From grad school to social work

I was in sociology. Now that I'm pregnant and helping disabled homeless people, I feel strangely blocked creatively

Published February 11, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

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Another thing: Please write me more letters on problems of creativity! It makes me think!

Dear Cary,

I recently quit a Ph.D. program in sociology. When I started it, I was full of enthusiasm and desire to learn about the human experience. As I progressed through it, I found myself wishing to be a participant in society rather than an observer. I care very much for social problems and wish to fix them, and you compromise your academic integrity -- or the perception of it -- when you engage in social activism. Beyond that, I was very tired of working to someone else's expectations for no money. The things I enjoyed writing were more creative nonfiction, and I knew my career would not survive that.

So I left. I now work helping disabled homeless people find housing. The day of my job interview, I found out that I am pregnant. Now I am six months into the pregnancy.

So here's my creative problem: I don't know what to write about! I am happy; my life is now consumed with logistical struggles. My new job doesn't pay childcare, for instance, and my husband's income is not enough to cover all of us.

The sorts of essays I used to write now feel too personal to share. I still write, bits and pieces every day, but I am anxious about publishing. I also feel like my exposure to ideas has decreased quite a bit. I pull books from the library a lot, and use my downtime at work to read articles from the places that gave me many ideas, but my mind feels blocked almost. Beyond that, I am quite nervous about finding time to write once my daughter is here.

Do you have any advice for relighting the creative spark, or to get over my newfound shyness?

Thank you,


Dear Anonymous,

What you have now is a generalized fear of disclosure that is stopping you from being creative. I suggest you look at your recent role change for answers.

You were a graduate student. Now you are a social worker and soon to be a mother.

You changed roles. These roles are really different.

Since you are trained in sociology you probably know how to examine the effect of changing roles on individual attitudes. I suggest you examine these things.

But how? Ah, there's the rub. How?  How do we make ourselves the proper subject of our own study?

To solve personal and creative problems we need access to our own hidden or automatic assumptions. We need access to our automatic life.

One of the biggest moments in my life was when I first saw the beauty of cognitive behavioral therapy in action. This has been a lifelong and necessary practice: to gain access to the automatic assumptions and beliefs I have, and then gain control over how I respond to them.

You may be quite right that your new roles will require you to be more circumspect.

But how? In what precise ways?

Our minds generalize before we have had time to consciously work things out. So we have to slow down that process. Cognitive behavioral therapy offers techniques for slowing that down. Making lists of our beliefs is one way. Making a list causes us to slow down and see exactly what beliefs we have been carrying around. "If I write this, my clients will lose their faith in me." "If they knew this, they might fire me." "If my family knew this, they would look down on me."

These kinds of beliefs hover around in us but are hard to pin down. They're like fireflies flitting around. I used to like to capture fireflies and put them in a jar and watch them for hours.  We can do the same thing with these flitting beliefs and assumptions. We can catch them the instant they flit by, the instant we note a change in mood, a sudden feeling of discouragement. If we can get ahold of them, we can take them apart and see where they are valid and where they are just generalized fears, and where, even if they are true, we need not worry too much. For instance, what if a client did lose faith in you? What would that mean? Would the client then refuse housing? Would the client insult you or be harder to converse with? How bad would that be? What would be the concrete outcome?

You know what I mean?

And then the other thing, now that your role is shifting, is to affiliate yourself with new groups that complement your new role. As a graduate student, you would affiliate with other graduate students. As a mother, you will want to affiliate with other mothers. Ideally, you will want to affiliate with other mothers who are also highly educated and are driven to write.

There are such groups out there.

I have looked at a few online but since creative affiliation is so subjective, I can't really recommend one over another. It's not like recommending a place to get your tires fixed.

But I do know some people in this realm and of course there are rich resources here at Salon in the person of, well, all the women and mothers who have written over many years about the delicate calculous of balancing child-rearing, creative pursuits and social activism.

In short, I'm just suggesting that you study your new role in society and how it is affecting you. I think you will find answers there. And if you need techniques to gain access to your hidden assumptions in order to examine and deconstruct them, such as the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy, then certainly avail yourself of this knowledge. The David Burns book "Feeling Good" is always a good place to start.

By Cary Tennis

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