Let’s face it. After a certain age, we aren’t good sprint runners anymore. It’s OK. You can admit it. Hips and knees have limited tread life. Same thing for all those parts we use for writing.
I’ve blogged about various parts of the writing process – getting started, beating back self-doubt, making the choice between traditional publishing or self-publishing, and the process of getting your book to readers. In this post, I’d like to talk about self-care for writers who came to the game later in life.
Your Writing Environment
Where you write matters to some, not at all to others. I tend to write wherever the spirit moves me on any particular day. I’ll sit in the living room in a big overstuffed chair or at the dining room table—we have a lot of glass on that side of the house, so the light and the view are both great. On a warm spring-morning day or a cozy autumn afternoon, I’ll spend hours with a laptop or notepad sitting on the edge of our deck overlooking the lake. There’s something zen being close to water and surrounded by trees. Other days, I do the most stereotypical of writer things and head for the nearest Starbucks. Sometimes I need to be in a human environment and other days my wife Kay-Kay just wants me out of the house. Either way, Starbucks fits the bill. Especially now that they have Nitro Cold Brew with Sweet Cream. Which is caffeinated liquid crack. And occasionally, I even sit in my office with the door closed.
For others, their writing space is fixed and immutable. Entering into that space becomes part of their writing ritual, as necessary to them as cups of coffee to others. Some Very Famous Writers had their own special spaces. Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, and Roald Dahl all wrote in converted garden sheds. Hemingway had a small studio in his Paris days where he walked each morning from the home he shared with his wife and infant son. Some people need the sense of orderliness and predictability that comes from writing in the same space consistently. Roald Dahl sat in an old easy chair in his shed and had to have everything he needed within reach. I’m just not one of them, although I will never write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But as with much else in writing, whatever it takes to get the words out of you and onto the page. It’s your process and you own it—for better or for worse.
That said, I caution against using your writing environment as a created obstacle to getting your word count done. It’s far too easy to fall into having to have everything just so before you start writing. Over the long run, being overly precious about where and when you’ll write only gets in the way of both creativity and productivity. Try to develop some grit and resiliency in your writing process.
The Physicality of Writing
Although we think of writing as a rather cerebral vocation, it’s surprisingly physical. At least if you’re serious about it. And over the age of 40 or so, just as we might need to moderate how insanely we go about our gym workouts, the same holds true for writing sessions.
Stephen King famously advises that the most important piece of equipment for a writer is a door. Which can be closed. And behind which you sit and write. The trouble is all that sitting—hunched over a keyboard, tense with anxiety and indecision—is hard on your aging body. You’ve heard the usual advice about getting up for five or 10 minutes every hour to walk around and stretch. This was apparently coined by someone who’s never been in the flow of a remarkable writing day when the words just pour out of you. Stopping after a measly 45 minutes just isn’t an option. However, such days are few and far between. So on those rare and wonderful days, give yourself permission to abuse your body a little.
What that means is that you need to care for yourself physically the rest of the time so you have reserves that can be tapped on those days when 8,000 words magically flow forth. So here are a few hacks I’ve learned over the course of writing three novels.
The point of failure for my body after pounding away at the keyboard for days on end is my right shoulder. I’m not exactly sure why, but that’s where the repetitive motion and low-grade stress seems to settle, especially when I’m writing a first draft. My front line of defense is my chiropractor, who I visit every other week. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and at my chiropractor’s recommendation I’ve been experimenting with dictation software. Thus far I’ve mainly dictated weekly blog posts, but I can already feel a difference. I use Dragon software on a standby HP laptop, then move the file to wherever I need it. If you’re a Mac user like me, there really isn’t a decent dictation software available. The built-in dictation capability on the Mac is horrendous, so I wouldn’t even bother.
One trick I trained myself to do years ago is switch the side my mouse is on the first of every month. It feels a little odd at first, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you become an ambidextrous mouser. This evens out the repetitive motion stress on your wrists and forearms from all that rolling and clicking. I also use a keyboard designed to emulate the touch and feedback of an old typewriter—it even makes clack-clack keystroke sounds—for which I paid $65. I find the more deliberate action demanded from that kind of keyboard helps with finger-joint stiffness. I also recommend a good quality and decently sized external monitor on which you can enlarge a page of text 150% or even 200% as the day goes on. It can really diminish eyestrain and attendant headaches.
The teaching point here is simply to be mindful of how a regular regimen of serious writing is impacting your body and to take reasonable steps early on to minimize that physical stress as best you can. Remember, you want to have some gas in the tank for those days when you’re ready to sprint through thousands of words.
The Mental Piece of Writing
It’s a lonely gig and there’s no avoiding it. That’s the nature of writing—you can’t do it very well by committee. So accept the fact you’re going to spend a lot of time inside your own head. Depending on who you are and what you’re writing about, that can become an unhealthy place. Plan accordingly.
For me, both the prophylaxis and the remedy for my emotional spirals start with a wife who loves me, kids who support me, and grandkids who fill my heart. It’s worth remembering—no, it’s worth reminding yourself regularly—what’s really important in life. Regardless of who it may be, every writer including me needs someone with whom to check in on a regular basis. This is for no other reason than to confirm we haven’t completely lost touch with reality. Remember that we sit around and make up stories all day.
Many writers, both new and experienced, swear by their critique group. This is a group of like-minded writers with whom you periodically meet either in person or virtually to share notes on each other’s writing. I know several writers who have been with the same critique group for years and wouldn’t dream of doing without it. I know others who have skipped between several groups until they found one in which they felt comfortable. For other writers like me, the last thing we want is to get criticisms on our work from a group of writers just as neurotic as we are. Again, whatever works for you. You may want to try out a critique group when you’re getting started. You can always leave. It’s not like you’re indentured or anything.
The key here is to recognize the need to keep yourself tethered or grounded or whatevered. There’s a reason so many great writers had profound substance abuse problems and/or committed suicide. Please do not aspire to join them. Stay ahead of the inevitable emotional strain writing imposes.
Also, please remember that no one is anywhere near as interested in your Work in Progress as you are. In order not to drive away all human companionship, try to control your exuberance in describing that last scene you wrote wherein the main character bends down to tie his shoe and… and… and…
Reward Yourself for Victories Large and Small
I love the scene in Misery when we learn that Stephen King’s writer, who gave up smoking many years before, treats himself to a glass of Dom Perignon and a single cigarette after finishing each book. It’s important to celebrate your milestones passed, goals met, and drafts completed. (Save the big blowouts for Book Launch Days, of course.) It’s very important to find the joy in what you’re doing, precisely because writing is an inherently lonely and emotionally extractive undertaking. Having put three books into the hands of readers—people who paid with their cash and ten hours of their lives to read my book—I can assure you all the struggles are worth it in the end.