Dear Captain Awkward & Associated Awesome Awkwardeers,
My longtime internet friend and I have a serial writing project that we publish casually online for free; we’ve been writing on it practically since we met. We have a very small fanbase, but they are extremely dedicated and patient as we work to get the writing up. We missed getting our latest installment up on time, and since then I’ve tried to work on it every evening, but Friend has been a little less into it, and it can’t go forward without the both of us. It’s not like we have Real Obligations though, and the muse wants what the muse wants, so I’ve tried my best to be cool about things even though I’m desperate to finally get it online.
Recently, however, Friend decided to sign up for another writing challenge that will take 1-2 months to complete. (It’s annual, like NaNoWriMo.) They asked me first if I would be cool with it, and I said (honestly!) that I would be sad about our project, but if they aren’t feeling it they aren’t feeling it, and they shouldn’t be forced into writing something they are sick of, because that’s a surefire way to get them to hate it and hate me for pushing it. I told them to go for it.
The thing is, I have put most of my emotional eggs in this basket. I suffer with depression, anxiety, and other physical health problems that make it hard to even get out of the house, much less find work, I am trapped an abusive household, I am broke, and I have no healthy “real life” relationships with anyone. For years, this project has been my reason for getting out of bed every day, but I haven’t been out of bed since Friend broke the news. I’m extremely disappointed and embarrassed about letting down the people who follow us, and my jerkbrain is irrationally terrified this means Friend is getting tired of our project FOREVER (and tired of me by extension).
I know Friend deserves space and to work on things that interest them even if it doesn’t make me happy. This shouldn’t be a big deal and I don’t want to make it one. I don’t want to be anyone’s obligation and I don’t want Friend feeling guilty. I think if it weren’t for that recently missed deadline I could just deal with it, but I keep going back and forth between bitter resentment and blame-throwing, and then feeling horrified at thinking like that about someone I love so dearly. I’m afraid letting on how upset I am will lead to a FEELINGSDUMP, or that I’ll FEELINGSDUMP anyway, and make things seriously awkward. But suffering in silence feels dishonest and neglectful of my own needs, while making a big stink feels childish and clingy. I just don’t know how I’m going to get through these next months without messing everything up.
Please, please, PLEASE help me, Awkardeers. You’re my only hope! My entire social circle knows this person, and I don’t have a single other soul I can confide in or ask for objectivity from.
much love and many thanks,
Trying To Deal Responsibly
Dear Trying To Deal:
If your friend were in fact ready to move on from this project permanently, is the work important enough to you to keep doing it alone?
“Jerkbrain” is my native tongue, and I can hear your automatic “but I caaaaaan’t because of 10,000 reasons” through the Internet, but I want you to sit with that question for a little while before you comment here or talk to your friend, because it is a real question.
Because if any part of the answer is “Yes, I would want to keep going”, then my honest advice is to do it alone. Communicate exactly what you are doing and why, but do it.
“Friend, I know your focus isn’t on our project right now, but it’s important to me to keep going and maintain momentum, so I’m going to get last week’s/month’s installment up on my own.”
If you really can’t do it alone, like, it’s a web comic and you write the scripts but they draw the panels, raise the possibility of a different collaborator.
“Friend, I know your focus isn’t on our project right now, but it’s important to me to keep going and maintain momentum, so I am going to ask (fellow artist) to draw this month’s panels and see how that works out.”
You can add onto both of those statements. “Friend, I want to do this with you, and the door is always open when you are ready to work on it again. I don’t want to pressure you if you’re not into it right now, but I also don’t want to stop.”
I get why this is terrifying. What if your friend quits permanently and you have to do it alone? What if your friend is really hurt by the mere idea of you carrying on without them? What if this is The End for this particular project?
But the work is the work. If the work is going to continue, you need an agreement and a plan for how to move forward. There is no magic way that will happen with a guarantee that things won’t get messed up or without a possibly scary, possibly difficult conversation. You can’t just be nice and chill and cool at this until it gets better.
The plan itself can take many shapes:
1) You do the work alone for a while.
2) You do the work with a different collaborator.
3) You do different work, alone or with a different collaborator, but for the same audience.
4) You and friend have an honest conversation about commitment and priorities and you find out for sure what their needs and plans are.
5) You and friend decide to put the work on hiatus for a set period and revisit the discussion later.
6) You and friend make a plan to end the project, wrap up the story, etc. in a way that will be satisfying and respectful to the audience you’ve built and then you stick to that plan. (This is actually a great outcome to this problem in my opinion.)
So think about the plan(s) that you could live with and ask your friend where their priorities and hopes lie.
You’ve correctly identified that an argument based around “THIS PROJECT IS MY ONLY OUTLET & REASON FOR GETTING UP IN THE MORNING” is too much pressure to put on a collaborator (or a friend). Your friend doesn’t necessarily need to be privy to the entire FEELINGSCYCLE that’s in your head right now.
But trying to be cool when you’re not feeling cool is a recipe for disaster. You are allowed to have needs and to say that the project is important to you, and if your friend can’t contribute now, what does the future look like? If they say “Let’s go on hiatus for 3 months and regroup later,” that isn’t what you want to do, but it at least gives you a basis for making decisions about the future of the project and the friendship.
“Friend, I am becoming anxious that this break is the beginning of your permanent disengagement from the project. Is that what is happening, or is that my anxiety talking? If it’s the second, it would help me to have a set timeframe for when we can start working again. If it’s the first thing, then I think we both need to do some thinking, because I very much want both the project and our friendship to survive even if they don’t proceed together. I don’t want to pressure you, but I do need us to hammer out some kind of agreement on what happens for say, the next 3 months.”
Or, like we’ve suggested before in other conflict situations, ask a question.
“Friend, I don’t want to pressure you to work on this if your attention needs to be elsewhere or you need a break, but I also don’t want to lose more momentum. What do you think we should do? In an ideal situation, how would you like this to play out?”
That ask your friend to articulate a positive (what they want to happen) vs. a negative and takes the pressure off of you to manage and predict all of their feelings about it.
Collaborations and projects have their own life-cycle, and even the best relationships need breathing space and breaks, and even the best projects come to an end. You have a lot of things on your side. You have consistently output work to an appreciative audience. You have a friendship that is also a great collaboration. That all speaks well of your talent, your work ethic, and your strengths as a collaborator. I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but if this project or this particular collaboration were to end or to go on a long break, all of those abilities that helped you create this project are still within you. This isn’t the only good idea you will ever have. You are a person who can make work and who can make friends who will make work with you. That won’t change even if this particular relationship does, so I hope in the middle of all the Jerkbrain’s chatter there is a voice saying “I am good at this work and this work is worth doing” because that is also the truth.