sherri smith booksIt’s happened again.  I’ve gotten off the phone, having said yes to another opportunity I couldn’t turn down.  This time, it’s a school visit, a chance to drive three hours round trip to sit with a group of teenagers and talk books over tea.  Next, it’s lunch with a friend, a gentleman of letters who is full of stories and likes his lunches early.  And then there is the trip to Santa Barbara, a week of school visits.  And of course, work on Monday, back at the desk, staring at the files spilled across my desk.

Eight months ago, I was on a retreat in Southern Italy, in a small apartment with a view of the Tyrrhenian Sea.  I was working, diving into a new novel, and it was glorious.  I finished a draft in two weeks and told myself to set it aside.  I would tackle a second pass with new eyes during the winter holidays.  Take a few days, really focus.

The trouble is, I never got those few days.  Instead, I got busy, I got sick, I said yes to this and that and the other, and the novel lay in its little stack, sighing patiently, used to being overlooked.

The sighs are no longer patient, and the book isn’t the only one making them.  I have done it again.  I have allowed myself to be overwhelmed. 

You know the feeling– the shout of panic when you suddenly realize you will die one day and you still have So! Much! To! Do!  And that’s just the stuff you have to do.  What about the stuff you want to do?  Writing that novel (finishing that novel!), taking that vacation, seeing that favorite person, sleeping in late…  You might as well just give up, right now!

We writers are a shaky bunch, never happy when we aren’t writing, never sure if we are happy even when we are elbow deep in the work.  But we need it.  We cannot always be in the world without distilling it, and if we don’t put it on the page, it ferments and poisons us.  We feel OVERWHELMED.

Stories, voices, ideas, fixes–they come flying at us as we make our way through the day.  And we deny them.  Every time we fail to write, we disappoint ourselves a little.  And a little more.  And then we run from it, and we say “Yes!” to everything that will take us away from our desk, our notebook, or work. 

And then it’s not our fault, that shaky, fidgeting sense of loss.  The “I’m just not happy, but I don’t know why,” we share with friends and chew on, looking for the right word to describe the lack we’ve been feeling lately.  The sense that you just want the world to stop until you get it right.

But, guess what?  That’s the ticket.  The cure for being overwhelmed. 


Just stop.  Stop with all the “have tos” and the “want tos.”  Just stop.  Dig up that little box we keep locked up tight way down in our souls, open it up and let the thing with feathers escape.  It’s not Hope, you know, the thing with feathers.  It’s a simple, two letter word:  No.

Will you visit our school next month?  No.

Want to grab lunch?  No.

Can you pick up the dry cleaning?  No.

It will shatter your world, those two little words taking flight, the feathered wing brushing your lips as they leave.  Phones will go still.  Emails will fly.  Heads will turn. 

Did you, the all-doing, all-toiling center of the universe say… “No?”

But why? they will ask.

And you will tell them:  I must write.

With every fiber of your being, you must say it and mean it.

And then, shut the door on the world.  Crawl onto your sofa.  Take a nice nap.  And when you wake up, sit down before your waiting pages, and begin.

The Art of Being Overwhelmed
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Sherri L. Smith is the multiple award-winning author of YA novels Lucy the Giant, Sparrow, Hot Sour Salty Sweet, Flygirl and Orleans. In October 2015, she made her middle grade debut with The Toymaker’s Apprentice. Her books have been listed as Amelia Bloomer, American Library Association Best Books for Young People, Junior Library Guild Selections and appear on multiple state reading lists. Flygirl, a WWII novel about a light-skinned black girl who passes for white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, was the 2009 California Book Awards Gold Medalist and was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post. In 2012, Sherri made her first foray into speculative fiction with the “cli fi” novel, Orleans, a book dedicated to her mother, who survived Hurricane Katrina. The Toymaker’s Apprentice, a vibrant retelling of the story of the Nutcracker, is a Southern California Independent Bookstore bestseller. She has just sold a graphic novel, and is writing her first nonfiction project. Sherri has worked in film, animation, comic books and construction, including stop-motion animation on Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, and spent three years at Disney TV Animation, helping to create stories for animated home video projects. She was a 2014 National Book Awards judge in the Young People’s Literature category. She is a three-time writer-in-resident at Hedgebrook retreat in Washington State, as well as a resident at Wassard Elea retreat, in Ascea, Italy.
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5 thoughts on “The Art of Being Overwhelmed

  • March 1, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    I’m forwarding this to my Poetry Group, as well as to all my other writer friends — this was a shot of sunshine in the almost-end-of-winter doldrums! Thank you, Sherri.

  • February 29, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    Needed this so much! Thank you, Sherri!

  • February 29, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    exactly…. NO! NO! NO!
    welcome to Goddard, Sherri!

    • February 29, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Some things are worth saying yes to. Thank you, Jane!

  • February 29, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Thank you!

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