I froze last week. I hit the wall. The tank is on E and I need someone to hold my hand, listen to me freak out, and tell me I’m good enough, people want to support me, and it’s going to be okay.

Part of why women don’t have the careers men do is that when we hit the wall, we are less likely to have the support we need to boost us up over the wall. We can seek out that support in relationships with coaches, therapists, or in my case peer counselors. But it’s important to note that these are two-way relationships. These people are either paid or providing mutual support. Very often for men, they have built-in support that they don’t need to request or search for. In heterosexual relationships, men have partners whom the society has trained to emotionally support them, without men having to ask. In institutions like schools and writing communities, male leaders are notoriously more likely to seek out young men to mentor, male teachers are more likely to give extra attention to male students, and male students feel more entitled to support from teachers of both sexes.

Also, as a woman, I froze, but I couldn’t completely freeze. Unlike brooding male writers, I couldn’t lock myself up in my room and tell my wife to keep the children quiet, because I was the one driving the carpool, shopping, making dinner, coordinating childcare arrangements for the weekend.

So here it is, a week after the big freeze, and I’ve finally been able to get myself unfrozen. And of course I reached out for help. It’s a little bit like freeze tag, you can’t really unfreeze yourself.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 1 Comment

  1. “Part of why women don’t have the careers men do is that when we hit the wall, we are less likely to have the support we need to boost us up over the wall.”

    Very true. I remember an article a while back about how it’s mostly male writes who have a “Vera Nabokov” — though obviously many male writers don’t have that either.


    (I just skimmed the article again, and it does seem to be pretty hetero-oriented, BTW — which excludes a lot of writers from the git-go. Plus, of course, not everybody is in a relationship to begin with.)

    I was pretty lucky when I was married, since we were musicians, and in the same band. So, it wasn’t her art and my art — it was the art we were producing together. Which wasn’t without disagreement and difficulty (including financial), but I do appreciate that married writers (not counting collaborators — I know a couple who are writing a movie script together, for example) face particular difficulties.

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