When I was working on my first graduate degree, a fellow student arrived in class one morning, oversized glasses on her face and a huge mug of steaming coffee in one hand. In her other hand she clutched a sheaf of papers.
“I didn’t move from my desk all weekend. I didn’t even shower. I’ve become a stinky academic—but my paper is done!” She waved the pages over her head.
When a writer gets caught up in writing, whether it’s for a tight deadline or for a passion project that just won’t let go of our brains, we can become like that student. We put on our blinders and go full-tilt. But not eating, not getting up from our desks, and not showering aren’t badges of honor. We don’t have to be haggard or smelly or (literally) starving artists. With a few self-care practices, we can get our writing done and even feel good about ourselves:
1) Work in bursts so you can get away from your desk regularly.
Set a timer for twenty, thirty, forty, or sixty minutes—however long you can focus. Turn off notifications and your phone, and work on one task related to your writing for that period of time. Don’t get up to get a water, don’t daydream. Work. When time’s up, get away from your desk for five or ten minutes. Stretch, walk around, go ogle the neighbors next door—but get away from your writing.
Focusing for set periods of time lets you put lots of energy into writing while breaks give you a release valve to keep your work going. This two-step system prevents you from frittering away minutes or hours, and ensures you get breaks before you collapse nose-first into your keyboard.
2) Eat good food—away from your desk.
Nobody wants orange muffin crumbs in their laptop or spilled lattes on their notes, so eat in the kitchen, dining room, or on the couch with your cats. Just give yourself a break when you eat meals.
And while it’s easy to get into a cycle of coffee and sugar, the crash will sooner or later affect your work. Caffeine is there when you need it, but go for healthy options when you can.
You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? Writing is a lot tougher on your body than you realize—your butt, back, arms, and hands all work hard while you’re sitting there typing, and they’re not happy about it. If the thought of exercise takes you back to nightmares of dodgeball and smelly socks in gym class, you probably have a great prompt for a story. But it still doesn’t get you out of moving. If you hate the gym, try some other type of movement.
At RTC, some of our crew use trampolines and rebounders. Some go on long walks, and some take up yoga. No matter what exercise writers choose, getting moving helps keep you fit, prevents creaky bones caused by long hours on your butt, and keeps you healthier so you can write without physical pain at least. As a bonus, many writers find they get their best ideas when they’re doing something active and are away from the screen. Now there’s a thought to send every creative running to the yoga mat or the snowboard.
4) Take care of your brain.
Writing for hours is a big drain on your grey matter, and, if you don’t refuel eventually, those ideas, words, and sentences will fizzle out. Keep inspiration in peak form by reading authors that inspire you, going to new places, checking out exhibits at museums, having interesting conversations, looking at art. You never know what will spark off your next big idea.
5) Plan (even a little) so you have time off.
We all know what happened to Jack Torrance at the Overlook hotel when he spent too much time at the typewriter in The Shining. Don’t make your spouse come after you with a baseball bat—plan your days so you have some play time.
I admit that color-coded time sheets that plan my day down to the last minute give me the heebie-jeebies. Whether you love lots of structure or are more inspired by a to-do list on the back of a Starbucks napkin, make a plan. Consider how many hours you need for each writing task and how much time you need for everything else in your life. Be sure to set aside some time for yourself and your loved ones.
6) Get someone to help you get out of your own head.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of writing—and there are so many ways to get tangled up. Maybe you spend hours at the archives, sharpened pencil poised as you research, but you never write down a word. Maybe you spend weeks and weeks writing but can’t seem to get that darn meddling character to do what you want. Or maybe you’re working so hard that the only time you get a break is when your power is turned off after you’ve yet again failed to pay the bill. We can all get trapped in our habits or in the worlds we create, and, what with the myth of the writer as solo artiste (thanks, Hollywood), we may come to think that’s normal.
Staying in your head without getting some perspective won’t create great work, and it can hurt your health by pushing you to overwork.
In reality, writers need others. Whether you need someone to look over a first draft, keep you on track, or get you away from the keyboard every so often, consider getting some help. Create a writing group or a network of support. Hire a coach or editor who can help you get an outsider’s perspective. Whatever you do, try to look at your work from the outside in to get some needed distance. It’ll make your work (and your life) better.
7) Simplify your writing life by having less tech and fewer items to manage.
There are plenty of apps, programs, platforms, and devices, all promising to do everything in your writing life. It can be tempting to download one more time-management application or buy a second computer—just to give yourself more time. Before you do, consider that everything you have in your life has a price in minutes and hours. If you have four email addresses, you need to check them all. If you have twenty apps, that’s many more pings and messages on your phone to take you away from your actual work.
One of the best things about writing is that it doesn’t take much to get started. A computer and one program. A pen and paper. Get rid of the noise that’s getting in the way of your words.
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Movie depictions aside, most writers are actually fairly low-maintenance. Just make sure you treat yourself like the pro you are to keep those words flowing and to keep inspiration at peak shine. We all want to read that bestseller you have in you when we take our next writing break.