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.
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.