I stepped back from most of my writing a few days before Christmas. That’s when my mother broke her hip and had surgery. In the weeks that followed, as she struggled through rehab, I, too struggled to write. I kept up my blog and my email newsletters (with varying degrees of success). But by the time she died March 16, I wasn’t writing at all. It’s been two months now, months where my only writing was limited to thank you notes, filling out legal and financial forms and paying bills.
Because I’d been suffering from a recurrence of symptoms related to post-concussive syndrome, I checked in with my neurologist the week after my mother’s funeral. He’s a big fan of my books. I told him that despite my issues, I wanted to start writing again. “You have to get back to it. But not yet. You’ll know when you’re ready.”
I’ve kept those words in my mind the last two months, as I navigated the PCS and grief. It hasn’t been easy. On an intellectual level I’m very familiar with what I’m going through. The emotional part of both those conditions is not something that’s easy or even predictable. While my mother was sick, I had to push a lot of those feelings aside. Now I can’t and it’s overwhelming at times. For those who have experienced PCS and/or grief, you know what I mean.
Last week I wrote my first blog post since March. Next week I’ll send out my first email newsletters in longer than that. Those are big steps, believe me. And though I’ve done more than a little marketing in the past month, tomorrow I go back to working on my next book.
If you’ve taken a break – enforced or voluntary – from your writing, you know it can be intimidating to return. Maybe you’ve kept up with your emails (I haven’t). Maybe you’ve participated in online discussions (I’ve dipped my toe in now and then). Or maybe you had to step away from all of it.
So when you decide it’s time to get back to writing, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by what you missed and discouraged by the thought of starting over. Here are a few tips that may help you as they’ve helped me:
Take a deep breath. Seriously. If you open your email account and instantly tense up in panic, you need to take a deep breath. Remember: most of those emails are irrelevant. They’re subscriptions you maintain to keep in touch. Start with the oldest in each category and work your way to the present. Take your time. Take breaks. What helps me is to scroll through and delete the ones that have expired offers or are not relevant to what I’m doing. Delete them. You’ll feel a disproportionate sense of accomplishment, trust me. And your inbox won’t look so intimidating.
Make a timeline. This is a little different than just making a to-do list. I guarantee that making a to-do list will stop you in your tracks. You will be overwhelmed again by what you need to do. That’s why I put my to-do lists in a timeline. I start with the things with hard deadlines, such as submissions or meetings. Then I add tasks that are not time sensitive, but shouldn’t be ignored (updates to web pages, filing, etc.). Hopefully you can avoid my weakness, which is to load up the first day, ensuring that I will fall short. But if you can spread out the tasks over a week or a month or even longer, the list will cease to be a barrier to your return.
Set a goal or two or three. This is connected to the timeline. I’m deep in the 2nd draft of my next book and I typically send my books to the editor when I’ve finished the 4th draft. I’ve set a deadline of the last week of July to finish that draft and hit ‘send’. In order to do that, I had to go back to my timeline to determine internal deadlines: finish 2nd, 3rd and 4th drafts; request all permissions for quotes and images; transcribe remaining interviews.
Reach out. I’m grateful to the friends who kept in touch with me during my mother’s final illness and afterwards. Some of them are writers who understood the challenges of caregiving and propped me up when I felt like I was sinking. When I started writing, I made a promise to myself to ask for help. When I stopped writing, I made the same promise. I will be forever grateful to them for saying, “It’s okay. You’ll be back better than ever. Just do what you need to do right now.”
Be good to yourself. Whatever your reason for not writing – caregiving, writer’s block, illness, family crisis – recognize that you have been through a lot and survived. Give yourself credit, even when it feels like credit is the last thing you deserve. Turn on the music in your car. Take yourself out to lunch. Go for a walk or a swim. Do whatever makes you feel good, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Then do it again. And again. Every damn day.
In many ways, I see rebooting my writing as a golden opportunity. I’m not starting from zero, but I have the chance to make some long-overdue changes. And that attitude is what will fuel you: not the desperation of “I need to make money”, although that’s not unimportant.
Because the truth is, no matter what you write, your life experiences shape your writing. And knowing that you’ve been through hell and back, that you are in fact a stronger person for it, will lift your writing in ways you can not yet imagine.