Six impossible things


Stress affects everybody’s writing, one way or another, sooner or later, because stress is part of life. How stress affects people’s writing varies from writer to writers. For some folks, writing is an escape, so the more stressed they are, the more they write (though this isn’t that common among published writers, probably because it’s too hard to balance on the knife-edge of stressed-enough-to-write-but-not-so-stressed-that-there-really-isn’t-time-to-write). Other folks hit a certain level of stress, and find that it’s using every bit of energy they have just to stay alive, and there’s no energy or brain cells left over for writing. (Which can add stress, if writing is one’s main occupation and source of income.) For others, it depends on the kind of stress – if it’s outside stuff like an intense day job or the sewer backing up, they can write straight through it without blinking, but if it’s anything personal or emotional, they might as well forget it. And of course there are the folks who get stressed if they go too long without writing, because it’s a safety valve.

Everybody gets overstressed at some point, and the result can be quite dramatic in terms of productivity (and if it isn’t, you frequently end up paying for it later). And all too often, we make it worse for ourselves. Over and over, I’ve watched otherwise rational professionals fall to pieces because they’re under stress and refuse to admit it or allow for it. Writers who have a major operation or illness and refuse to ask for either help or a deadline extension, and then work themselves right back into the emergency room. Writers who’ve had a string of minor catastrophes, and who beat themselves up for not writing. (Usually, these are the sort who could sail through any one minor catastrophe without pause; it’s dealing with five or six in quick succession that’s too much. So they look at everything one at a time: the car accident that took a week and dozens of phone calls to the insurance company to settle, and the kid who fell out of the tree and broke an arm, and the water pipe that leaked three inches of water into the living room, and the refrigerator pump that failed and unfroze everything inside, and the cat who had to be rushed to the vet in the middle of the night, and the scary letter from the IRS about last year’s taxes, and it doesn’t occur to them that when all that happens in the same week, you are allowed to not get any writing done). Writers who are taking care of a seriously ill family member, and think they should do that, have a day job, and still write full time.

Some of this happens, I think, because those of us who write for a living are so very, very aware of how easy it is to find excuses not to write…and how very dangerous it is to give in to that impulse. Everybody sneers at the wannabes who only ever talk about the great story they are going to write some day…and who’ve been talking about it, and not writing a single word, for the past ten or fifteen years. But part of the reason we sneer is that we know just how little it would take for use to slide back into “some day, sooner or later” land. It took a lot of work and discipline and determination to get to the point where writing happens and pages get produced on a regular basis, and we don’t want to have to climb that hill again.

But stuff happens, and if you don’t recognize it, admit it, and deal with it, you’ll very likely be much worse off in the long run. It’s a bit like writing, or exercise, or losing weight: other people can tell you that you need to do it, but you are the only one who can actually write the words, do the pushups, lose the weight, or manage your own stress.

There are a bazillion books out there on how to manage stress, and they all say the same things and they’re all right: exercise, eat right, take care of yourself, take a break, take a walk, meditate, talk to people about it, find ways to reduce the stress if possible (move, change jobs, get a massage, change the locks on the house or the phone number, quit listening to the news, etc.), see a professional if it gets to be too much. The one thing none of them advise is ignoring the fact that you are stressed and trying to carry on normally.

The trouble is that the things that are most effective for dealing with stress all work over the long run, and we’re a quick-fix society…and most people don’t start trying to deal with stress until they’re already in over their heads and sinking.

Also, you’re never going to get rid of all the stress in your life. It simply isn’t possible. Sometimes, you can get rid of a particular stressor permanently, sometimes, the only thing you can change is your attitude and the degree to which you take care of yourself. And one of the important ways of taking care of yourself is to not beat yourself up when you didn’t write as much as you think you should. Much as we all love doing it, writing is not always the most important thing in the world. Not compared to, say, getting your kid to the emergency room after that bicycle accident, or rebuilding the house and community that got smashed by the tornado. As one of my editors says when a writer gets too panicky, “Babies won’t die if you’re late getting your manuscript in.”

When you are under stress, you don’t think straight. It is useful, I find, to check in once in a while and actually listen to what you are telling yourself. If you’re frustrated and cross because you want to write and don’t have time, then writing may be part of your way of coping with stress, and it’s worth making time, even just a few minutes, to do it (along with eating right, sleeping, etc.). If, however, you’re fussing about the deadline and your general lack of productivity and how you can’t possibly be a Real Writer and It Is Your Job/Duty, You Cannot Waste Valuable Writing Time…stuff it. You don’t have to write when your Mom is in the hospital or your kid is running a temperature or you’re worried sick about layoffs or the roof just blew off in a tornado. You can if you want, but you don’t have to.

Also, sometimes when you’ve been under stress for a long time and take it off suddenly, there’s a sort of rebound reaction and everything kind of collapses for a while…which can take a lot longer than you think it ought to, especially if you were holding it together long past the normal burn-out point.

When my mother died after a two-year decline into Alzheimer’s, it took me nearly four years to get back to approaching-normal. I managed to get some writing done during that time, but not nearly as much as I usually do. It taught me that if you’ve keep trying to write during a crisis when you not only don’t feel like it, but really don’t want to and don’t think you can, then a) you probably should take a break, and b) you probably don’t have to worry that you’re one of those pseudo-writers who takes any and every excuse to not-write.

  1. “When you are under stress, you don’t think straight. It is useful, I find, to check in once in a while and actually listen to what you are telling yourself.” <– I want to hug the whole paragraph that this sentence is in because it's so true.

  2. I don’t have a very stressful job, so when stress DOES hit me, I’m one of those who shuts down… though typically, after a brief shut down, I’ll turn to writing.

    But yes, I could find better ways to manage stress… and certainly I could stop ignoring it! Thanks for the excellent post. =)

  3. Stress affects writers more than “normal” people because some (most?) writers write as a way of taking command of a part of their world, a part they invent and where they can dictate what happens (or at least that’s the comforting illusion). And nothing is more destabilizing to a control freak than coming face to face with a situation they cannot control; when the unexpected happens, it is a threat at a deep, visceral level. Stability comes from fashioning; as Robert Frost said, “Making a basket, or making a horseshoe, or giving anything form, gives you a confidence in the universe.”

  4. I really need to find an effective de-stressor. I do not deal at ALL well with stress or emergencies, and creative energy takes at least some level of calm to function. A freshly finished writing is very calming but…. that makes it a Catch-22 puzzle if I try to write in order to calm down.

  5. You don’t have to write when your Mom is in the hospital…

    That was my summer. Plus I was ill while she was in the hospital (nothing contagious) and just kept going anyway, because I had to. I was fine with not writing during the crisis. I’m having more difficulty with the aftermath. I returned to writing fairly quickly. I’m one of those writers who gets unhappy when I’m not writing for too long, and boy was I a grouch when I finally returned home (I was away for three and a half weeks). But I’m not writing as regularly as I usually do. Usually I write Mon-Fri. So far, I’ve had only one week like that (the first when I returned to writing). All the others have been 2 – 4 writing days per week, and that bothers me. I think I need to cut myself some slack. I’m still dealing with my chronic medical problem that started while my mom was so very ill. Thing is…I’m just happier when I’m writing 5 days a week.

  6. Thank you for posting this. Berating myself needlessly is one of my biggest personal road blocks.

  7. Thank you for posting this. I needed it.

    I, an introvert, spent four years of forced extroversion in a volunteer position where I had to manage egos. (long story). After my round of duties was done, I declared I was on Mental Vacation for a year. Part of that was becoming as much of a hermit as having a day job will allow, and not doing anything beyond basic life maintenance. However in that year, I also started, finished, submitted and edited two stories for publication.

    I while I’m the kind of writer who has to write to be happy, I think I need more than a year of mental vacation. I’m still not doing more than the minimum needed to live. But I am getting better.

  8. It must be in the air. Fall is a time of new beginnings: school, weather, preparation for the holidays, the big crunch at work.

    Summer is over, and you didn’t take the vacations you meant to, get the garden into shape as you should have, or lose the weight you intended to with all the extra opportunities for exercise (ha!).

    Add to that the normal stressors that never went away. Throw in a new crisis or two, and the result is paralysis.

    So be kind to yourself. Go back to using all your strengthening and comfort measures as you can. Pray, if you’re the praying sort. Cut commitments where possible, drop expectations, and for Heaven’s sake, let the housework go (that one’s for me, and it’s a joke considering how little gets done around the house of a chronically ill person).

    Adding shame and guilt is both stupid and doesn’t work.

    Smile, breathe, and pick the next tiny step.

    Very timely and beautiful post. Now I can postpone writing mine about the same thing, and maybe relax enough to write a few words while I wait for the next bit to kick up. Maybe not.

  9. Thank you. Special thanks for mentioning that it took you four years to get back on track after your mother’s Alzheimer’s. It’s so tempting to think, because a major stressor has ended, I should be back to normal next week. It doesn’t work that way.

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