Writing in Times of Stress and Upheaval

Being a writer is the best job in the world. I can work from anywhere, write what I like, and I’m not restricted to a traditional 9-to-5. The only real downside (apart from having to explain what I do when I’m trying to get a bank loan) is that in order to maintain my livelihood, I have to create constantly and consistently.

I know, I know: Poor me, I have to get up every day and make the art I love.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m aware of how ridiculously fortunate I am to be able to build my life around my art. I love not being confined to an office and having to get up every day to punch a clock. But in order to maintain this delicious lifestyle I’ve created, I have to write every day.

I’m primarily a dystopian writer, which means I need to stick to stories that are within my wheelhouse. When I’m working on a series, my readers are waiting for the next book, which means I need to write book two, book three, book four, or even book five to satisfy demand. Being a writer doesn’t mean I get up every day and write whatever I feel like. I get up every day and work on the project I’ve selected.

Normally, this is no problem. I love my stories, my characters, and the worlds I create. I love my readers, and I want to satisfy them. Fiction only becomes problematic when life gets in the way.

When I picked up my life and moved to Colorado, it was about five months before I really settled in and felt like myself again. I was writing during that time, but the stuff I was creating was not as good as the work I’d been producing up to that point.

Non-writers think fiction is all about imagination, but it also requires a great deal of structure, logic, and creative problem-solving. This mental heavy-lifting can be a huge amount of fun, but it’s also incredibly difficult when you have other things on your mind.

Right now my husband and I are in the process of building a house on 40 acres. My husband is the builder, which means we are handling everything ourselves, from the road to digging the well to putting every board and nail into place. It’s exciting, but it also takes up an enormous amount of mental real estate, and on Monday I hit a wall with the first draft of my book.

As I sat looking at my calendar, I realized there was no way I could possibly get the book completed and published by the end of the year. I really wanted to immerse myself in my new nonfiction project for writers, but I was feeling the pressure of getting another fiction book out to generate the income I need to sustain my business.

I realized I’d felt this way before — the last time we’d picked up our lives and moved. And I realized I’d be feeling this way again…and again and again and again.

In life, there is no shortage of stress or upheaval. Life is change, and it’s only our resistance to that change that causes us misery. I realized I needed some tools to get a better handle on these times of intense creative turmoil so that I could keep creating and still enjoy my work.

This list is a work in progress, and it’s as much for me as it is for you:

  1. Give yourself a break. Normally my advice for writers is to quit whining, suck it up, and just write. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I fit squarely in the grit-your-teeth-and-do-it camp. But sometimes this gets me into trouble. I start to feel burned out, and my work usually suffers. I’ve realized that there are times to plow ahead and get words in, but there are times when it’s appropriate to ease up on your word count. For this book, I am giving myself an extension on the first draft. I’m still working on the book every day Monday through Friday, but I’m asking myself for fewer words than usual each day that I write.
  2. Don’t make the rest of your life so damn hard. I admit it: I’m a chronic high achiever. I don’t half-ass my work, and I really don’t half-ass much of anything else, either. But when the act of creation gets tough, I have started easing up in other areas of my life. No, this is not the week to host a dinner party. In fact, this is the week where I’m picking up a Papa Murphy’s pizza and phoning it in for dinner the other nights. I’m dragging my ass to yoga, but I’m not going to beat myself up because I can’t do a headstand. I’m not going to be a model dog mom this week. Instead of hiking up to the reservoir, we are hiking around the block for twenty minutes. Remember: You aren’t being graded. Give yourself a pass and go to bed an hour early.
  3. Take things off your plate. Sometimes you have to be your own best friend. This tip goes hand-in-hand with tip No. 2, but it’s referring to external expectations rather than internal. Whatever you can take off your plate, do it. Delete emails that don’t require a response. Blow off junk mail from companies bugging you for things that aren’t really necessary. Cancel any meetings you can get away with. Don’t volunteer yourself to take on other people’s responsibilities (I’m talking neighbors, co-workers, and friends). This last one can be hard — especially for the chronically helpful among us — but it’s necessary to preserve your own sanity.
  4. Make time to meditate. I’m serious. I don’t care how busy you are — just do it. Start your day by taking ten or fifteen minutes to sit and breathe. Or, if breathing in silence makes you fidget, give yourself a calming mantra and practice japa meditation. Meditation reduces stress, enhances creativity, and promotes mental clarity. If you are a writer or a creative, meditating could be the single most valuable thing you do all day.
  5. Get back to nature. When I’m feeling out of sorts, one of the things that helps ground me is simply getting out into the woods and away from people. The Japanese art of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” is having a moment right now in the West, and for good reason — humans were meant to coexist with nature. Studies show that forest bathing reduces depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion — all great things we writers need.
  6. Write what your heart is calling for — even if it’s only for a few minutes. That beautiful inner light of creativity is always inside us. It never goes out, but at times it can feel as though it’s burning low. When that happens, fuel the fire with what your heart is aching to create, no matter what it is. Even when I’m typing away all day on a structured fiction project, I still make free-writing by hand part of my morning practice, which gives me some time to write whatever I’m feeling — even if the rest of the world will never see it.
  7. Do something just for fun. After I read The Artist’s Way, I realized how important it is to nurture your inner artist. One of my goals for 2018 was to make “crafternoons” a regular weekend activity, and I have to admit I’ve only done a few. But two weeks ago I sat down and made myself some mala beads, and I felt so calm and fulfilled afterward. This weekend, I’m giving myself permission to craft just because it brings me joy.

Do you ever experience creative fatigue in times of stress and upheaval? How do you deal with it? Let me know your best strategies in the comments below.

Photo by Fredrick Kearney Jr.

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