On Resolutions and Writer's Block
When I struck out on my own in 2017, one of my goals was to carve out more time to write. I looked forward to a few months of quiet as I got started, and imagined myself enjoying the view of the Virginia mountains from my upstairs deck while I tapped away on my laptop, writing all those posts I’d never found time for.
But that’s not what happened. Potential clients started calling, and I suddenly remembered what life is like without an assistant. Dozens of tasks to establish myself as a sole proprietor demanded my attention.
Around this time last year, I resolved to do better, and I kicked off 2018 with a flurry of writing. The January issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy featured my op-ed on our field’s stunning lack of progress in increasing the diversity of nonprofit boards. In February, I wrote a guest post for the Center for Effective Philanthropy in defense of so-called “checkbook philanthropy.” Early in the year, I also wrote a guide to general operating support for foundation trustees for Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, which was published in April.
And that’s it. My entire editorial output for 2018 was two blog posts and a brief publication. Some writer.
I wish I could say I’ve been too busy to write. And I was busy.
But I was also experiencing severe writer’s block, a condition previously unknown to me. Until this year, I’ve always written quickly and copiously. For example, in the aftermath of the Great Recession and as I transitioned into a new and challenging professional role, I wrote more than a dozen blog posts for the Chronicle while also turning out speeches, op-eds, and other public messages for the foundation where I worked.
Some of the most unsettled and frenetic points in my career have been my most productive as a writer. Time isn’t the issue — I can always manage to find time to write. The issue has been my changed standing in the world.
When I first began thinking about leaving institutional philanthropy, friends warned me that I needed to be prepared for my life to change.
Foundation executives are routinely sought out for their opinions and complimented on their insights. Emails and phone calls are returned with alacrity. Thank-you notes and words of praise abound.
I had always known that this treatment was more about the institution I represented and the power dynamics in philanthropy than about me personally. I thought I was mentally fortified for the shift. But I wasn’t.
The good news is that the change hasn’t been as drastic as I thought it might be. People still return my emails, though perhaps with a little more lag time. My phone still rings, and I’m still asked to speak and write. A side note: this year I was uninvited from a speaking gig for the first time — politely, and for reasons of panel composition, but something that never happened to me as a foundation vice president.
What I hadn’t taken into account was how strongly I had identified with the institution where I had worked for nearly 14 years — the longest stint of my career — and the degree to which I felt that my professional position was what gave me standing to write, even on topics not directly related to the foundation. People care about what foundations and their leaders have to say. But do they really want to hear from Rick Moyers, independent consultant?
For much of 2018, I wasn’t so sure. Some of my earliest experiences as a consultant fed that doubt. Early in the year, an opinion piece I painstakingly crafted in partnership with a client was published to mixed reactions. As a consultant, I quickly learned that my observations and recommendations wouldn’t always be praised, accepted, or even adopted — a jarring experience for someone fresh out of a senior role at a foundation.
Riddled with self-doubt, I couldn’t manage to complete another piece of writing in 2018, even though I started at least five different projects. But I think I’m over that.
Last week I learned that the checkbook philanthropy piece was one of CEP’s 10 most-read posts of 2018, which renewed my courage. Another national organization recently invited me to blog about board readiness for equity, diversity, and inclusion. And I’m also working on a longer post about how we move from talk to action on board diversity.
I’m still the same person I was when I worked at a foundation. I still have things to say, and my experience as a consultant has motivated me to write more, not less. But I've struggled to find a new voice.
So if you’re a subscriber to my blog, sorry for the long silence while I processed my issues. To the organizations that published my work in 2018, thank you for the opportunity to contribute. And to the leaders and organizations I worked with as a consultant in 2018, I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn alongside you.
I plan to kick off the new year writing on my laptop while looking at the mountains from my upstairs deck. If it's too cold for that, the couch or the dining room table or the coffee shop will do. Because my resolution for 2019 is to write.