Push Like You’re Pooping: Writing In Times Of Duress

My mother went to the ER yesterday afternoon, and did not get out of the hospital until almost 12 hours later. I’ll cut right to the chase: she’s fine, mostly, but dealing with some pain and some persistent issues that will require further look-see’s, but according to the doctors it’s nothing life-threatening.

Got the call from her around 2AM that she had the greenlight to go home. Which means I’m pretty tired right now, but certainly nowhere near as tired as she is, or my sister is for taking her.

Thing is, and this may sound callous, whatever had happened last night, I was planning on doing my damnedest to get some writing in today.

Again, I get it, that sounds callous.

Here’s the thing, though. I recommend writing in times of duress. Obviously, this recommendation falls only within reasonable margins — if someone’s breaking into your house or you’ve got a loved one on his deathbed, no, I don’t recommend you take a time-out to jot some notes down on that fantasy novel you’re writing. But often enough life affords you time during stress, even if it’s fifteen minutes here and there, or a couple hours in the early morning or late night when everything is quiet and all is uncertain. And so I say to you, in these times: write. Write, write, write. Write like your own life depended on it. The tendency is to not write — “Oh, I couldn’t do that right now.” “My mind isn’t focused.” “Why bother?” I’m not telling you to write 2000 words on your current WIP, necessarily. If you have a freelance assignment, yes, you might need to take some time away from that. I’m not telling you what to write: but you should jolly well put pen to paper and fingers to keys and upend your head and see what falls out.

I always talk about how writing has value, and when I say that, I generally mean, “value to the reading public,” but one thing that’s considerably more important is that it also has intense personal value, as well.

Three reasons to write in times of duress. Ready? Go.

Provides Distraction

Stress will eat you up.

Worry and anxiety are two starving terriers, forever nibbling at your heels.

For whatever reason, we’re kind of dumb when it comes to stress, I think. Things get stressful and we just… let it in. I don’t mean, we let it in in order to deal with it, I mean, we just open the door to it. It’s like letting a hobo into your home without any plan to feed him or rehabilitate him. Eventually he’s going to start knocking things over. He’ll raid your liquor cabinet. He’ll pee in the four corners of every room.

Sometimes, you need to distract yourself from worry.

Sure, maybe that means a game of solitaire or a phone call to a friend.

Alternately, consider doing a little writing. This isn’t one of those times where I think you need to be super-organized or anything. This is one of those, “Hey, just start putting words down and see what happens.”

If the stress won’t let you write about anything but the stress, that’s okay, too.

The thing is, this is habit-forming. In a good way. If your response to stress is, “Well, I’m going to hunker down and put out a little word count,” you’ve just trained your brain to basically turn straw into gold, or water into wine, or straw-water into gold-wine or some shit. That’s a good habit to have.

Which leads me to the next point…

Turns Out, Life Is Goddamn Stressful

Seriously. It is. Look around. Life is full of stresses big and small. Every day has its compression fractures, every week has its hard breaks. It’s sad, to be sure, but you can’t avoid all duress and worry.

By developing the habit to write your way through stress, you’ve hacked a new path through this rot-suck jungle. That’s a path you can walk again and again. See, a lot of writers get tripped up by stress. They let external forces press on them and dictate their behaviors — meaning, ultimately, when Life Gets Hard, the Writer Gets Soft. This isn’t helpful because, well, remember when I said that life is goddamn stressful? (Seriously. I just said it. Are you asleep? Wake up. I’m talking over here.) It is. It’s stressful as hell. Life is constantly under attack by problems big and small. Or, as the Buddhists say, “All of life is suffering.”

We’d love it if the precept was: “All of life was cake and pony rides,” but that shit just ain’t true.

Point is, if your reaction to big stress as a writer is to turtle into darkness and not write, then that runs the risk of becoming your response to little stress, too.

“Dishwasher broke. Can’t write!”

“Stubbed my toe. No wordsmithy today!”

“My coffee has too much milk! I must lament. Woe, woebetide my unanswered manuscript!”

Again, I’m not advocating you stubbornly avoid problem situations by writing, either. Don’t be unreasonable. You still need to tend to problems and address them. But again, life usually offers you a few moments of breathing room. Use those moments, even if it’s to scrawl some quite rambling babble as to how you’re feeling at the time. This might provide you with some fodder for your fiction in the future, and more importantly…

You Need To Express Yourself

Some dogs have a problem. If you have a pug, you might be familiar with this.

They have anal glands.

And those anal glands sometimes… erm, “clog up.”

And those anal glands, well, sometimes somebody (you, a vet, a certified Anal Gland Technician) needs to come along and express those anal glands, lest they become infected.

Like a pimple. Two thumbs, then squeeze.

(By the way, the resultant… expulsion from the anal gland squeezin’s is righteously horrible. It’s not like poo. It’s like, I dunno, musky fish sauce left to ferment in a corpse’s mouth. Do not get it on your clothes. I repeat: do not get it on your clothes.)

Stress is like this. It’ll build. You don’t deal with it, it’ll come out anyway. You don’t want the stress to control its own release, because then it gets on everybody. You want to control the stress and how it releases, and writing is one very good way of doing that.

Writing is a primal scream. It’s yelling into a hole. It’s the crystallization of your thoughts and fears.

Writing cages your worry.

Writing in times of duress can be a necessary release: turn the faucet and let the spigot run for 15 minutes, or an hour if you have it. No, you’re not striving for useful word count, you’re just striving to get the poison out on the page. You might even find that hidden in that mess are a few shiny gems. Who knows?

Once more, this is habit-forming. This creates a kind of discipline through positive reinforcement. Writing becomes associated with stress reduction rather than stress buildup.

Hey, listen. We’re all basically dogs over here. We can be conditioned. The bell rings, we start to drool, and Pavlov does a little dance. You tie the act of writing to a number of positive things (stress release, distraction, the crystallization of our anxiety), and you’re basically confirming a discipline, a habit. That’s a good thing. Writers need more of that. I know I talk about writing as a job often enough, and it is — but it works on a number of levels, too, and does offer some genuine benefits to you personally. Again, it has value internally as well as externally, and internally is how you must control your writing life. If you let external factors guide your writing life, you’ve handed someone else the keys to the castle.

Anyway, as a sidenote, I’d like to say thanks to all the excellent tweeps out there who said nice things and sent well-wishes last night. Chalk one more thing up on the wall about “Things Chuck Likes About Twitter.” The fact that it’s a call-and-response, a mechanism by which you can feel connected to really awesome people all around the world, is incredible — an unexpected support system. You’re all very awesome people. Er, tweeple? I don’t know. You’re awesome, is what I’m saying.