Monday, November 4, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part III (Self Care)

This is a very sensitive subject, and one that is very close to my heart. I talk about mental health and physical well-being all of the time, but I think there are aspects of being this weird "writer" creature that many people do not take into account. Someone has to talk about it, so it may as well be your old Uncle Scott.

First thing's first: This whole "writing" thing? It's hard. Really hard. There's no stability, no retirement plan (unless you make one), no healthcare (unless you buy it), and no steady paycheck. Sure, you're your own boss, you set your own hours, etc. But there's a downside to that: It's all on you. And that leads a great many of us creative-types (not just writers...) to have a particular mental outlook on the world. Yes, I'm talking about depression. Serious, severe depression. Studies have shown (links below) that writers and creative types (musicians, artists, comedians) are more prone to depression than the so-called "normal" folks, and while theories abound as to why, no one really has clue one about the solid concrete cause. Of course, I have my own theories. Shall I share them?

To my mind, part of what leads the humble writer to depression is that we are constantly bombarded with rejection. Literally, our worth in our chosen field is determined by a group of strangers who don't know us, the random masses who may or may not read our work, and even people that may or may not "get" what we were going for in a story. And those things are not objective at all. They're all determined by taste, upbringing, what they had for lunch today (you try being nice with heartburn...), or even how their day is going. So you, the writer, spend months writing what you think is the greatest story you've ever written, then you send it out to agents and editors, and the response you get is "no." Or worse, "meh." And suddenly, the invasive thought appear. "I suck." "I'll never be good at this." "Why do I bother?" "I should've been a veterinarian." We fall into a hole of self-doubt and beat ourselves up until one of two things happens: We either quit, or we get stubborn about it and keep moving on.

Another reason for this issue in our lives is that writing is largely a solitary endeavor. As social creatures, we crave human contact. Even if you say you hate people and want to live as a hermit, for the most part, there will come a point where, if you don't have human contact, it's unhealthy. So we want people in our lives, friends, spouses, significant others, but we want them to leave us the hell alone when we're working.

We impose deadlines on ourselves and feel guilty when we don't meet them. We set impossible expectations for our work and fall into despair when it comes up short. We all have dreams of being the next big thing, and those dreams are constantly being smacked with a hammer.

So what can we do? Give up? Nope. I'm stubborn. I've got some things that I do when I'm on a downward swing that may help you.

Give yourself permission to suck. Look, not every word you write is going to be gold. Every first draft sucks, and that's the truth. So when you read through something, try to see your intent when you wrote it as opposed to how many times you wrote "there" instead of "they're." If you find something that sucks, mark it, revisit it, and ponder on what you could do to make a stronger choice. But don't beat yourself up over little mistakes or first-draft fuckery. It's fine. Everyone does this, from King to someone you've never heard of. Every first draft sucks.

Give yourself permission to step away from the keyboard. You know what happens when you're at your keyboard and the words won't come, but you're still sitting there determined to force them to appear? Nothing. The words still won't come. And you begin to feel depression jumping on you because you're obviously not a real writer because you can't just summon the muse from the ether and  make her shit out a few dozen pages at will. It doesn't work like that. Never has, never will. Yes, set a daily word count goal, and hit that goal, but also recognize when you need to step away for a few minutes. Realize that, at some point, you're going to get blocked and you may need to take a lap to get that creative magic back in your fingers.

Take a walk. When I'm having difficulty, I like to do things that I don't have to particularly "think" about. Typically, that means taking a walk through the neighborhood. See, if I sit and watch a TV show, I get involved in the plot. Hell, I wind up binge-watching the whole thing, and that's just a giant time-suck. Same thing for movies, though I love watching movies in the theater. Instead, I go for a walk through my neighborhood. I don't have to think about where I'm going so long as I follow the sidewalk, and that gives my brain a chance to kickstart itself back into working.

Exercise. One of the other pitfalls of this lifestyle is that it requires large amounts of time with butt in chair, which isn't conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Realize that the amount of time we spend in the chair for each novel is directly proportional to what I like to call "ass-spread." At least, it's that way for me. When I graduated from high school, long before I realized I wanted to be a writer, I weighed 142 pounds soaking wet and had 6% body fat. After more than a decade of being a writer, I saw my weight soar to the heaviest I've ever been, which is 240 pounds. Every joint I had hurt, and I got winded going upstairs in my own house. Since then, I've been on an exercise program, and at the time of this blog entry, I'm at 211. Exercise is a great way to turn off your brain and let it do the processing for you.

Read. How did we first learn to tell stories? By reading the works of the masters of our craft. How can we recharge when we feel that our batteries are low? By reading the works that inspired us to start with.

Connect. As I said, we are social creatures, whether we want to be or not. It's biology. So you do occasionally have to get out and (*gasp*) hang out with your friends. Reconnect with the people in your life that care about you and want to know where the hell you've been. Remind yourself that you do have people who love you. And if you don't think you do, I'm betting you're wrong. And if you want a more "writerly" way of connecting, have I got a solution for you: Writers' Workshops. I regularly attend In Your Write Mind, a writer's retreat created by alumni of Seton Hill University, at which I work. There are writers' retreats, workshops, and conventions in every state all year through. There are organizations for your genre as well. I'm a member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Association. Why? Because it's nice to not feel alone in this endeavor, and it's nice to have other people to talk to, to ask questions, and to basically bullshit around with.

Get help. There is no shame in the realization that you need help. Everyone needs help. Invasive thoughts, feelings of depression, hopelessness... These are signs of a larger problem, and one that a qualified, trained professional can help with. Please, before it's too late, get help.

These are the things that work for me. And you may need to find more that work for you. I was diagnosed with what was at the time known as severe manic depression years ago. I also have a touch of PTSD, the reasons for which I won't go into now. I have been on that ledge, on that chair, at the proverbial tipping point where my life could've ended. One thing that helped me walk away from it with my life still intact was this:  YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people who can help you. And here's one other little thing that I do when I'm having a mental health crisis... I write about it. The books that I wrote after a major trauma in my life feature some very heart-crushing themes, and they were my way of getting them out of my soul and healing. I'm not saying it's a magical panacea for everything what ails you, but I'm saying that, for me, it helped. I have lost too many friends to suicide, and I've had a couple of friends come awfully damned close. I don't want to lose any more, and I don't want to be the cause of anyone else's misery if I be the one taking my own life.

The point of this entry is very simple: You can't be a writer if you're not around to write. Make your goals, set your deadlines, whatever, but you have to make time to take care of yourself. Read that again. You have to make time to take care of yourself. Take a hot bath, take a nap, go grab a coffee, reconnect with friends... Do something that makes you feel good about who you are as a person. Take care of yourself.  And don't you dare let anyone shame you for it. If anyone says "well, you're not a real writer unless..." Kick that person squarely in the junk. Tell them I told you to. I gave you permission. G'head. Send 'em my way.

Remember, your story will not get written if you aren't around to write it. You are valid. You have worth. And there is an audience for your work.

Next time, we'll talk about that pesky day job.

Until then, write on!


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  1. This is great advice, Scott! I personally add journaling and meditating a bit everyday. A few minutes goes a long way to clearing my head before writing. One of my fascinations is with the journals of published authors. My favorite is Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck. He actually mentions his "depressions" more than once in the book (which wasn't originally meant for publication,) and how writing in the journal before going to work helped him "warm-up". Thanks for the great reminders, especially during Nanowrimo!

  2. Awesome post! Any further advice on self-hatred? I find that I love what I write at first then I hate every single word and think it is shit. No. I don't give up, but sometimes the putting myself down with my writing really gets to me.

  3. The best advice I can give here is to put it down for a little while, then go back to it with fresh eyes. I can't tell you how many pieces I've written that I've hated. Then, months later, when I've forgotten what I've written and I go back and read it, I begrudgingly admit that it's not nearly as bad as I thought it was.