sleeping over laptop

Writing through exhaustion, sickness, and grief . . . or not?

It’s been a rough couple of months. My mother-in-law passed away at the end of January. I’ve managed to have two colds since then (yes, I know it’s only February 20th), and the second one has been a doozy. I wrote through the first cold. I wrote through her passing. It felt good to write. It became my solace, my place to turn to myself and remember who I am, even in the face of grief and exhaustion. I even finished the rough draft of a new spec script in the midst of all this. But by the second cold (all whilst taking care of a now 9 month old baby), I was pretty fried and quite simply too sick to do much more than a very low rock bottom minimum. 

As I’ve navigated the last 10 days in particular, I’ve found myself focusing on getting well and doing some minimal amounts of tinkering and research to stay in touch with various projects. And now that I’m emerging (finally!) from this Cold From Hell, I’m facing the need to reboot my own writing habit a bit. I’ll make a point to write about that next week. In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy this article (revised and reprinted from 2013) about making the choice about whether or not to write when you’re sick, have hit a rough patch in your life, have shaken confidence, are experiencing a loss or grief, or perhaps are suffering from a depleted creative well.

Enjoy!

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During a live coaching call for my online small group coaching program for writers, one of our participants asked about how to know when to push through and write if you’re not feeling well, and how to know when to focus on regaining your well-being.

In my opinion, the answer depends a bit on the circumstances, so let’s look at some specific scenarios.

1. You’ve just come down with a wicked cold or flu.

Assuming you have a solid, regular habit in place, when you get really sick or you’re just those early stages of wretchedness, I think it’s okay to take a few days off from writing, knowing that you’ll get back to it as quickly as you can.

When I’m feverish, wiped out, or worse, I know the most important thing I can do for my body is to rest and heal.

I have found myself writing even while sick at times — because I felt truly drawn to work on my piece and it was nagging at me not to — but my focus is on listening to my body.

This is very much like being an athlete, and knowing whether or if to train when you’re sick or injured, and when to take a day off.

I also trust myself enough deep down, after months of regular writing, to know that I’ll re-establish my habit as soon as I am able, usually within 2 to 3 days. The longer you’re away from your habit, the harder it is to get going again, so it will behoove you to pay attention to writing again as soon as possible, starting out small, even just 15 minutes a day, and building back up to your full pre-illness writing glory over a few days time.

2. You’re going through a rough patch in your life, you’re generally tired or run down, maybe you’re not sleeping very well, or maybe you’re mildly sick.

On the other hand, if the chips are down and you’re having a rough time in your life, maybe you aren’t sleeping well, or maybe you’re getting better from that wicked cold or flu, I’m inclined to recommend that you simply scale back your writing time to get through it. I’ve been through many challenging personal experiences over the last several years as a writer, and I find that it’s much easier to keep writing at a rock bottom minimum level than it is to stop writing altogether (this is because it gets harder and harder to restart, the longer the not-writing goes on, as I mentioned above).

As a writer, it’s worth knowing what your minimal level of writing is — how much will keep you engaged and connected to the work? For me, it’s 15 minutes a day — that’s my rock bottom. For someone else, it might be 5 minutes or 60 minutes. The point is, know what YOU need to do to sustain your connection to the work even during a challenging phase.

Along with aiming for your minimum, when you’re going through a phase like this, make sure you increase your levels of self-care. Put sleep, healthy food, good hydration, fresh air, and exercise at the top of your list and get yourself back into balance. It’ll benefit your writing in the long term.

3. You’re in a bad mood or someone said something terrible to you and your confidence is shaken.

A common refrain among writers is, “I’m not in the right mood to write.” This can come up for all sorts of reasons, like having a bad night’s sleep or a bad day at work. It can also be a bit sneaky, and turn up when you’ve lost confidence because of something someone said about your writing or if you’ve been hooked by the Comparison Monster (“Everyone else is doing better at this than I am!”).

And what happens is that we start feeling like we need to take time off to rest or to get ourselves feeling better before we write.

But hear this now: Being in a bad mood is NOT a good reason not to write. 

There are far too many reasons to resist and procrastinate about writing already, we simply cannot allow our moods to be added to that list.

You may even be surprised to find that when you write on a daily or near-daily basis, your level of productivity and your ability to create are not at all related to your mood. Oftentimes writers find that their best writing and most productive days occur when they did not want to write. And besides, writing will often change your mood for the better anyway.

4. You’re going through a painful period of loss, grief, or “personal anguish”.

At another end of the spectrum is experiencing an extreme loss — like a death of a loved one. When my grandmother died in 2012, I felt as though I was in another world — nearer to the veil between life and death — and I found it difficult to write fiction in yet an entirely different world. So I choose to take a few days off from “real” writing, though I did do a tiny bit of tinkering with my script one day.

On the other hand, Steven Pressfield recommends writing even during times of “personal anguish” in his excellent post of the same title:

“I’m not saying pain is good. I’m not advocating screwing up our lives for the sake of art. I’m just making the observation that our genius is not us. It can’t be hurt like we can. Its heart can’t be broken. It’s going to send the next trolley down the track whether we like it or not.”

My experience is that those few brief days of being between worlds while in grief are the only spans of time in which I have felt truly unable to write, and then, just as I’ve said above, I still get back to writing as quickly as possible. I also believe it’s perfectly appropriate — important even — to allow ourselves time to grieve and be with whatever emotions are coming up. When my mother-in-law died recently, writing was my solace, as I mentioned. I also found great comfort in being involved with the writing of her obituary and the letter to our extended family. 

5. You need to refill your creative well.

All this said, I AM a firm believer in taking big “put my feet up” days off. I love to pick out a day on my calendar when I can feel the need building up, that I block off “just for me.” In my pre-baby days, I would take my older son to school, and then do whatever I felt like doing, usually some combination of a buying a fantastic decaf beverage, watching a movie in bed, taking a nap, and maybe going out for a meal at a favorite restaurant. Now, with a little baby in the house, my days off are even a little more home-centric, but still involve similar indulgences (a movie while he naps, something yummy delivered for lunch, and a long bath.)

On these days, I fully, completely enjoy my not-writing time, and I know I’m replenishing and rebuilding to dive back in the next day.

Your turn

The bottom line, for me, is that each one of us needs to experiment, listen to our own bodies and inner selves, and find what works best for us. And, like I said, given the massive opportunities for resistance, fear, avoidance, procrastination, and self-doubt, my strong recommendation is to find a way to stick to your work as regularly and consistently as possible. What do you think? What works for you? Let us know in the comments.

Experiment for yourself

Join the Writer's CircleIf you’re a writer looking for community and support on your writing journey, join our next session of the Writer’s Circle, which starts on March 2. It’s like a giant sandbox where you get to experiment with your writing habit, see what works, see what doesn’t, and enjoy working alongside other writers committed to showing up and doing the work. Find out more and register here: http://JustDoTheWriting.com

Warmly,

 Jenna

 

7 ways to recommit to your writing

Writing consistently, regularly, and honestly is a challenge.

But it’s a challenge worth meeting.

And when it comes to delivering on that task, it turns out that discipline is an over-rated solution when it comes to writing. Having a writing system and habit is what gets it done, day in and day out. But even when you have a writing habit in place, you still have to constantly refine it, improve it, and raise the bar when you get complacent. 

Because there are times in our writing lives when we can become complacent. We can hit rough patches and take breaks. We can lose momentum or get our writing disrupted by travel or work or kids or LIFE. We can lose confidence in our projects and our ability to write. We can get knocked on our asses by feedback that takes weeks to recover from. And we can also fall into writing without purpose or intention, particularly when we don’t have specific deadlines or milestones we’re trying to hit. 

The problem is that this kind of complacency will suck the vibrancy out of you, your writing, and your writing life. You might appear to be productive, as one of my Writer’s Circle members said this week, but really, you’re asleep with your eyes open and you know it. And it doesn’t feel good. 

The solution?

Recommitment.

When you find yourself in this place, it’s time to recommit to yourself as a writer. To your writing. To your writing life.

It’s about shifting back into a higher gear. Treating your writing like the life’s calling it is. Making it a priority. Making it happen.

7 ways to recommit to your writing

When you find yourself phoning it in or going through the motions, here’s what you can do to change it up and get back on track with what you were put here to do:

  1. Write like your life depends on it. You’re here to write, right? So do that. Take your writing seriously. Move mountains if necessary to make it happen, even if you’re hitting only your barest minimum “rock bottom goal” for the day. It counts, and it makes a big difference to your psyche when you honor your commitment to yourself this way.
  2. Up your game. Check in with yourself about how you’re feeling about your writing. You might be feeling lulled into a sense of complacency. You might be feeling good about your writing and what you’re accomplishing. But if you have a nagging sense that it’s time to require more of yourself, do that. Set daily, weekly, and monthly goals to help you make that happen. Look for deadlines or create them. Get accountability into place for yourself. Do what you’re saying you’re going to do. Create a sense of alertness, urgency, or briskness for yourself about your writing so you remember why you are here and make it happen.
  3. If today you can’t write, couldn’t bring yourself to write, don’t want to write, hate writing, or something else happened that stopped you from writing, TELL SOMEONE SAFE. This is a little bit like falling off the wagon if you are a recovering alcoholic. You’ve got to talk to your sponsor ASAP. Get to your people as fast as you can and get help getting back on track. Tell them/us your worst, darkest thoughts about writing. We can take it. We’ve probably had those same thoughts too. The thing is, we ALL have obstacles to writing. They run the gamut from perfectionism to distraction to limiting beliefs to creative confusion and apathy. Our collective work as writers is to systematically unearth and remove these obstacles one by one so they no longer stop us from doing what we were put here to do. (This is a big focus of what we do in the Writer’s Circle, and what’s particularly brilliant about the system is that seeing other writers remove obstacles helps us do so too.)
  4. Stay out of comparison. Everyone is on their own path when it comes to writing. Someone else will be writing more than you, someone else will be writing less. Someone will be more successful than you are right now and someone will be less so. IT DOESN’T MATTER. We are all on our own writing journeys. What matters is that you are meeting your own goals and working on your writing habit and writing career based on where you are and where you want to go. So you if you see someone writing for 4 (even 8 or 10!) hours a day and someone else aiming to write for 5 minutes a day, don’t worry about it. Just keep your eyes on your own paper and what you are doing for yourself. It’s all good. Just keep writing.
  5. Plan ahead. If you’re writing for 5 of 7 days per week or taking holidays off or whatever it is that you are doing — decide ahead of time. Don’t have the conversation about “IF” you are writing today. Know that you’re writing or not writing that day and act accordingly. Have the conversation about “WHEN” you will be writing. It’ll be much easier that way.
  6. Be as clear as possible about what you’re working on. This whole writing thing is a LOT easier if you have one specific project you’re working on and keep working on until it’s done. Particularly if you’re in writing habit building mode, you may find it easier to focus on simpler writing, like doing morning pages or responding to journal prompts to get started. But ultimately, being crystal clear about your project choice will give you direction, momentum, and purpose. Working on multiple projects at once (aka project stacking or layering) is an advanced skill, in my opinion. So save that for later if you’re working on strengthening your writing habit right now.
  7. Just do the writing. We called our group the “Just Do The Writing Accountability Circle” in the past. The reason we say “just do the writing” is that it really is the right solution in most cases. Thinking about writing, talking about writing, avoiding writing, and otherwise dithering about writing usually doesn’t fix whatever the problem is, whereas writing usually does. I say usually, because sometimes there are creative wounds that need healing, and sometimes we need to write about the writing to find out what’s going on with the work, but interestingly the way through both those things is still writing. So just do the writing and you’ll be in good shape. :) (And if you need help with a creative wound, I’m here to help.) 

Where are you with your writing right now? Is it getting to be time to step it up a notch? Are you phoning it in? What on this list inspires you most to make a change?

Tell us in the comments so we can celebrate with you and help you keep your word to yourself.