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.

21 comments

  • I hear you.

    When I have work in some sort of waged environment, I kind of write every chance I get to myself. Some people used to go to the toilet to smoke – I’d go to the toilet to write. And I’d always have some sort of notepad and pen on my person, and time to myself after work to put the words I’ve written on paper into something on the screen.

    Some of my best Hunter: the Reckoning Libra fiction came about when I was working. The sad stuff, like Libra’s son from his first marriage, and the fact that when he went extremist, no fault of his own, his entire cell initially deserted him.

  • There’s a book I ordered from Amazon called “Is Life Like This?” by a guy named John Dufresne. It’s what amounts to a long essay about writing your first (or second/third, whatever) novel in 6 months. It’s a bit long-winded, and biased in some ways (like “do not write a formulaic novel because they’re soulless and they suck”), but it has some pretty neat advice and a week-by-week breakdown of writing exercises and ways to help you focus on what needs to be done on your writing.

    AAAANYway… There’s one quote from it that I’ve sort of taken as my mantra:

    Everything in your life is incompatible with writing, and always will be.

    Truer words, mate. Truer words.

    The kids, the laundry, making coffee in the morning, going to pay rent, grocery shopping, prepping meals, playgroups, the baby, buying more groceries, doing the dishes, making another meal, doing more dishes, vacuuming everything twice a day because my kids refuse to stop trailing breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel through my house, making beds, reading stories, finger painting, music lessons, temper tantrums, toilet-training, running more errands, bathtime, bedtime, getting them to stay in bed, the baby again, the kids fighting when they should be asleep, the baby’s out of bottles and they need to be sterilized, now she’s waking up in the middle of the night when all I want to do is go back to my dream of Sean Connery and oh my god it never never never never stops.

    And then there’s the added bonus of doctor’s apppointments, allergy attacks, public nurse wellness checks, immunizations, family dropping in without more than two minutes’ warning when the house is up to my arse, home therapists deciding to take a runner in the middle of a work day, ear infections that won’t go away, headaches, friends bumming money and/or smokes constantly and oh my god that never stops either.

    Everything in -my- life is certainly incompatible with writing. And I haven’t seen evidence to indicate that won’t always be the case, so I assume it always will be.

    And yet, over the past few nights, with a hot water bottle to my ear and a truckload of ibuprofen, I found the time to haul out the laptop and write for a little bit, in bed, before falling asleep. It isn’t a lot — over the past three nights, I’ve gotten 4 and a half pages… But the point is, I actually managed to find a quiet time, with literally EVERYONE in the house but me asleep, to write. Sometimes it lasts an hour or so, sometimes it only lasts for fifteen minutes. But the important part is, it lasts.

    At least, I think that’s the important part.

  • I find I’m at my best, writing-wise, when I’m highly emotional or stressed out. I’m not sure why, but shit just seems to stream out during emotional highs and lows. The only time I won’t write is when I’m really angry. I learned that lesson when I left Spencer Gifts. They stiffed me on my quarterly bonus (A significant amount of money) and I wrote the president of the company a 3 page e-mail venting my rage and disgust. Consequently I’m no longer welcome in any Spencer Gifts, or within 500 feet of the corporate headquarters.

    A good example is my WoW fiction. (Confession time: Yes…I’ve written a lot of stories based on my Tauren Druid that I play on a role playing server within a tight-knit RP community.) I wrote an epic storyline that translated into a server-wide, 3 month event involving several other guilds, a war, and consequences that rewrote the canon for the server and a lot of characters. I even managed to help two people kill off their old characters so that they could introduce new ones. I did this all while trying to cope with something horrible that affected me on a personal level. I needed an outlet…and this was it.

    Yes…writing is a primal scream. I like that line, Chuck. It’s therapeutic at the same time.

    • @Paul:

      I didn’t know that such a level of RP’ing was out there on WoW. That’s cool. Huh.

      And if you ever need me to pick anything up from Spencer Gifts, I’ll do you a solid. What the hell did you say? Did you threaten to make him eat his own waste or something?

      — c.

  • Word.

    This is really resonant for me right now. I’ve been letting random crap eat away at my structure, and I’m just beginning a campaign to reclaim that. …was planning on posting about it today, actually. ^_^

    Maggie: You are magnificent. Hope your ear is all better soon, and OMG I feel your child-related pain. Bravo to you for writing through it.

    • @Andrea —

      That’s always one of the trickiest bits, innit? All those little nibbles, nibbles of productivity and confidence.

      Those must be banished somehow to the margins.

      Damn you, Terriers Of Doubt!

      — c.

  • Glad to hear your mom is okay. I’ve definitely been there, done that. I hope she continues to be okay.

    I definitely understand what you’re saying. I’m most productive with my writing in times of stress. Not that you were wondering, but I feel the need to share a little bit about me that seems to be relevent here.

    A long time ago, I wanted to write, but gave in to my parents and other who begged me not to follow that career path because “I would never make it.” So I became a teacher. I was a damn good one too, even though The writing bug kept tugging at me. I taught for 14 years in a very demanding position. I was “Teacher of the Year” in 2006. That same year, a mildly autistic student of mine for 4 years who had recently graduated committed suicide. He found his father’s gun, wrote a note, walked into a vacant lot, and shot himself in the head. His note? It was about how he didn’t want to grow up and leave behind what he loved. He wrote that the only time he ever felt accepted was in my classroom. He couldn’t handle leaving that. His funeral was filled with accounts of his time under my tutelage. I helped him fulfill his dream of performing onstage at Carnegie Hall.

    A better man would’ve used that to be an even more inspiring teacher. Instead, I fell into post-traumatic stress. I almost threw away my marriage. I also started writing again. In the depths of my personal hell, writing kept me sane. It saw me through PTSD. I also think that some of that writing, though often a dark product of my mental state, was pretty damn good. Now, several years down the road, I’m learning to channel that creativity in Better, more normal circumstances. But if/when things go bad, that outlet will still be there.

    So listen to Chuck. He smart guy.

  • I offer this same advice as homework, journaling or a therapeutic intervention for issues which come up in treatment with the teens I work with many times a week.

    I’m on your trolley: Worry gets into your mind, heart and body. Just as running to relive the tension in your body becomes a habit, so too can writing relive the same tension in the heart and mind.

    That said, I’m glad your tension has eased. Our best to your Ma.

    K

    • @Keith: Thanks, chief. Back atcha.

      @Darren: That’s a wild story, dude. I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m glad you managed to come out on the other side, at least.

      — c.

  • @Paul: Moon Guard or Wyrmrest Accord? Those are the only two RP servers left, really.

    @Chuck: Warcraft is pretty rich in lore, history and mythology. Shaped by the Titans, opposed by the Old Gods, guarded by the Ancients and the Eternals. Races, wars, invasions from the sky and the ground, distant worlds and elemental planes, beings of incomprehensible purity and creatures twisted by the vilest evil imaginable, human foibles and noble sacrifices, prejudices between races and between nations, peace and war, love and hate, battle and inaction… I could continue listing themes, but I think you get the point. I’ve always enjoyed finding my niche in the Warcraft universe to play, to write, to roleplay.

  • @Maggie: The Venture Co. (RP-PVP) – We’re a PvP oriented guild alliance (The Dread Horde). Both Horde and Alliance have some great and storied RP clans. World fights daily.

    @Chuck: Concerning my letter to Spencer’s. Imagine Morgan Freeman penning a letter to Cottonelle because their product rubbed him the wrong way (quite literally…also…I read most things in Morgan Freeman’s voice these days). I used strong language to paint vivid pictures and to threaten the downfall of every aspect of their business, yet avoided direct threats to personal injury. I wish I still had a copy of it; I would post it if I did. I also challenged the president’s manhood, honor, and explained that his actions were a direct testament to his overall character. My old District Manager called me laughing (he agreed with me) after I sent it. He told me that they (He and the president) had a 15 minute conference call discussing whether or not I was a real threat and how they should handle the situation. Of course…the idea of actually paying me what I was owed never came up, but my DM said he enjoyed the conversation. He also quit 2 weeks later, as he hated the company, too. Unrelated: 2 years later and Spencer’s profits are way off and the company is trying to sell off what’s left. Coincidence??? MUWHAHAHAHA!!!!

  • Good advice!

    Even better, (for me anyway) there have been times when I’ve been under major stress (usually work) when I have gotten some super moments of creative goodness! Epiphanies even! And that awesome 1/2 hour to hour at lunch at work spent writing is a great stress sink. Totally pulls me away from it all. :)

  • Glad to hear your mom is doing better, and that you got words anyway.

    I think back to being an angsty teenager. I remember I wrote as a survival mechanism. It was how I coped with stress. (I mean, I wrote CRAP, but I think that’s a given with teenagers.)

    I wonder what happened to that mechanism.

  • First up, good vibes to you and yours — glad to hear your Mum got home safe and sound, even if there will be a few more follow-up, keep-an-eye-on issues.

    Secondly, where is your goddamn camera? You could have written this post based entirely on my attitude this morning: it’s great, like having my own writing butt-kicker, but maybe I should start wearing clothes while wandering around at home. Anyway, today has been on the shitbox side, and I was all “wah wah wah, I don’t want to write today, I’m too busy what with all the worms I’ve got to eat and the sobbing I have to do and all the people up whose pooters I have to hammer ice cubes” — but your post has given me a bit of drive. A bit of burn! Because I couldn’t agree with you more. The world turns, I’m on it, and shit won’t get done if I wait for the perfect happy calm time: writing through crappy, stressful, even crisis times is not only a good habit, it’s almost necessary.

    Thirdly, can I get “Push Like You’re Pooping” on a t-shirt or a coffee mug or something? I think it’s my new motto.

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