Sharp Rock, Soft Pillow: The Balance Of Self-Care And Tough Love

I like to talk about the difficulties of being a writer — and woe, for there are many, some keyed to specific stages of being a writer, others that are arguably more universal as you climb the peaks and suffer the valleys. Here’s one that’s been a piece of gristle in my teeth for a while, and this post isn’t to answer it, not really, but just to give it some air.

The problem is, YOUR CHARACTERS COME ALIVE AND HUNT YOU, THE WRITER, FOR YOUR CRIMES AGAINST THEM wait what the fuck that’s not a real problem is it? Who wrote this? Probably one of my characters. Stupid characters.

*rips off sheet of paper*

No, the real problem is:

Figuring out the balance between

Tough love.



To unpack this a little, there are certain breeds of writer — me having been among them, once — that express a kind of no-holds-barred get-your-shit-done tough love when discussing any level of advice for new writers. BUCKLE UP, PUCKERBUTT, they will cry, IF YOU WANNA BE A REAL WRITER, YOU GOTTA WRITE EVERY DAY, 2000 WORDS, ASS IN CHAIR, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, PUNCH YOUR CHARACTERS, FUCK SLEEP, DRINK WHISKEY, EAT BEES AND SHIT HONEY. Raaar. Thrash. Pound the lectern.

And then there’s the other side. Where we express in ASMR tones the need for kindness and care, for self-reward and gentleness, for being good to yourself and don’t forget to moisturize and it’s okay if you didn’t write today and here’s a puppy.

Now, let’s be clear — the latter approach is the more essential one. Yes, some art is made under pressure and duress; sometimes you really get a diamond from that compressed lump of coal. But a lot of time you just get a pile of dust. Especially in this era where we’re besieged by existential dread on all sides, and where we start to see more plainly the Men Behind The Curtain who will gladly lean on tough love in the hopes you will excuse their abuses against you and against the system in the name of ‘hardening up,’ I think there’s real value in seeking the opposite: peace for yourself, comfort in art, room to make things.

But, but, but.

There is a phenomenon, and I speak from experience on this one, where self-care crosses a line, and goes from being a kindness to yourself to being an unkindness to the art. Art can be propulsive, climactic, conflicting — both to us and to the audience. And making art is by its nature opposite to self-care at stages. You may find it comforting to create a thing, but in that creation there is inevitably frustration, and once it’s exposed to the world, ha ha ha, oh fuck, all bets are off. There is nothing kind about letting the work out into the world — whether that means put under the knife by an editor or by the readership. (Though here truth be told the anxiety of that act often multiplies the reality of what’s to come — one supposes that this is how anxiety always works, by casting deeper, darker shadows on the wall that are much larger than the shape that made them.) The whole of a writing career seems anathema to self-care. Perhaps that is why we so plainly exhort the need to become comfortable with discomfort.

And yet, self-care is important. Crucial, lest you break yourself.

Problem is, self-care can go beyond itself to become a crutch, an excuse. And it can feel like a necessary, even productive, one — in much the same way we can over-perform the processes associated with writing to the point we never actually get to the writing. (Think of how worldbuilding feels productive, and you can say, “Yes, yes, I’m writing a book,” even though you’ve written a 400-page RPG manual over the last five years but not word fucking one of the novel.) Self-care can go day after day, where you’re not really making anything — you’re just floating. And sometimes it’s real, sometimes you need that downtime, you need to ruminate, to ideate, to put those lumpy rocks into your brain’s rock tumbler in order to polish them.

(Remember rock tumblers? When I was a kid, every kid seemed to have one, and no kid seemed to ever really use them. Shrug.)

But other times, you’re just taking a vacation. You’re floating just to float. And then you drift. And you don’t know where you’re drifting to, not at all.

That might be valuable. It might be essential.

It also… might not.

And it’s really hard to know.

The difficulty of the thing — I think! Because honestly who the fuck knows! — is finding the balance between the sharp rock in your back urging you to move, and the pillow under your head urging you to rest. Move, move, move, versus rest, rest, rest. Urgency versus solace, get-up-and-go-go-go versus hey-cool-your-jets. Comfort and discomfort, battling for supremacy. The balance is in knowing when to be urgent, when to burn some fuel and bust your ass — but then knowing too when to relent, when to ease off the throttle for the safety of the machine, to know when you’ve burned too much fuel and you might set the whole thing aflame… and then burn out.

How do you find that balance?

It’s a real question. One to which I honestly don’t have an answer. I expect it has something to do with knowing yourself, and just writing a lot over a long period of time to give yourself a sense of emotional data. You start to sense the margins of when to accelerate and when to brake. When to move, and when to rest. When a book and its writer need to float in the womb for a little while longer — and when they need to be born into a world of light and pain.

Comfort is nice. But discomfort can have its value, too.

The pendulum swings. But it’s hard to know when those swings are necessary…

And when they’re just a kind of punishment, in one direction — or the other.

It comes at a particular point for me where I’m dealing with the chaos of a house move and the mire of grief from losing my mother. When I lost my father, I was buried under deadlines and did not relent — I kept going. And at the time, that was maybe the right choice? I don’t know. It gave me something to do other than just hey be sad, though of course sometimes what you really need is… hey be sad. Also, losing my dad was like, a dozen years ago. I was younger then (er obviously since that’s how time and age work, unless you’re Merlin or The Doctor) — and that means I was a) more full of bullheaded creative energy and/or b) stupider. It’s hard to know right now what to do. Push, or pause. Move, or rest. I have a book to write but the deadline is way off on the horizon. The balance now for me is in committing energy toward those things that go into the bones of the book: research and notes and lots and lots of thinky thoughts. But I also know that those things can become an infinite road, one you walk for too long before you realize you actually have to stop, get off the road, and get shit really done, because while writing is all the things like reading and thinking and planning, writing is also really just writing, and until you do the latter, the former doesn’t matter.

Which is maybe the conundrum, isn’t it? The self-care doesn’t matter if you don’t also push. And the pushing doesn’t work forever unless you also manage some kind of self-care. And so lies the give and the take of the thing. So we are required to have enough emotional wherewithal to see when we are pushing too hard, and when we are not pushing hard enough. Difficult for us, since writers have hearts and minds like kicked-over bee-hives — we have all the emotional togetherness of a bag of mismatched LEGO bricks. And yet, on we go. Move and rest. Rock and pillow. Tough love and self-care. Trying to find that balance. Trying to see when working hard is a kind of self-care — or alternatively when we have to work hard at self-care. Ever the difficult act of seeing the task ahead in a way that both gets the story written… but that also preserves the storyteller in the process.

* * *

WANDERERS: A Novel, out now.

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”

A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

PrintIndiebound | Let’s Play Books (signed) | The Signed Page | B&N | BAM | Amazon

eBookAmazon | Apple Books | B&N | Kobo | Google Play | BAM

AudioAudible | Libro.FM

20 responses to “Sharp Rock, Soft Pillow: The Balance Of Self-Care And Tough Love”

  1. But other times, you’re just taking a vacation. You’re floating just to float. And then you drift. And you don’t know where you’re drifting to, not
    at all.

    I was just thinking about this kind of stuff this morning. When I started writing (8 years ago) my life went to shit at the same time. I haven’t really ever found my way back like it was in the beginning. The drama ended over a year ago, but I have spent so much time just trying to survive that it has slowly become a floaty vacation. It is hard to stop floating when you are waiting for another shoe to drop. But, you are right. There are times to float and times to get to work. Thank you for this post. It is very timely for me. Now, where are all those colorful pens and paper?

  2. Been struggling with this a lot lately, especially the worldbuilding part. It’s so much easier sometimes to sink neck-deep into cultural constructs and historical happenings than actual, small-scale story. I’m still trying to find that balance, but reading this was a welcome reassurance that I’m not the only one having a hard time finding it. Best wishes from one kicked-over bee-hive to another.

  3. Good post. And I’m totally damned if I know where the balance lies. I think life changes throw me off too much, but who knows? And they have to be dealt with, which takes time and energy and I don’t like whiskey and if I don’t sleep my brain shuts down completely… but shit, too much of those excuses and you can’t even find your way to the computer.

  4. Substitute “visual artist” for “writer,” Chuck, and you’ve described my situation for the past several months exactly. The balance between work and rest is hard to find. After a long period of “floating,” creativity finally kicked in, resulting in some good (to me anyway) work. That involved less slacking, and more self-care, in order to get the creative juices flowing again: Less time on news sites getting wired over the latest outrages, and more time with bare feet on the grass and eyes on the little present presents Gaia gives us every day.

  5. A lot of great things to think about from this post. There always seems to be a point where you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, though. At least for awhile.

  6. How do you get it right? Well, you keep practising. Sometimes you’ll get it right, sometimes you’ll be spectacularly wrong. Then, even when you’ve got it worked out and things have been going along nicely for a long while, bam – right out of nowhere you’ll find yourself in a “I seem to have forgotten how to do this” place. For Life and our needs are right buggers in that they change constantly. So, yeah, you have to keep at it, figuring out the right way as you go along. In that way, it’s pretty much like writing. Funny that.

  7. Such a great post. It just makes me think of how I’ve done NaNoWriMo several times since 2009 or so but only succeeded twice, and once by overdeing it. But somewher ealong the way my muse has dessicated and dried up and has been that way for more years than I like to admit. I think it all started some when I lost the rest of my sight, even though 2011, the year afte I lost it, was the year I pounded out 75,000 words in NaNoWriMo. Not sure how I managed it, but since my muse has been just gone. I try to get back into a writing schedule, but nothing comes and ideas I used to have just don’t come. I’ve been fighting this for so long, I need to finish what I started, at least two projects that havebeen in the works since 2001 and I think I went too far on the self care path and have blunted my shorp rock of tough love. It is a beautiful trap to get stuck in, go too far one way or the other and you burn out or flip the train off of the rails, dooming yourself to some place where you know you should write but there is no spark. Now just need to find that spark again because i’m tired of my inner furnace being cold and bare…

  8. This was effing brilliant. About your folks, I’ll spare you most of the details, but both my parents were actively drunk, drugged, enraged and violent all through my childhood and beyond. When they died, I felt only relief and the sensation of putting a sticky note on the fridge of the Divine that read, “Yeah, I guess now they’re Your problem.” My point? Be happy if you’re sad because they’re gone. That means they earned the privilege of being missed.

  9. I always struggle with this? Am I being too nice to myself? Not nice enough?
    I try to get a bit of perspective by thinking of my writing self as a child and my… adult self, I guess, as a governess. The child is all happy irresponsible havoc-creation. The governess is there to make sure the child doesn’t shirk its learning and working and makes art on paper not wall, but also to make sure the child gets the play time and fresh air and sleep and all that which the child requires to thrive. Essentially, managing myself for maximum healthy productivity.

  10. This strikes me as remarkably similar to the part in Damn Fine Story about propelling the plot forward by alternating between tension and release, tension and release. Same principle really, in real life: you have to keep striking the balance between too much tension (tough love) and release (floating down the lazy river of self care). So basically, Chuck has demonstrated the old adage of life imitating art imitating life! As always, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Chuck and by the way, Damn Fine Story has been a huge help in shaping my first novel, so grateful to have you as my bee-bearded mentor!

  11. Nothing brilliant from my end. I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your writing, what you say and how you say it, both in general and specific to this post. Also your unique photography. Thank you.

  12. As someone who has spent the last eight years or so continually on the brink of burn out, I hear you. Although to be honest, there’s probably less to analyse in my case, which makes me very lucky. A few days ago, I realised that I’m firing on all cylinders for the first time since 2008. And it’s only at this point that I realise how completely bollocksed I was all that time. I spent over a year working out how I could attend to the various duties of care and still write … well … anything. But it was worth the effort because one of the things about being a writer is that you have to, right? It’s more like an addiction.

    So yeh, that post rang extremely true! I wish I could offer you some advice back, because you sound like it’s not an easy ride at the moment, but then, I didn’t write a thing for three months after my dad died. So if you do need to drift right now, it’s probably OK. My Dad had Alzheimer’s and it’s only now he’s gone that I realise how bloody awful it was, and how much it hurt to watch him suffer (must have been worse for him because he was aware that he was losing his mind the whole way down). My Mum has dementia too so this is only a light reprieve but my boy is 11 now so hopefully, I’ll have more strength this time.

    Maybe it isn’t about finding a balance, maybe you just need to follow some of your other advice and be kind to yourself. Be kind to yourself, because you need that right now, and the rest will fall into place.



  13. The balance between self-care and tough love with writing is something I really struggle with. Thank you for making me realise that it isn’t just me.

    So sorry to hear about your mum. I am coming up to the fourth anniversary of my Dad’s death. Grief is probably different for everyone but it hasn’t been at all how I imagined it. For me it’s like a really large programme running in the background: it slows down your processing power and sometimes there are glitches. In other words, it’s knackering. If you need to give your brain more slack than normal, then I’d say this is the time to do it. It does get easier over time, trust me. Like MTM says, for now be kind to yourself.

  14. I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately. Right now, I am completing a doctorate (full-time), promoting the release of my first novel and in the middle of draft/revision (it’s all so blurry!) a new novel. I felt this line down into my bones: “The self-care doesn’t matter if you don’t also push.” Self-care and tough love are a push and pull relationship, opposite ends on the same pole known as writing.

    Sometimes when I push myself, the work is crap, the emails, the blog, the marketing materials lack their normal enthusiasm/magic/life. Sometimes, relaxing is just … boring. Sometimes it’s so terribly needed because it reminds me that I am not a robot and that there is more to life than working. Ironically, when I return to work/the computer, the content I create is so much better because I have energy to give again.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: