Self-Care For Writers: Some Tips!

Back when I was in elementary school, we used to do that thing on Valentine’s Day where you wrote little crummy cardboardy valentines (often from Your Favorite Brand™) to your other class members and of course you saved the good ones for the kids you had a crush on and of course there were those poor sods who always got way fewer valentines than other kids even though you were supposed to write valentines for everybody. It was cruel and strange and an odd sort of training for being a writer.

Because really, our books and our stories are all paper valentines. We write them and send them out into the world to crushes and non-crushes alike and we really hope you accept them. And we really hope you give us a valentine back.

We are all just authors standing in front of audiences asking them to love us.

Buy our books, yes. But also, love us.

It sets us up for a lot of heartbreak. Which is nobody’s fault; it is what it is. We stick our hearts not on our sleeves but on the paper and then we slide the paper in front of you and watch your face to see how you react. And this isn’t just one to one. This isn’t just us asking one person if they liked our book. It’s cumulative. It’s us asking hundreds, thousands, all the people to dig what we’re doing. Or at least to recognize that we’re doing it. And that can be hard. It is compounded by the fact that as I said in the last post (Your 2016 Authorial Mandate!), we’re all clothes drying on the line — we are not well-protected as a creative species.

As such, it is up to us to protect ourselves to some degree.

Self-care is very important for a writer. Let’s talk some tips.

0. Read This

My cheese-eating co-conspirator Delilah Dawson wrote about this subject. So read it.

1. Recognize Depression

This deserves attention right up front.

Writer’s block is not depression. Depression is depression. It is real. It is a disease (or as some prefer, a disability). It is not fake. You are not making it up. It is not “all in your head.” And worst of all, depression lies. And for the writer, one of its most insidious lies is that depression somehow entangles itself with your work. It twines with the art, like a tumor seeking its own blood flow, and you start to associate the two together. Maybe you come to believe that depression or anxiety is essential for the writing. Or maybe you believe that it isn’t really depression, it’s just writer’s block or some variant thereof and surely the best way forward is to write your way through it.

That can work with writer’s block. That won’t likely work with depression.

Trying to write your way through depression is like trying to run fast through mud. It’s like trying to rid yourself of a headache by punching yourself in the head. It’s a very good way to sink. It’s a very good way to deepen the ache. Do not try to write your way through depression.

Treat depression as depression. Or anxiety or whatever particular flavor you have. I’m not a BRAINOLOGIST, so that means whatever it means in terms of the specifics — but likely, it means going to talk to someone of a professional nature and then potentially either continuing therapy or finding solutions in medication or other life adjustments. But it’s real. It isn’t an illusion. And it isn’t part of your art. That’s how the demon convinces you into letting it stay.

2. You Don’t Owe Anybody Your Attention

It’s the Internet, so people want to yell at you. They want to give you shit or write nasty comments or haunt you like a bad smell on an old jacket. It scrapes away some of your paint, so remember: you don’t owe anyone your attention. Okay, sure, you should probably give it to people who matter: friends, family, agents, editors. (Though even there, if their effect on your is somehow corrosive, worth considering if their presence in your life is a feature or a bug.) Beyond that? You can wall off the rest of the world. You are not required to stand there in the town square and suffer people punting cabbages at your head. That’s not your job. We start to think it is — we come to believe that somehow being an artist also means being out there in the thick of it, and that we should let all the lasers and arrows and angrily-hurled cats hit us dead on like it’s some kind of MOTHERFUCKING ART GAUNTLET, but that’s not true at all. Your job is to make cool stuff. Everything else is secondary. And letting that toxic stuff wash over you isn’t even that — it’s not a job requirement, so feel free to shut it down.

3. You Don’t Need To Read All Those Reviews

Repeat after me: Reviews are not your responsibility.

The critical conversation is an essential one, one that exists between the reader and herself and that reviewer’s own circle of trust — and you are not in that circle.

Reviewers and critics are an essential part of culture.

They’re not, however,  an essential part of you making art.

Reviews won’t do much for you as an author. Admittedly, I read them all, because I am apparently fond of punching myself in the teeth, but I don’t actually get much out of them. The most you’ll get is that some people will like your book and some people will love your book and others will hate the book so bad that they want to shove it up the ass of a irritably-boweled hippopotamus and then detonate said diarrhea monster with a barrel of TNT. Even more complicated is sometimes you find people who love to hate books so much that their hate reviews read more like performance art snark than actual critical discourse. And that’s okay. That’s all part of the deal. You write the thing and then you leave it on a table and people can do what they want with it: they can ignore it, punch it, make out sloppily with it, shit on it, whatever.

You don’t have to watch as they do. It’s understandable you want to, of course — in most artistic pursuits, you get audience feedback pretty quickly. Up on stage, the audience laughs or they don’t. But a book, whew. You sit in isolation writing the thing over a few months or a year, and then it takes a while to sell it and it takes a while to get it out there. Even self-published it’s not like, CLICK BOOM BANG THERE WE GO. I mean, dang, it still takes time for people to read the thing. As such, it’s natural to want to gaze in on the audience to see what they think — but reviews aren’t really “the audience.” They’re a part of it! A vital, necessary part. But they speak for themselves and for their circles. Meanwhile, 90% of your audience is reading the book and having a private reaction. You aren’t on stage. You can’t see them. You have no idea if they’re laughing at the right parts or angrily gnawing on the book for That Thing You Did On Page 214 or what. It’s a mystery.

The problem with looking at reviews is, we’re human. And humans are dumb. Just dumb as a bucket of chimp scat. What I mean is, we are very good at focusing on a little bit of bad and ignoring the massive amount of good. In some ways, this is logical, one supposes. A nice piece of cheesecake with a single rat turd on it will undeniably spoil the cheesecake. But let’s see you have a perfectly nice day, a wonderful day doing whatever it is you love (amusement park, hanging out with friends, eating cheesecake, karate-punching robo-hobos), and then one slightly bad thing happens, our brain does this thing where we remember the bad part, not the good part. That day will always be smeared with the moment of that time when the lady spilled her coffee on you or you got into a fight with a puma or whatever the fuck actually happened. You will drown the good stuff in the sour brine of the bad stuff. Negativity pickles.

Reviews can be like that. Ninety-nine positive reviews can be shitted up by one whopper of a bad review. That’s not good. It’s not logical. And yet, that’s how your brain works, probably because it’s trying to get you to not eat the rat-turd cheesecake. If you find yourself sullied by bad reviews, don’t read them. They won’t do much for you. Move on. Move past. Ignore, ignore, ignore. Let those reviews work their magic as part of a conversation that does not need you in it.

4. In Fact, Get Away From The Internet For A While

Turn it off.

Walk away.

You don’t need it every moment.

It is a firehose. You don’t need to drink from it all the time.

Everything in moderation. Go away. Clear your head. Trust me — a break from the Internet, whether it’s a day or a week or a month, can be super-helpful. Maybe it’s just a social media break, or maybe it’s a GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ALL OF IT break. Either way, it’ll still be here when you get back, I promise. It’ll still have images of Poe and Finn smolderingly staring at one another. It’ll still have cat videos. We’ll keep it warm — go take a digital vacay.

5. Walk Away From The Work

Always be writing.

I’ve said it. It’s a common refrain. And it’s part of my work vibe — I gotta work to pay the bills, and work is writing and writing is work. I do the work and get paid, or I don’t work and get nothing. The choice is easy, most times, because for me, the writing is wonderful. The hardest day writing is better than the best day doing pretty much anything else.

But while generally true, it is not universally true.

Some days are not for writing.

Some days are for thinking about it. Other days are for explicitly not thinking about it at all. Some days are for wandering in meadows, or reading good books, or having freaky sex, or karate-punching robo-hobos.

You can take a break. You can walk away from it. You can walk away for a day or a week or a month. Whatever you need to realign to center. Whatever you need for yourself. (Here, though, the counter argument: don’t stay away too long. A vacation from the art has its own kind of half-life, and eventually the value of that vacation begins to break down and poison you in other ways. Over time you’ll learn when self-care means to write, and when it means to not.)

6. Your Body Is Not A Temple, It’s A Machine

Your body demands worship sometimes, sure. Sometimes it needs ice cream and time on the couch and various erotic latherings. But often it’s best not to view your body as a temple but rather, as a machine. Machines need proper fuel to run. They need clean dongles and well-waxed widgets. (YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST, KIDS: CLEAN YOUR DONGLES! WAX YOUR WIDGETS!) You can’t just throw hot sauerkraut into a gas tank and hope the car will run. Machines need maintenance. Your machine needs maintenance, too. Exercise. Eat well. Your brain is part of the machine, not separate from it, and your brain does all the heavy lifting in this whole ARTING HARDER thing. Keep it together. Help your brain by keeping the machine running effectively.

7. Do Not Compare Yourself To Others

No good comes of this. Don’t do it. Everyone has someone else to which they are theoretically inferior. I’m sure even Stephen King stares at a picture of J.K. Rowling in a drawer somewhere that he occasionally pulls out and just stares at in a sinister manner. You are you. Your success is your own. And frankly, in writing, the biggest success is just surviving. Compare yourself only to yourself, and even then, only when it helps, never when it hurts.

8. Have Something That Isn’t Writing

Doodling. Quilting. Theater. Political assassinations. Have something that is not writing. For me, it’s photography. It breaks my brain away from the wordsmithy. It gives me an opportunity to stretch my legs in a different direction and it’s a healthy distraction, not a toxic one.

9. Shove Shame Out The Airlock

Art is often braided with shame. You should be ashamed, we say, if you are not creating. It is what you are and so the best thing you can do is to constantly be regurgitating content. And if you’re not, then time to whip out the ol’ shame bells. CLONG. CLONG. CLONG. Or maybe you get the shame if you’re creating the “wrong” things — and someone is always out there to tell you what you’re doing is the wrong thing, trust me. CLONG. CLONG. CLONG.

Shame feels motivational because we react to it. We clench up at shame and feel like we need to do better, lest the universe or our dead parents or a jury of our peers will be gasp disappointed in us. But shame is a ladder stuck in quicksand. Even as you climb up it, you’re sinking back down.

Shame will do you no good. Excise it from your emotional diet.

And definitely cut out those who would attempt to motivate (read: “bludgeon”) you with shame.

10. Return To The Writing

At the end of the day, sometimes the best thing you can do is shut out everything else and go back to center. Sometimes that means going back to the notebook or the computer and just writing. Maybe it doesn’t mean writing any one specific thing. Could be that you don’t need word count on the project that’s plaguing you, but instead you just need to regurgitate whatever stream-of-consciousness horse-garbage you’ve got going on inside your head. The work can be purifying by itself. And at the end of it all, this is what you are, and the work and the words will light the way.

68 comments

  • I am new to this blog, and I love it. I love the lack of pretenses and the crazy, in-your-face honesty, coupled with real advice that doesn’t sound like it is paid for by some hidden sponsor or coming from someone who is eventually going to ask me to buy his book or sign up for his class. I teach high school English, which means a lot of pretense sometimes. I love my job, but someday, like the rest of the mooing masses, I hope to actually use my Creative Writing master’s degree, to write something worth reading. This puts me in Chuck’s not really a writer category, I know it, but I think this blog might slowly push me to take the real plunge. Well, there is a chance anyway. Anyway, I find this blog incredibly inspiring. I have never actually read someone’s blog post before and cared enough to want to read a bunch of the rest of them, but this one is different. I even subscribed, and when it arrived in my inbox, with the photo eerily resembling Walter from Breaking Bad, I opened it immediately, and read it in its entirety. Thanks for that.

  • Great post, Chuck. I thought this was going to be a “don’t forget to exercise” post, but I’m glad you’re addressing mental health, too. I’d add that it’s important to have close friends who are writers, because they understand some of the struggles the way only a brother- or sister-in-arms can.

  • Excellent post on mental health!

    If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a mental health professional, working with a high quality therapist (even for a short amount of time) can be one of the most productive things to do for your overall health and happiness, regardless of whether or not you have a diagnosed mental illness.

    I spent two years with a FANTASTIC therapist, working through a horrible bout of OCD. The life-lessons I learned with her expand way beyond the reach of my illness, however. A decade later, I’m still enriched from the experience. Strangely, I came out of a mental breakdown a saner person than I was before.

    Really, mental health therapists are kind of like physical therapists. They help you pinpoint the things you have been doing that damage your body/mind and help you re-learn to utilize your body/mind in a way that will help you avoid damage in the future.

  • Strangely enough, I was just writing something about being open to love and how we have to be brave enough to give people the power to wound us over and over. Never thought of how it would apply to being a writer but it’s true. “Some call it stupid but, oh, the glorious possibilities are so worth the risk.” Maintaining distance with the readers and reviewers is critical, as you pointed out.

  • Thanks, especially thanks, for this piece. It’s come at just the right/write time for me.
    I’ve been away from writing too long, a large chunk of last year. I’ve been depressed and anxious and miserable because I wasn’t writing, but just couldn’t hack it.
    Now I’m just starting a short story for a competition.
    I’m ever so gently dipping my toes in the water, but I’ll be in the deep end before long.
    Sploosh ,Glug, Gasp.

  • This is… really timely and helpful.

    I’m at what I think of as the “three year old can’t go to sleep” stage of writing – ideas are fermenting, snatches of dialogue are taking shape, but it’s not quite firmed up yet, and I’m afraid if I walk away I’ll MISS SOMETHING, so I end up staring at the screen, refreshing social media, and writing about 200 words and feeling really helpless and stupid.

    This used to be the point where John and I would take a good long drive and I’d recap what I’d written since the last good long drive and hash out plot points and we’d both yell and laugh a lot, and then I’d go home and write four chapters in two days.

    I think today is going to be a go out and get some damn fresh air day. I’ll take a notebook. I might *gasp* write longhand.

  • OMG. I so needed to read this today. Thank you for the pep talk. Sorry I can’t stay and chat. i have writing to do. Sincere Thanks, Chuck.

  • Sherry Anshara told me that depression is really “deep disappointment with the self.” When it registers as a guest in the hotel of your brain, you have to give it a room, but give it the worst room at the inn. If you have a manger, give it a manger. Then let it give birth to itself and send it out to do its work because it does change the world.

  • Without putting you and your readers to sleep, I will just say that I reallllllly needed to hear this on this very particular day. On. This. Day.

    Thank you.

  • “You can take a break. You can walk away from it. You can walk away for a day or a week or a month.”

    I need to remind myself of this ALL THE TIME. Especially when I’m taking time off work–yes, I am allowed to just do something FUN for a day. But I have to tell myself that multiple times and usually I still have a voice nagging at the back of my head saying “Why aren’t you writing?”

  • You have SUCH an unvarnished, clean, wonderful way with words for us word-nerds and writin’ wrednecks out here. Thank goodness you’re in our epoch. I can’t imagine what my inbox would be without your cheery emails! *grin*

  • I find myself jumping into #8 this year. I dipped my toe in 2015 and found I really like cooking and so, this year, most Sunday’s I intend to have a couple of people over for food and conversation. After a solitary week of writing and marketing, The conversation is great and doing something that is not writing provides a wonderful break to clear the brain.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m a repeat offender of #7, though I’m working on abolishing that particular demon. After many years are furtively writing for no one but myself, I finally took the plunge and started flinging my efforts to the four corners of the earth via the internet and blogging, and I find myself constantly resisting the urge to take it all back before someone realizes I’m a fraud ;)

  • I took two months off last year. It was the best thing i could have done. I realized that I NEED to write, and I came back with a new joy. Of course, my blog died for want of nourishment, but they have plenty more at the blog pound

  • Graham Greene famously wrote: “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” I wonder what he would have made of the idea of seeing a specialist for Therapy? Different times.

    • Professional help becomes necessary when writers stop seeing a reason to make any effort to “escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear” inherent to our human nature. I think Graham Greene would agree with that. :-)

    • :-) In a wonderful book called “The Conquest of Happiness”, Bertrand Russell says artists are prone to unhappiness because, many times, their work is not seen as being important. He goes on to compare an artist to a scientist.

      Scientists are happy in their work because “in the modern world science is progressive and powerful, and because it’s importance is not doubted either by themselves or by laymen.”

      The scientist “achieves results which appear important not only to himself but to the general public, even when it cannon in the smallest degree understand them. In this he is more fortunate than the artist. When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honored while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy.”

      Personally, I think that the trick to being a “happy writer” is to focus not on what our work can do for others, but on what it does for us.(i.e. I want to do the best writing I’m capable of not because I want to change the world, but because it changes me.)

  • The Success Myth dictates that you have to be working 24/7 to succeed — the end justifies the burnout, every calorie buned leads directly to max turnout. It has particular allure amongst business and sports people who subject their daily schedules to a kind of Fitbitism of Everything dreamed up by a megalomaniacal scientologist with plenty of spare wall charts. Writers and artists, though possessed in many ways, have tended to be more lax and Bohemian about stuff, but as schedules and deadlines and bills and Spidey-style crawling anxieties fill up the holes previously deployed for the dreaming of random illusions, too many things writerly have been reduced to discussions of ‘words per day’ and churnout. So you are right to suggest that spinning away from the drill bit of productivity from time to time has overall (if not observably immediate) benefits. It’s a way to obtain input that isn’t merely the product of output, and it helps to keep your eyeballs somewhere close to where they should reside in your skull for you to avoid having to wander round looking like an alien freako. So far this year I make the score Wendig 2 Satan 1. (He killed Bowie, the fucker.)

  • Absolutely co-sign #2. There’s this omnipresent idea on the interweb these days: that when someone (or multiple someones) is yelling at us, we’re just supposed to stand there and take it; that somehow we owe the other person the right to abuse and humiliate us. Deciding to take our ball and go home is not an option. I guess it’s a part of “callout culture”, however the hell we’re defining that these days, but either way it’s super fucked up.

    I think writers are especially vulnerable to being figuratively stoned in the public square for a couple of reasons. Readers have a hard time separating us from our work, and sometimes choose to make their displeasure over a story or poem or whatnot personal; rather than critiquing the work, they critique the author. But writers conflate the professional critique with the personal criticism too; we think we owe it to our audience, or to other authors, or to fandom, etc. to subject ourselves to their scorn, because it’ll make us better authors. Or better listeners, or better panderers.

    But fuck, man, the only thing that will make you a better writer is, y’know, writing. And I can only write when I’ve totally disengaged from the whirling shit tornado that is internet outrage. If other people want to have a dialogue – that’s great, I have a ton of respect for people who can face the angry hordes and say “hey, let’s talk about this.” But for me, self-care means shutting down – or, at the very least, ignoring – people who want to yell at me. It that makes me a privileged asshole, so be it. At least I’ll be a privileged asshole who’s getting some actual writing done.

    • Well said. Some writers “stand there and take it” because they know there’s no way to please someone who’s bent on disliking their work. Whoever said that not all readers are right for a each writer was brilliant. I wish more readers realized that. :-)

      Your “privileged a-hole” strategy is the right way to go about undeserved, destructive criticism.

  • Best take-away line: “…shame is a ladder stuck in quicksand. Even as you climb up it, you’re sinking back down.” Oh yeah, the part about humans being dumb as a bucket of chimp scat is a keeper, too ;)

  • I recently realized how true this is:

    “Your brain is part of the machine, not separate from it, and your brain does all the heavy lifting in this whole ARTING HARDER thing. Keep it together. Help your brain by keeping the machine running effectively.”

    Thank you for validating that realization.

  • Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I especially love that you addressed depression and mental health along with everything else because that does not get addressed often enough. How DO you keep coming out with these posts that just get me RIGHT. HERE.

  • YES! YES! YES! YES! You’re right on all counts of this – especially the depression.

    I get what I call ‘I want to die’ days – particularly at this time of the year; right at the beginning of the year, because I feel as though I have absolutely shit all to say in any medium. Usually, I break something around the house that means very little to me and throw it out and I feel 10 times better… this year it was the Christmas tree lights (they were tangled, it was stinking hot and it took me and hour and half to get them almost untangled – and I just got really pissed with them on the wrong day. The day after I found out David Bowie passed away… yeah I was right in the middle of the ‘I want to die’ days).

    I’m getting better… but you’re right totally!

  • My advice: if you’re feeling bad about a bad review, look at the reviews of your favorite book, the book that to you is beyond reproach. Without fail, somebody will have torn it to shreds. Puts things into perspective.

  • Number seven. Just again and again and again! But the rest of it was excellent, too. I’m arriving back from just the type of Internet holiday to which you refer and I can confirm that it was good.

    Also doing other stuff. I have lots of other stuff I’m compelled to do. However, strangely if I have to struggle to find the time to write, I’m more productive than if I have acres of time. Writing is like cake for me. A little bit makes me hungry for more, too much and I become flabby and inefficient. I do about 1,000 words a day, usually in about two hours if I count tweaking and primping. I might double that in three hours but any more and I just do the creative equivalent of lying about on the couch with my face covered in chocolate icing, groaning.

    Excellent post.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • This was very useful to me, thank you so much, I only disagree with the part about depression, but we’re all different, and it could be that I’m just a serious glutton for pain, but whatever the case may be, this article got me thinking, and feeling better about myself as an unknown writer. Thank you thank you thank you.

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