A few years ago, I burned my journals. Not all of them, but a few. My journals are my most precious possessions. And I love how they show me what I was like growing and changing. They were with me in good times, dark times, and times where I had to keep them close because ideas were ever-present in my head.
But still, I burned my journals. During the times when darkness was so close to the surface, my journal was a safe place to let it all out. It was a place where I got to work through things that I needed to let go of. A place where I could be myself, express myself while it was too hard to say it out loud, or let the people I love know that I was struggling.
I read through all of my journals, starting when I was seven and started with ‘dear diary. I even tried to name my diary, just like Anne Frank. While I was reading, I noticed a pattern. Dark thoughts, where I said horrible things about people I loved. Where I even wondered if I might be suicidal. I never was, except that one time in high school.
And then I thought about why I kept the journals. Yes, they were my safe place, a place to keep a record of my life, for expressing myself. But they were also my legacy. Something to leave behind for my children, or maybe if I would become a famous writer one day. Were these the kind of things I wanted to leave behind?
I decided the journals served their purpose. They did what they needed to do. They helped me get through parts of my life. They were a lifeline, a way to keep sane and get certain things out. But they were not things that needed to be in my life any longer or pass on to the next generation.
So one night, my dad and I got a large metal bowl out into the garden of my parent’s house. We lit a fire, and I watched how the words I’ve written so angrily went up on flames. How the pages soaked with tears were set free. The ink went up in all sorts of coloured flames, and they licked and devoured the pages of the journals.
And as I entered the house after our hour-long bonfire, I felt free. Like I let go of something that I held on to for way too long.
It was freezing cold. One of the rare winters where I got to be outside on the ice. Skating. I loved it. The feel of effortless moving. Of gliding and feeling free. The cold didn’t hurt, and I loved every second of it.
I wasn’t alone. Eight of my friends were there too. I don’t think they experienced the same freedom. One after the other took a tumble on the ice. Some were almost spectacular. But I didn’t.
For someone who trips over stickers on the floor, I had a good balance on skates.
“You need to fall too”, one of my friends said.
I didn’t see the point and wanted to keep on gliding.
But they insisted. Persisted. Until I gave in. I didn’t like to be the odd one out. I never fitted in, and I didn’t want to do it now. But, if it would make my friends happy, I would fall. I so I did. Mid glide, I dropped myself to my knees and pretended to fall. Not wanting to be special and by not falling.
They laughed and cheered, and I was allowed to keep on gliding. I can still remember the cold. And the need to keep doing my own thing. Not let them dictated where I needed to be, while all I want to be was on the other side of the ice than they were.
But later that evening, we were eating fries before heading to the swimming pool, I felt my butt itch. Something stung, and I fought the urge to scratch, to touch my but and invoke another bout of laughter at my expense.
I excused myself to go to the loo and found that my jeans were stained with dried up blood around a hole in the fabric. Right in the middle of my butt. The back of the ice skate went clean through everything, but it had been too cold to notice. Too cold to even feel it as the sharp skate plunged into my left butt cheek.
I carry that scar with me still. No one sees it, but it’s a reminder that friends don’t always have the best intentions for you. That peer pressure is not always a good thing. And that being friends with someone at 15 doesn’t mean that they are nice to you, like you or that it will stay that way.
When it was my time to pick what I wanted to study, it was easy: I wanted to write. I wrote all the time; I was addicted to words, and creativity was celebrating parties in my head. A big plus was that I was never bored, but I shared my head with the stories in my head. They were like a fire that could not be contained. Spilled into journals, onto the blank page and filled my childhood dreams.
And then I became a journalist and killed my creativity.
Yes, I got to write stories all day. I wrote about inspiring people doing awesome things. I interviewed famous authors about their inspiration for writing. Christopher Paolini, Chelsea Cain, John Flannagan, Lauren Kate, Chris Bradford and many more. I got to question them about how they made a living telling stories. I drank their inspiration feel excited knowing that one day I would be like them and then wrote their story in an upbeat tone that said others ‘see if they can do it, so can you!’
I wrote about animal rights, about papercraft companies using inspiration to help people do their hobbies, about blogging, about planning, staying inspired, about libraries. And all the time I told myself ‘this is awesome, I get to write every single day’. But I didn’t see I was recycling stories that weren’t my own. And as I tumbled further down the rabbit hole of writing about other people’s passions, I lost sight of my own.
The stretches of not writing the stories floating in my head grew larger. There were still intense bursts of writing stories, but it became harder to connect with that voice in my head. Harder to connect with the part of me that liked telling things that weren’t based on facts. Suddenly everything needed to have an audience. It needed to be based on facts and needed to be structured around ‘how, why, what, where, who and when’. Being subjective got beaten out of me. Now even fiction needs to have an audience, a niche and a goal.
My path journeyed down to becoming an editor for serval magazines, to the editor-in-chief, to becoming my own boss and blogging for other people. I got outlines that needed to be turned into cohesive stories that focussed on teaching people. I needed to tell myself daily that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to do what I loved.
But it didn’t fill the creativity gap that was growing larger.
I stopped painting
I stopped crocheting
Until finally, I stopped using my journal to write and started using it as a planner. Writing became a chore. Sometehing that needed to be ticked off the to-do list.
It took a long time to realise where my journey has taken me. Don’t get me wrong. I love where I’ve ended up, but there is such a big disconnect to where I used to be, to where I am now. I feel like somewhere along the way I lost a piece of the puzzle. And although I want to blame something for this, I can’t. The simple fact is I got wrapped up into making a living for myself that I forgot the part that makes me feel alive.
I forgot what the pure joy feels like when fictional people come to live under my fingers.
I forgot how much I love the tapping sound on the keyboard.
I forgot how much I love when characters run with the storyline, and I can only stand by, watch and record.
The irony is that while I became a storyteller that captured the story of other people in order to share it with the world. I forgot how to write stories that mattered to me. And I forgot to enjoy it.
It’s true that a lot of journalists start that way because they want to be better at writing and sharing stories. But the digital age has forced everyone to become much more niche-focused and focused on teaching, that the creative part dissipated to the background.
So now I chose to be a recovering journalist. I choose creativity over niches, over text for the sake of writing, or worse for an SEO rating.
Because despite everything I AM a storyteller, and I have stories to tell. But this time, they will be my stories.
You walk into the school and feel like everyone is staring at you. Cliques are forming before people even know each other. Cool people flock together, smokers naturally gravitate towards each other, and the sporty people find each other outside on the field. And you just feel like you’ve entered another world.
They say everyone feels weird in high school. And maybe they do. Some of us tend to fall out of the crowd a little more than others, though. And not just in high school. Replace school with office, social clubs, or even just bars, and you can describe a specific group of adults too. Every one of these situations feels like being back in high school: like you accidentally stumbled into the wrong room, and now you can’t leave.
If you are one of those people, congratulations, you officially belong to the group of the most interesting people I know. It took me a long time to find those people and to realise there’s a whole bunch of cool people out there that the cool people don’t think are cool. And in this case, the internet is your friends.
I used to be one of those people that didn’t fit in. I still am one of those people. The kind that prefers books over people. Has a better connection with dogs than most humans and can speak nerd better than hold a socially accepted conversation. I find it hard to meet the parents because I always say the wrong thing. Always. I make inappropriate jokes. Mostly involving a penis. I curse, and my favourite night is at home, playing old school records while reading an actual paper book. And apart from writing and hiding behind the camera, my hobby is rock climbing. Bouldering to be exact. For someone who grew up hating sports and all athletic types, this came as a shock to me. But nothing can cheer my up as a good bouldering session does.
Then let me tell you. You are perfectly normal. Although we’ve been conditioned to have to conform to society and fit in, it’s not the case for everyone. And they will tell you that you have to fit in. That you have to wear blue jeans, because that’s what normal people do. That you have to get that 9 to 5 because that’s what everyone does, so you can get a mortgage, get married, have children and commute to a job every day that you secretly dislike, just like everyone else. And then one day, you’ll find yourself on that train platform, looking around you and realise you have become just like everyone else — the same blue jeans, semi-casual shoes, and with the same haircut.
That doesn’t have to be you. You are fine the way you are. You can love books more than social groups; you are not crazy for hating blue jeans, your love for old school records is perfectly normal because guess what. All the best people are weird. I think Lewis Carroll said it best:
“You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
And guess what. You are not alone. I have met my best friends through the internet. And they are all a little weird in one way or the other. And that really is the best thing to be.
“Sounds pretty clear to me”, the doctor said. “It’s just a burn-out.” Just a burn-out. Like it was something you order at a cafe. As if it’s normal to cry buckets every day enough to feed your plants for weeks.
The remedy? Rest, quiet time, and especially no stress.
In this world nowadays, that’s easier said than done. Before breakfast, I need to make at least ten decisions. And don’t even get me started on going to the supermarket. My phone is constantly blinking at me, a silent scream that’s almost impossible to ignore. And the tv is so large there’s no way around it.
Distractions seem to be the norm. Multitasking is a required skill for any day job. And single focus days have become extinct. No wonder a burn-out is no longer special. It’s ‘just’ a burn-out. So many people nowadays have it. Millennials especially. And as much as I hate that word – millennial. It is what I am. Barely, but still.
Years of expectations have primed me for this moment. I’m sitting in a chair, in a grey square office facing a doctor who’s going to determine if I’m really ‘ill’ or not. That alone has caused me so much stress I didn’t sleep last night. Sleep I desperately need because come 9 pm I’m fast asleep on the sofa after a long hard day of trying to relax.
Yes, trying to relax is harder than it seems. As much fun as a Netflix binge may sound to you; it’s not my idea of fun. Mine is reading a good book, going on a long hike, or writing that piece of content I’ve been dying to write. All of which I don’t have the energy for anymore.
I’m lucky if I can read a page without my thoughts wandering all over the place. Hiking means getting out of the house and into the real world. And writing requires a form of concentration that is so rare; I doubt it even exists.
The fact that you’re reading this 3-minute article doesn’t mean this was easy. In between the last three lines, my thoughts have wandered six times. I clicked over to Facebook at least two times, checked my phone twice and answered a text from my sister.
I want to work. I want to be able to read, have the energy to go dancing at night and to write every day. Being an A-type personality means I put that pressure on myself to do these things. Making it impossible to relax, which is what I should be doing.
Doing nothing is hard work.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s just a burn-out.
Everyone with some form of mind knows how to ‘solve’ a burn-out.
Relax for a while, and you’ll be fine. Right.
Follow this step-by-step guide, and you’ll beat it in no-time. Ooooookay.
Why don’t you focus on finding a great new job that will do it. Really? I mean, seriously, really?
The sad truth, however, is this: deciding what to eat for lunch takes all my mental energy — going shopping on a busy afternoon results in a panic attack in the sock aisle — and forgetting to buy crackers for the BF results in a sobfest. When that happens, you know you’re in serious trouble.
A burn-out is not something that can be dealt with overnight. And it’s not something to brush aside and piled together with the flu and an ear infection.
Yes, burn-outs super common nowadays. But it’s never just a burn-out.
It’s cause and effect. And it’s never an easy or quick fix.
I grew up singing songs, usually during the dishes or in the car. Whenever we would drive somewhere, my dad would turn up the radio and start singing along to songs. So naturally, we followed. We didn’t care about being good or anything else. What mattered was that we were singing songs together at that moment.
I remember one moment where my dad drove me to France at the end of June. It was warm, so we had the windows of the dark blue Volvo rolled down. They were the kind of windows you had to roll down manually. It feels like that was ages ago, but it was no more than ten years.
As we were driving through the countryside, we were listening to our mp3-mix that we had burned on a cd. Dust in the wind by Kansas came one, and we both sang from the top of our lungs. The wind in our hair, the sun on our face, and good company. At that moment, I felt rich, happy, and so lucky to experience that moment. When I think of that trip, that moment defined it all.
Singing became something we did in our family. Not on stage and I hardly sang in front of other people, unless they were in the car with me. Most of all, singing became something that calmed me down. Whenever I was driving, and things to a little hairy or I was nervous, I turned up the radio and sang. It made me focused, grounded and present in the moment.
For all the good things it had brought me, I stopped singing. I stopped doing it at home while I was cooking; I stopped singing in the car with my dad. The only time I sang was in the car, on my own, as a safe place to let all the emotions out. More often than not, that became the place where I allowed myself to feel, to cry and scream at the music. Those few minute rides every week became my new safe.
Until last week.
Suddenly I caught myself dancing in my living room wearing Miffy socks that smiled at me. I found myself sliding up and down the living room dancing as if my life depended on it. It was at that moment that I felt the urge to sing.
Songs have a way of making us feel things even if we’re not ready to feel them. I always thought my mp3 player had a cruel sense of humour, giving me the songs that were more confrontation. But now I realise that when all the walls are up, music sometimes is the only thing that can get through.
And all you’ve got to do is decided whether to sing or not.
Today I saw the first butterfly of the year. It was one of those red-brown ones with an eye on its wings. I used to love those as a kid.
I saw it as I was climbing my way through the boulder gym. It took a while to realise it’s trapped. It flapped its wings as it tried to move through the glass. After a while, it stopped moving but kept feeling with its antennas over the glass still looking for a way out. It could see the sun as clearly as I could. But it couldn’t grasp what I could: no one can move through the glass.
I stopped for a while looking at this little insect that represented the arrival of spring for me. Butterflies always make me happy. Very few insects do, but this one filled me with sadness. I tried to think of a way to free it. But there was no way to open up a window. Catching it would break its fragile wings. And chasing it would do more harm than good. So I sat there watching it.
The resemblance between myself and the butterfly was all too clear. So clear it hurt. We both could see the sun, smell the outside air and even feel a little breeze. But it is out of our reach. Only for me, it isn’t the actual sun that’s calling me. It’s a happy life — one where I’m not bogged down by these feelings of depression, anger, hurt and loneliness. I can see it all so clearly. And yet it’s out of reach. Like the butterfly, I keep bumping into the glass — no way through and no way out. Sometimes I wonder how long I will have to slam into the glass before I realise there is a door next to me. And it has been there all along.
In the end, like the butterfly, I have to find a way out all by myself.
Amongst my friends, Neil Gaiman’s speech is famous. You know, the one where he encourages people to make good art. And to keep going towards the mountain. It turns out my mountain got lost along the way.
All my life and growing up, I wanted to be an author. There was nothing I wanted more than to be an author. I wrote all the time, created short stories, novels, you name it, and I’ve done it. And then I stopped.
Life got in the way; I got busy. I never stopped writing, but it turned from writing fiction to blogging and content marketing and using my words to convince others to take action. Now there is nothing wrong with that. And I loved that I could help others with my words. But I became too tired to write for fun. Too stuck in the regime of blog posts that nothing else came out.
I tried it yesterday. Wrote a little bit of fiction, not much, 300 words and they all felt wrong. Nothing came out the way it was supposed to. It felt stiff, uninspired, and there was no story behind it. It seemed I have lost my spark.
I know that a big part of writing (fiction) is pushing through. I am getting over the fear of the blank page. And write. Sometimes when you think about something too much, nothing comes, and you get stuck. Somehow I couldn’t push past the stuckness this time. Not like I can with blog posts.
Since the beginning of January, a writer friend and I have been writing 500 words daily. She writes fiction, and I write blogs. This should be the ideal time to make the transition and to start working on my fiction skills again. Then why am I not doing it?
Part of that is the severe amount of pressure I’m currently putting on myself where I feel like I have to do anything and everything like finding a job and (paid) work and clients. Oh, and on top of that, I also need to write fiction again. I feel stuck in myself and my brain.
So how do you get out? How do I make sure that I love writing again? And that I make the most of these joined writing sessions every morning? How do I make the shift from writing blog posts to writing fiction?
First of all, I need to start reading again. Get more stories in my head and also get out of my head and into the world more. Get more input and find inspiration. That came even be by walking around and getting some fresh air. But getting outside and not staring at the screen will be instrumental in being able to get inspired.
And then I think it comes down to this: get your butt in your chair and write. No excuses and push through. And yes, that is the hardest part.
Being 31 is a difficult age. It’s the age where you’re not ‘young’ anymore. The wild years are behind you, and you should look ahead and think about settling down. You know, buy a house, get a dog, have a kid, get married, in whatever order. But at the same time, 31 is also the age where I start to feel more like myself every day, where I’m finally figuring out what I want to do with my life.
It’s like trying to decide what you want to become in high school. No one knows what they want to do when they are 16. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I just picked something. In my case, it was journalism because I wanted to become a writer. Good choice? Perhaps. But in reality, it didn’t equip me with more skills than I already had. I came away from university with the sense that journalism had set me up for failure. Magazines sales were going down, and the internet was coming up. Everyone said this was going to be the end of journalism as we knew it. I had a lifelong of scrambling for a job ahead of me.
They were right. But not in the way they thought they were.
Yes, journalism as we knew it is changing. But that is not a bad thing. It took me almost ten years to come back around to journalism and writing. I took detours, got another education, worked other jobs and found myself drawn back to freelance journalism.
Truth is there will always be a need for good quality content. It doesn’t matter if it’s for print, digital or anything else. Because magazine print sales are going down, doesn’t mean people stop reading. I see people on their phones all the time. Reading news sites, blogs, watching videos. They are consuming content all the time.
I’m not saying all content out there is great, far from it. But therein lies the opportunity.
Come up with great content, get it out there. Talk to people, inspire people. Be a journalist in your own life and that of others. And I guarantee you; it doesn’t matter which medium you choose. Video, text, photography – everything goes here. As long as it tells a story that is yours, and that makes other people feel something.
When I graduated from journalism school, I knew two things: I didn’t want to be a freelancer, and I didn’t like journalism. I was wrong on both accounts, and it only took me several detours and ten years to figure that out. And that is okay.
Don’t be afraid to take a detour; they are never a waste of time. It’s the detours in life that helped me figure out what I wanted to do. They helped me find what I knew all along: writing is my passion.
You die of exposure. And freelancing doesn’t mean work for free. It’s all been said before, nothing new there. Still, there is something about writing for exposure thing that annoys me. And it’s not what you think it is.
See, when you’re starting as a freelancer, you might not have any clips yet. It can make you feel uncomfortable pitching to (high) paying clients right away. I get that. I also get that you want to practise your skills, get your work out there and build up a portfolio. So why not write for a website that gives you a good clip to use in your portfolio? (
Gasp! Yes, I said that out loud.
I’m at a point in my freelancing career that I can’t afford to work for exposure anymore. I have bills I need to pay, and I would very much like to eat. However, if there’s a publication I want to write for and they don’t pay their contributors, I still pitch them. Why? Because it’s fun.
For instance, for the past ten years or so, I have been writing for a little non-profit that helps baby elephants. I love the organisation, elephants and I really want to contribute. Do I care that I’m not getting paid for it? A little, yes, but I love them too much to stop writing for them. It only costs me an hour of my time every other month.
Charge what you’re worth
When the discussion about charging what you’re worth starts, I’m the first one to say you should charge what you’re worth. You should not work for free. But keep in mind this comes from someone in a different place in their career than a beginner.
Does that mean that if you’re starting out you shouldn’t get paid for your writing? Of course not!
Even if you’re starting out, you should charge people for your writing. If you don’t start right away, it will be hard to ask for payment later on. Always charge what you’re worth (and you’re worth more than you think!).
As a beginner, you can try to break into a new market with guest posting. Or if there’s a publication you want to write for because you think they are super cool – do it even if they don’t pay contributors.
However…. watch out that you’re not there ‘collecting’ clips for too long. Get a few clips, get your writing chops validated and then move the heck on to paying clients.
Because trust me: you’re worth it. We all are.