Six impossible things

Stressing Out

Sooner or later, everyone gets stressed, and stress affects everybody’s writing, one way or another. There are a few folks whose writing is their escape from stress, who write more when they get more stressed and less when they get happy, but that doesn’t seem to be all 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). Most writers 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 none left over for writing. (Which can add stress, if writing is one’s main occupation and source of income.)

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). 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 it if possible (move, change jobs, change the locks on the house or the phone number, etc.), see a professional if it gets to be too much. The trouble is that they’re all long-term solutions, and we’re a quick-fix society…and most people don’t even start trying to deal with stress until they’re already in over their heads and sinking fast.

But it’s like writing: nobody else is going to make you write…and nobody else is going to take all the stress out of your life for you. You have to work at it yourself. Some of it you can get rid of permanently; some, the only thing you can do is to change your attitude. And sometimes, it’s a matter of remembering your priorities. Much as we all love it, writing a book is not the most important thing in the world. Not compared to, say, getting your kid to the emergency room when she’s fallen out of a tree and broken her arm, or taking care of your elderly mother who has dementia, or calling the plumber about the flood that’s happening in the basement right now. Sometimes it’s OK not to write for a while.

It can be hard to admit that there’s just no time for writing right now, especially when your backbrain is nagging you to Get This Story Down Immediately. You have to be honest with yourself about whether writing is part of your coping mechanism (in which case it may be worth it to make the time, because it will help reduce the stress) or whether it isn’t (in which case you need to not-write, or you will just make the stress worse).

On the other hand, if your frontbrain is what’s telling you that It Is Your Job/Duty To Do Revisions Today, or that You Cannot Waste This Valuable Writing Time Just Because You’re Stressed … tell it to go take a hike. 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.

Be warned that which hand you’re using may well change with the circumstances. Most of the time, writing is part of my coping mechanism, but when my mother was dying and just after, I lost a good six months or more of writing time because even the thought of dealing with the plot was the very last straw that I couldn’t cope with on top of dealing with the estate and everything else. And it took a while to realize that trying to make myself write “in order to cope” (which had always worked before) was the exact wrong thing this time.

People aren’t machines…and even machines need down time for repairs and maintenance.

  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post! It really speaks to where I’ve been floundering the last few months. Novel writing and graduate school (for something other than novel writing) are not always the happiest companions. I also thought it was a useful followup to your snow day post, illuminating the difference between too-stressed-to-write and lazy-day-not-wanting-to-write. 🙂

  2. Love this examination of stress and writing. I think it’s an important message to set next to the frequently-given (and also true and valuable) message that you can’t wait for bolts of inspiration and usually have to just sit down and write. But, sometimes that isn’t true. It’s like any rule, that it has exceptions, and it’s good to remember that sometimes the best thing is to NOT be quite so driven to write every day.

    For myself, I think writing usually is a coping thing. At least, sometimes I find that I’m feeling blue or just out of sorts, and realize that I haven’t been writing–and writing a couple of good pages can do wonders for my mood. But I can definitely imagine there could be situations where writing is just going to turn into one more pressure I don’t need…

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It helps to put things in perspective. Right now, what is most stressful for me is not having the time to write, due to other commitments in my life. But when I think about what is most important, my family and my children, it’s a little easier to realize that I’ll just get done what I can get done. I know there will be other times when I have more time for writing. And right now, if I get some writing in, then it’s a bonus!

  4. I think it helps to have patience. When I get stressed about my writing, I remind myself that my long term goal is still 16 years out so one day of not writing won’t kill my career.

    But also I know that I have to keep moving forward bit by bit if I do want to reach that goal.

  5. Good post! I find this is something I deal with a *LOT*. Living in a highly stressful situation there are days I just *can’t* write. I want to. . .I always want to, but finding the time and/or energy to do so is not always possible. Then there’s the issue with creativity that stress also causes. . .knowing its there somewhere, but nothing creative you try flows the way it should, etc.

    Its nice to hear that other writers have trouble with this as well. That I’m not the only one on the street with the issue. I like finding out that I’m not as alone as I feel.

    For me, writing IS a means of coping. If only just distraction from my own life’s problems, and being able to, for a time, find some friends and step into another place, another time, another person’s life is a sanctuary for me. And yes, sometimes its a good way to work out some issues too, even if you don’t show that to anyone. You’re right, it does create extra pressure when I can’t find the time or creativity to get there. But as you say, sometimes its just not the right thing for that moment.

    I suppose, in that sense, I’m blessed that I don’t have publishers breathing down my neck or deadlines to meet. I write for my own pleasure and let a few people read, but its not my means of income. (A choice I made awhile back, and to date don’t regret. Though I leave the door open for myself to change my mind. Until/Unless I figure out how to change the current stress in my life – thats not going to be a top priority.)

    Its still hard, though, when I hit times that I cannot summon the energy to write for weeks on end.

  6. Oh I agree. 🙂

  7. Wonderful post. Thank you!

  8. I can identify, Patricia.

    When my son passed away seven years ago, I cut back on all projects but one. One book got my frazzled attention. It kept me from nose diving.

  9. This is really true. There have been times when I had to write just to stay sane, but this past summer… hasn’t been the case. Thanks for sharing a piece of your life with us.

  10. I agree. We’re so used to pushing ourselves to write we can’t see when we’re being ridiculous and pushing ourselves too far.

    I remember being an earnest grad student and telling a professor that I hadn’t written in two weeks and it was worrying me. He (very kindly) laughed in my face. That gave me some perspective.

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