The both/and space is something writers of tough stories must cultivate. Here’s how.

Last Friday, I drove to the beach with a joyful yet broken heart. Earlier that week, I’d learned of the tragedy at Robb Elementary School and thought, damn, not again

Joan Didion is famous for saying she writes to understand her thinking. While it will sound cliche, it’s what I also do. After a few days of grieving and doomscrolling through the news, my muse tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Get back to work.” 

I spent the latter part of the week writing an essay about being a four-time victim of gun violence and the impact language can have on how we treat mental illness. It felt like the one true thing I could do to help with this terrible situation,  in addition to the things I always do, like writing to congress and donating money to help the victims. 

The essay is one I’ve been mulling over for years. 

My body ached with each written word, and yet, when the first draft was done, I clicked save and left happily for my trip.

On the way to the ocean, I stopped in Richmond and visited with a graduate school mentor turned dear friend. We ate a delicious meal his wife lovingly prepared, and talked about our work, his grandchildren, and the pun-filled dad jokes he loves to tell.

Like me, my mentor, Lennie Echterling, tragically lost his brother, though in his case, it was to a mountain-climbing accident. He’s faced multiple bouts of cancer, mourned the loss of family members, colleagues, and even former graduates of our program, all while listening intently and open-heartedly to the countless people who’ve told him about the worst days of their lives, including me. Yet, Lennie’s never lost his sense of humor or smile.

During our visit, we didn’t talk about the grief unfolding in Ulvalde, Texas, though I imagine it was on his mind too. Instead, we stayed in the present moment and created a memory we’ll both cherish.

One of the greatest skills Lennie taught me was the power of living in the both/and—that liminal, open-hearted space where ache and joy coexist. Over the weekend, I let the essay simmer as I watched cranes and pelicans dive into the waves, played Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man so well I earned a spot on the high-score list, and ate the meals I enjoy most. When I needed to talk about my heartache, or simply feel the burden of this loss, I allowed for that too.

The both/and space is something all writers of difficult stories must cultivate. To do this, we need to make time for our writing and the lives we want to live—which can feel like no small feat in a world that focuses on doing, and a publishing industry that tells us we’re behind, not just on our writing, but on our author platforms.

Living in the both/and takes both practice and discipline. You must practice sitting with the emotions you find uncomfortable, whether that’s heartache or joy, and then discipline yourself to turn toward the opposite, so that your life remains balanced. Doing this gives you access to the full spectrum of emotions, which will allow you to look directly at your stories, and when you’ve reached your fill, seek the experiences that buffer them. This can help you not just write a great story, but thrive in the process.

Here’s how you practice: 

  • Meditation and other mindfulness-based activities can simultaneously give your mind some much-needed rest and help you stay in the present moment. As you  develop a regular practice, you’ll recognize when you’re truly living in the both/and space and when you’ve veered too far in one direction.
  • When tough stuff occurs, soothe your emotions, using one of Kristin Neff’s self-compassion strategies.
  • Commit to moderating the kind of writing you do throughout the week so that the overall intensity isn’t too much.
  • Seek joy without excuses. The harder the topics you write about, the more you must do this. Discover what you love, and make time for it—even if it means you write less often.

I don’t know what will happen with my essay. Perhaps it will be published in a few weeks or shelved until the next tragedy occurs. Either way, I say thank you to my muse for nudging me back into the both/and space where my heart is protected yet open.

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