2 Ways to Stay Sane While Writing
I use two metrics to “measure” (qualitatively) the health of my relationship with writing at any given time.
I should explain that I gravitate towards two extremes in my writing practices–when left to my own devices, I either write too much or nothing at all. I often veer into an unhealthy relationship with writing that begins with spinning my wheels–writing in circles around a given topic–until I burn myself out and have little of substance to show for it. This one reason I typically avoid keeping track of a daily word-count–my struggle is less the act of putting the words on paper, and more so making sure those words are crucial to my project, thesis, etc. Not to mention making sure I’m not overwhelming myself.
So, when I’m in a writing phase, here are two things I like to ask myself frequently:
#1: Am I interested in my topic?
It’s a huge red flag to me if my writing doesn’t pique my own interest. It’s natural to lose interest in even the most exciting topics by your first (or fourth) round of edits. But if even the first draft feels dull and lifeless, it’s time to step back. Call me old-fashioned, but I think writing should produce joy or at least something bordering closely thereupon (that sentence actually brought me tons of joy to put down, even though I’m aware that using the word thereupon makes me sound pretentious.)
Signs of consistent disinterest serve as precursors to creative burnout or stagnation. More than that, however, they flummox our writing because as soon as we lose interest in something, we stop caring–we stop being inquisitive, we stop asking as many questions, we stop choosing our words with zest and precision. In non-fiction writing, this can be disastrous, as we may miss crucial lines of reasoning or ignore factors necessary to make our argument plausible. This is the advice I give to myself and clients: if enthusiasm for a specific topic is waning for more than two or three writing sessions, stop and regroup. Don’t try to push through the apathy.
#2: Am I taking time out for other things?
Early in the writing phase of my dissertation, a good friend (who happens to be a licensed psychotherapist) was listening to me gripe about my work. At one point, he mentioned that to support good mental health, most folks who write on a regular/ daily basis should avoid going above 2 or 3 hours of highly creative work per day. At the time, I laughed at his suggestion. A doctoral thesis can’t be written in two hours a day! I thought. My life at that time was driven by a nearly frantic insistence that I. Must. Be. Working. Whenever. Possible.
Within a year, I was basically a burned out, not-very-fun version of myself, and my dissertation needed more or less a complete overhaul. Clearly, my 8-, 10-, or even 12-hour writing sessions hadn’t paid off. In the meantime, I’d become alienated from other areas of real life–very little meaningful social interaction, recreation time, and exercising???… My apartment was dusty and disorganized, I had no houseplants to speak of, and I hadn’t made any form of curry (my favorite food) in months.
While remapping my dissertation writing plan, I gave new thought to my friends’ words. I subdivided my work into what could be considered “highly creative” (drafting, restructuring) the more mindless work of writing (footnoting, formatting). I started capping off my work days sooner, even when navigating a work-less afternoon felt at first like the Bermuda triangle. When I finally defended, I was in a much better place. The truth is, anything can be written in two and three-hour blocks–my writing was clearer, crisper and stronger once I started letting myself live again. To write well, we need to do other things besides writing–we need to water houseplants, we need to eat well, we need to be part of the world around us.
Speaking of plants, I haven’t watered mine this morning. I’ll cap this off. Be sure to check out previous posts in this series here and here. I’ll be back next week with two more ways to stay sane while writing!