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

 

With Creativity Comes Confidence: A Lesson from a Sci Fi Genius

In working with my Artist’s Way Accountability & Support Group today, I was reminded of a novel I read recently called Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi.

The book is a fun, lighthearted romp about a film agent who ends up being the P.R. guy for a group of ugly aliens wanting to be accepted by the earthlings despite their extremely off-putting appearance and odor. A highly entertaining read and clever story, to say the least.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Beyond the unusual plot line, what particularly endeared me to the book was that it was Scalzi’s very first novel and one he wrote as a “practice” novel just so he could say that he had done it (and to impress his classmates at his 10 year high school reunion :) ).

Here’s what he has to say about it on his website (where, by the way, you can read the whole novel):

“In sitting down to write the novel, I decided to make it easy on myself. I decided first that I wasn’t going to try to write something near and dear to my heart, just a fun story. That way, if I screwed it up (which was a real possibility), it wasn’t like I was screwing up the One Story That Mattered To Me. I decided also that the goal of writing the novel was the actual writing of it — not the selling of it, which is usually the goal of a novelist. I didn’t want to worry about whether it was good enough to sell; I just wanted to have the experience of writing a story over the length of a novel, and see what I thought about it. Not every writer is a novelist; I wanted to see if I was.

“Making these two decisions freed me from a lot of the usual angst and pain that comes from writing a first novel. This was in all respects a ‘practice’ novel — a setting for me to play with the form to see what worked, and what didn’t, and what I’d need to do to make the next novel worth selling.”

The genius of this was that it freed him from the zeitgeist of perfectionism (a trap many of us, including me, know only too well) and allowed him to loosen up, have some fun, and get into action with Doing The Writing.

He made some attempts at selling it, but wasn’t able to, so he ended up posting it online for donations from people if they liked it on a kind of “shareware” basis. (Love that!) He was later invited to do a limited edition hardcover release of the book in 2005 and then in paperback in 2008.

Build Your Confidence

Magically, he says, “…between the writing of this novel and the publication of [my second novel], five other books slipped out of my brain, due in some measure to my confidence that I could write book-length works, be they fiction or non-fiction.”

Love that, too.

Isn’t it fascinating how simply Doing The Writing (or Doing The Work) helps us to build the confidence we think we need “before” we can do it “for real.” This clever guy found a way to do both at once.

(On a similar note, funny how this often comes up for entrepreneurs, coaches, and artists around having enough “credibility” to do what we want to do. So often I hear people talking about getting “certified” first, taking one more training,  getting the “right” website designed, or crafting the “right” progam. I make those mistakes too — my coach just busted me on this very thing this very morning, hello!)

So.

There is nothing like finding small ways to get started to help build your confidence around new skills.

For instance, I took a screenwriting class last summer and then signed myself up for a short screenplay writing competition to put my skills to the test. And my first script came in 3rd place in my group! My two subsequent scripts did not “score” in quite the same way, but simply the act of creating all of them gave me a sense of confidence and comfort around putting the pieces together to make a plausible script.

Since I have never written any fiction before this, I was so pleased with gaining the sense of, “Oh, yes, I can do this!” Even if I have more to learn (there’s always more), I’m off to a good start.

Reminds me of what a numerologist told me about my Life Lesson once upon a time, “With creativity comes confidence.”

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How does this inspire you?

I’d love to have you share your comments on the blog.

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What’s Jenna Up To?

~> April 20, 2011. Speaking at the Thriving Practice Workshop Series in Berkeley, California on creating a web presence and using social media to reach clients.

~>April 23, 2011. Next broadcast of my Radio Lightworker radio show “Dreamification” on “Visioning and Moving Ahead With Your Dreams Even in the Face of Fear.” Details. Listen from anywhere in the world to this Internet radio show.

~> April 26th, 2011. My Artist’s Way Accountability & Support Group continues. Details.

On Being a Mass of Contradictions & Shrugging Off the Constraints

I am a mass of contrasts and contradictions – a big shot and a sensitive soul, a hermit in the spotlight, a medieval sorceress in kick-ass sci fi garb, a tech geek and lover of the metaphysical and spiritual realms, and a big picture thinker who knows how to Get Things Done.

I love being “in” at home, and then there are times when I feel so limited and constrained that I just want to rip down the walls of my house to get out.

One of the constraints I’ve been wrestling with lately is being “too nice.” I’ve been “nice” for a long time.

It’s pretty boring.

I’ve been nice because I was told I should be.

I’ve been nice because I thought that’s what it meant to be spiritual. And a coach. And a coach for sensitive souls.

But I’ve also watered myself down in the process.

MYSELF.

Oops.

I’m less full of my selfness than I mean to be. I’m holding back and playing it safe.

I haven’t MEANT to hide or play it safe, exactly, but I have.

I’ve been hiding my critic’s eye, for fear of offending people.

I’ve been hiding expressing my real feelings about things publicly, like the times when I want to give up or the times I lose my way, or the times when I just plain old don’t agree with something someone I admire is doing.

The side effect of all this is that not only am I not sharing things I know will help you and me both, I’m also hold back the part of me that wants to kick ass, take names, tell the TRUTH, and get people into ACTION. Intuitive action — action based in deep inner wisdom and inner guidance — but action nonetheless.

So, I know you’ve seen me doing this already, but I wanted to tell you a little bit more about WHY I’m aiming to embrace my messy, delicious, complicated self so publicly, and how I’m hoping to inspire YOU to do the same. The more real we each are, the more full of our selfness, the more truthful and real and whole the world can become.

What part of yourself are you ready to express more fully?

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Related Posts: Band of Misfits, or Voices of Reason? Guest Post by Kristine Carey

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What’s Jenna Up To?

~> March 15th, 2011. My Artist’s Way Accountability & Support Group continues. Details.

~> March 26th, 2011. First broadcast of my brand new Radio Lightworker radio show on “Dreamification.” Find out more and submit your questions.

~> April 29th & 30th, 2011. My next Voice Your Vision retreat will be held in Berkeley, California. Early registration is now available. Special savings if you’ve already had your hands analyzed.