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.

And

Self-care.

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.

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