When I started writing, I was determined to not be afraid to ask for help. I’m sure I was beyond annoying, asking about conferences to attend, software to use, metadata. But there was one thing I did not ask about: how to take care of myself.
On the surface, one would think it’s unnecessary to do anything different just because you’re a writer. Everyone should get a decent amount of sleep, eat healthy, stay active. Writing is solitary and easily isolating, so social contact is important, online or in person. I asked a number of writers how they do it.
Environmental: Most surprising to me was that self-care to some meant the act of writing itself. They created an environment free of distractions – late at night or before dawn – where they could devote their energies to writing. They closed a door, turned off the internet, often when their families were fast asleep. Why? Because we all have responsibilities: family obligations, caregiving, jobs. The stress of trying to find little blocks of time during the day can cause deep frustration and conflict. Self-care for these writers meant creating an optimal place for creating. And whatever inconvenience a change in routine might cause, it was worth it to build in quality writing time.
They also recognized that there are physical spaces that affect our ability to write. For one writer, a noisy coffee house may be too distracting. For another, the play list at the coffee house may energize them. You may not realize you have places where the writing just seems to flow effortlessly, but if you think about it, I’m sure some will make themselves known.
Physical: A few talked about physical self-care: taking breaks to go outside and walk, meditation, exercise classes. All felt physical activity not only benefited their general health, but cleared their minds to return to their work refreshed and energized. I try to get up and move around for 15 minutes every hour. To ensure I don’t stay in one place too long, I keep food and drinks in the kitchen. I have no choice but to get up if I’m thirsty or hungry. Sometimes if I’m stuck or things are just not falling into place I’ll do something else for a while: clean, go for a walk, or just take a real break. Neuro-fatigue is something I’ve dealt with since my concussion eight years ago, so I can tell if my brain is getting overloaded. That’s when I know I have to stop right away.
Emotional: Sometimes it’s what we’re writing about that can ramp up the need for self-care. Memoir writers spoke of the challenges of revealing themselves in print, the internal struggle to be true to their stories without hurting others. I know more than a few who have reached a point in their book and stopped cold, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. They backed off because either the pain was overwhelming or they’d reached a moment they weren’t yet willing to confront.
“You’re not taking notes in a lecture hall,” a friend reminded me a few months ago. The people I interview for my books often become very emotional sharing their stories. I’d just told him about the nine women I interviewed the previous week and how three of them cried while they talked. And though I’ve never cried with them, sometimes it’s hard to shake off what I’ve heard. On days when I conduct interviews – especially those days with multiple interviews – I try to schedule nothing that evening or the next day. I need to be alone and quiet to process what I’ve just heard. I learned this lesson the hard way, so it’s one I’m not likely to forget.
Several years ago I heard Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues, speak at the University of Chicago. She talked about her work around the world to put an end to female genital mutilation. During the Q&A, I asked her, “What you’re doing must be emotionally draining. How do you take care of yourself?” She stared at me for a moment and admitted, “No one’s ever asked me that before.” She went on to talk about the importance of her posse, her female friends, in raising her spirits and energizing her.
Social: A lot of authors – most, I’m sure – rely on those around them. Maybe it’s family, maybe friends. Maybe it’s finding a group of writers who don’t get together to critique each other’s work, but meet regularly to share the ups and downs of this insane profession. We all need people to soothe and encourage us. And often that means people who will take your mind off of what’s frustrating you, if only for the time it takes to share coffee and a bagel.
The writers who shared their self-care tips were a diverse lot, but all shared one determination: to write the best books possible. Some learned the hard way that they needed to take care of themselves; others were already good at it. All knew the price to be paid for ignoring it.
“Put yourself first.” There’s a concept. That Nike slogan, “Just do it”, is often easier said than done. But those writers who keep plugging along have found ways to take care of themselves so they can. You can, too.