Writing Excuses 15.20: Mental Wellness and Writing
Key Points: Mental wellness, a.k.a. self-care, not mental-health, writing with depression, and so forth. Physical and mental wellness go together. Remember it’s work, no matter how much you enjoy it. When you set your own hours, you need to carve out time for other things. Set aside time for family and friends! Create, sustainable practices. How can you write with physical or mental ailments? Don’t equate word count, quantity, with self worth. What is the smallest bite? Do 20 minute sprints. Crack the seal! Try different ways and accommodations to see what works for you. Listen to healthcare professionals and other people. Make yourself accountable to somebody else, and let them warn you when you are overdoing. How can you use writing as therapy? Write out your anger, then let it flutter away in the wind. When you are writing for your own mental health, you are writing so you can have written, not to be read. Outlining lets you write emotional beats that fit where you are when you are ready for them. Writing during bad times? Don’t equate self-worth with word count. Sometimes you can’t. Remember, writing is writing, thinking, deleting, walking, musing, and so many other things. Replenish the creative well. Try writing with pen and paper to get rid of the extra distractions. If you can’t write, maybe you can plot, brainstorm, try variations on scenes.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 20.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Mental Wellness and Writing.
[Victoria] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Victoria] I’m Victoria.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We’re going to talk about mental wellness and how you apply it to your writing. We have a bunch of questions from listeners about this, but let’s start off… Dan, you have something you want to…
[Dan] I just wanted to make sure that our listeners know upfront that we are talking about mental wellness, which is different from mental health. This is not… We’ve done episodes before about writing with depression and things like that. We’ll probably touch on that a little bit, but more than anything else, this is an episode about self-care. About making sure that you can handle the process of writing, or using the process of writing to help with other things.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, let me ask then, what do you guys do in order to take care of yourself while writing?
[Victoria] It’s interesting. For me, physical wellness and mental wellness go hand in hand. So, it’s hard when I’m on the road most of the year, but I always try and carve out a good 30 minutes a day for either yoga or stretching or watching a really nice television show or putting on a facemask or like taking a long shower. Doing something, it doesn’t have to be fancy, but something where the onus is off of me to have measurements of productivity and success. To have something that is pass-fail, right? And you can only pass. Because I feel like so often, especially those of us for whom writing is a part or a whole career, we put so much pressure on, and you can put so much pressure on if you’re carving out time to write at 11 o’clock at night or 5 AM in the morning, to just almost consider everything a metric. That just leads to a lot of self-loathing, to a lot of you’re not doing enough, you’re not doing what you should be doing. So I think taking a chance to reset, to put away all of the metrics, and just take time and remember to human, in addition to… So that your self-worth doesn’t become directly correlated with what you’re making.
[Howard] I have so very, very many thoughts on this. Let me start by saying that I love my job. It’s wonderful. I really do love it. It’s fun. But if it’s the only thing I do all day, I feel empty. So, if you’re looking at a career in writing or in drawing comics or in whatever because you think that will be fun and you think you will be able to work much, much longer hours than you could work wherever you’re working now? Be advised that that may be a false paradigm. It’s gonna end up as work, no matter how much you enjoy it. I got to draw a munchkin deck a couple of years ago. It wasn’t accelerated, fast-tracked project, and I worked… Literally, I’m not making these numbers up. I worked from 6 AM to midnight, every day for a month, except Sundays. My sleep schedule was such that that was actually survivable. Superpower. Only actually needed five and a half hours of sleep per night. It was wonderful. At the end of that month, I learned two things. One, I can do this. Two, I need to stop.
[Howard] Because I was empty and I was burnt out and I knew that I had reached a physical limitation that I did not want to push up against again any time soon forever.
[Victoria] You also bring up a point that I want to expand upon, which is this idea of the hours. There’s this idea that when you set your own hours, you can do anything. The fact of the matter is that the freedom of writing and of creative professions where you get to set your hours is also the downside, because writing is a 365 days a year process, in that you can take a physical vacation I’m sure, but turning off, unplugging, these are things which are both very difficult and you end up feeling very guilty about that time that you take. So I think that the less structure you have in this job or in this hobby or in this aspiring profession or this actual like current profession, the more important it is to find ways to carve out time in which you affect those boundaries.
[Brandon] I’m very focused on time management. I’m a very structured person. We’ve talked about my spreadsheets and things like that. One of the problems I had with this early in my career is I know… I got married a year after I published my first book, right? After I sold my first book. Suddenly, having a wife and family meant that I was unaccustomed to taking my attention away from the stories. Because even though I wasn’t writing, they were in the back of my head. I’ve heard lots of rider friends have this conflict with spouses and with family, that you’re always too focused… You’re not there with me when you’re there with me. I had to learn, for me, what worked was to pick specific times. At 5:30, I can’t write. It doesn’t matter if my family’s home or not, I have a requirement that 5:30 to 9:30 is not work time. I’ve got to be doing something else. By giving myself that kind of… I turn the clock off, and even training my brain to be like, “We’re not going to focus on that. We’re not going to think about that. We need these four hours to refresh, we need these four hours to spend with my family, with my kids,” whatever it is, that was liberating to me. To train my… It was hard at first, but it was liberating to train myself to turn it off for four hours a day.
[Victoria] It’s about creating sustainability. The fact is, you can do anything, as you were saying, Howard, for a short period of time, but most people don’t want to have a single project. They want to have a long-standing career, and in order to have a long-standing career, you have to find a way to create healthy, sustainable practices.
[Howard] At the time of this recording, I’m feeling huge like despair-worthy amounts of stress, because there’s a whole bunch of cartooning that needs to be done before Monday, and it’s not done yet. Last night, one of the kids had a severe medical emotional stuff. I was told that I had to sit next to her on the couch and watch YouTube videos. In fact, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to get up and run errands, because my part of the medical process was to be the service emotional comfort Dad or something. I look at that, and I recognize that for my own part, yeah, it was kind of a huge sacrifice to help this other human being instead of doing the thing that I wanted to do for me. But ultimately, those other human beings are more important to me than I am. If they are not happy, I really despair. Me not getting my work done? That makes me sad. But them being unhappy, that is huge. As Brandon said, being willing to carve out time, I have to do it. My schedule isn’t as rigid. But when something happens, my moral compass says I will drop what I’m doing in order to be with them.
[Brandon] So, there’s a question here about writing under the stresses of physical or mental ailments. How can you long-term do this? What measures and steps do you take?
[Victoria] Well, so I have chronic pain, but I’m going to talk less about that because I use physical activity to try and mitigate some of the effects of that. But I will talk about writing as somebody who has anxiety and depression, and are obviously hills and valleys that come with having anxiety and depression. Look, there are some times when you can’t write. We’ll talk at the end of this about some homework that might help with that during those times. But in the immediate, what I do is I, one, do not equate word count and worth. In the interest of that, I carve down my goals to the smallest possible metric. There are some days when that metric is can I open up the document and sit with my story and think about it for half an hour, because that is going to create… Keep the creative door propped open in my head. Because I think the more time you spend away from the project, the harder it is to come back. Some days that’s can I write a couple sentences? Let’s not look at this as 2000 words or a chapter. What is the smallest bite? So I am somebody who is extremely structured in my writing, but I also only write for 20 minutes at a time. I probably, even on my most productive days, write for three hours total. That’s nine sprints. Really. So I don’t think that it’s time equals quality, but I do think that by cutting it down to 20 minutes, I can stare at a Word document for 20 minutes. I can think about a story for 20 minutes. Even on a bad day, I can spend 20 minutes not doing anything else. Neil Gaiman has a process where he says, “When I sit down to write, my two options are do nothing or write. It’s simply about removing the other distractions. You can either write or do nothing. Those are your two options.” For me, I want to make the smallest bite possible. Just the same way that I never sit down and think, “Today, I’m going to write a book.” I don’t even sit down and think, “Today, I’m going to write a chapter.” I sit down and think, “Today, I’m going to spend some time in this scene, in this moment.” There are some days when I make a paragraph out of that, and I’m so happy. Usually, if I can cracked the seal on the overwhelming feeling, the overwhelmedness of that day, I can get something down on paper. Getting something down, even a small quantity, is better than nothing, and will help me feel better and make things feel a little bit more manageable.
[Howard] I like the idea of cracking the seal, because it makes it sound like the doom of the world is going to spill forth…
[Victoria] It is.
[Howard] Once I’ve gotten it open.
[Brandon] Dan, I know you’ve had some chronic pain issues before. You had your tailbone. You were trying to record, while your tailbone was hurting. You also had carpal tunnel. How did you write during these times, with these chronic pains? What did you do?
[Dan] For me, those were chronic issues, but they were not long-term issues. They were a few months at a time. So, for me, it came down to being willing to change my routine. I am a creature of routine. I like to write in the same room every day during the same hours. So, forcing myself to say, “Well, actually, you know what, for the next year, I’m going to use a standing desk instead of a normal desk.” Or “I’m going to try a different keyboard layout.” I had one that was split up… I am using gestures that you can’t see the thing because this is audio only. But trying to find different ways and different accommodations. But, at the core of it, it comes down to, am I willing to do this in a different way than I’ve ever done this before? Which is kind of how I do my whole career. That’s why I jump genres. That’s why I find new programs to be a part of. I’m always trying to find the new thing, because I don’t know until I try if that’s going to be a thing that works really well for me. Some of these accommodations that I have used in the past, like a standing desk, I keep coming back to over and over because I genuinely have come to love it.
[Howard] I’d like to go on record real quick to say there are healthcare professionals out there. Some of them may be related to you. They might be part of your circle of friends. People you can listen to who are going to tell you, “Oh, wow, that thing you’re doing? Maybe don’t do that.” I’ve failed to listen in a couple of key places. I can’t take much ibuprofen anymore because I took a whole bunch of it in order to be able to draw a lot, and now one or two of those will give me IBS in all the best let’s not talk about this on air sorts of ways.
[Howard] There are things that you may be doing to push through and get it done that make you feel like a superhero that are actually not good for you. Being willing to listen to other people and step back into the mortal realm a little bit might be good.
[Dan] I recognize that not everybody is in a position to have someone else to listen to, but if you do, whether it’s someone who lives in your home with you or just a friend that you can text, making yourself accountable to somebody else is a huge part of self-care. Because we can’t always be the best judge of have I spent too much time on this? Am I fixating too much on this? Am I burning myself out on this? So having someone who can check in every now and then and say, “You know what, it’s three in the afternoon and you haven’t eaten anything today.” “Okay, yes. Then I need to put this down and I need to go eat.”
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is Lab Girl.
[Victoria] Yeah. Lab Girl. It’s interesting. It came out a couple years ago. It’s by an author named Hope Jahren. J A H R E N. It is a book that is very hard for me to quantify. But it’s something that I recommend to anybody who is… Once an exploration of mental wellness and mental health issues, especially, as they intersect with creativity and with writing and identity. Hope Jahren is a brilliant botanist and biologist who was sensibly is writing a memoir through an examination of her relationship with the natural world. Underneath that is an examination of her mental state as it shifts and she processes it through this motif. I found it at the time when I needed it. I think it is a beautiful book, regardless of when you find it. But I hope that it will just find some of your listeners at maybe the right time, and just make them see themselves a little bit and understand that you can find beauty and that you can have some really incredible experiences. And, that really, like, sometimes if you struggle with mental health, because that’s something that I do struggle with, even though this is a self-care podcast, I think sometimes it can feel like a deteriorating condition, where you can feel like, especially if you’re in one of the hills… Or one of the valleys, that you’re never going to have a hill again. I think it can be really grounding, the same way that you need people in your life that can kind of call you back to yourself, it can be grounding to see yourself, especially your mental self, through other works as well. I found it just an incredibly powerful book.
[Brandon] So, that is Lab Girl?
[Victoria] Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren.
[Brandon] So, as we move into the last few minutes of this podcast, there’s a question here about tips for writing as therapy. Including, how to draw on personal grievances in a tasteful way, and help you make both more powerful writing and work through, perhaps, some issues. Anyone done this? What are your thoughts on this?
[Howard] Let me begin by saying that there are… If you are furious, if there is rage, and you just want to get it out of your system and put it on the page, write it using a tool where it does not immediately go online.
[Howard] Write it in a way where it is disconnected from the Internet. Maybe write it and print it and then delete the file. Because we say things when we are in these frames of mind that are valuable for us to have said. But their value decreases dramatically as they get read by other people. I can’t remember what the story was that I was listening to… I think it actually might have been Amal El-Mohtar when she was doing her oracle of buses thing, and somebody was saying, “How do I make this one emotion I’m having go away?” She said, “You write down the full description of this emotion, and then put it on a piece of paper and then tear up the paper and let it flutter away into the wind,” or something. It was a beautiful thing that she said, and I haven’t done it justice. But there’s this idea that when we are writing, we are writing so that we can be read. When you are writing for your own mental health, you’re writing so that you can have written. Those are two different things.
[Victoria] I definitely use writing as a form of catharsis. I’ve done it since the very beginning, since far before I was published. It felt like… A lot of circuitous thinking, a lot of spiral thinking, and it can feel very tangled up in my mind, and I feel like focusing on a story and putting things into word can be a way for me to make straight lines out of a lot of the clutter in my head, to kind of channel my energy. But I also… I write as catharsis for very specific emotional beats. One of the reasons that I outline my stories so rigidly before I write them is so that I can write them out of order. So that I can pick the scenes perhaps that have emotional beats that I want to write that day. Some days you wake up and you want to write a murder. Some days you wake up and you want to write a love scene. Some days you wake up and you want to write… Or you’re prepared to write some of those really difficult emotional scenes. Those very difficult emotional scenes, you’re probably not prepared to write every day. So then rather than sit around and wait for the day that I’m ready to write the next scene, I basically have it prepped and have it blocked out in my story and then set it aside until I have a moment or a day in my life where I feel either very stable and thus ready to explore this darkness or feel very unstable and very ready to explore this darkness. But I definitely earmark different emotional beats that I know I can’t write every day. I wait for something to happen or for some state to come along for me to be ready to do those moments justice.
[Brandon] Dan was smiling over there when you said…
[Brandon] Some days you don’t want to write a murder…
[Brandon] Or whatever it was.
[Victoria] Some days you do want to write a murder.
[Dan] I don’t know what that’s like, to wake up and not want to write a murder.
[Victoria] I know.
[Brandon] Last question here. How do you manage to keep writing during bad times in your life?
[Victoria] You try. I mean, I think this goes back to what I was saying earlier about you don’t equate self-worth with word count. I mean, like, you try. You try when it helps you. You understand that if for some reason you can’t, or if the world just feels too big, it’s okay to go into a creative fallow period. I’ve said online many times that writing is writing, but so is thinking. So is deleting. So is walking, and musing, and doing lots of things. So is reading. So is consuming. There are times when you just… You’re not ready to put work out of yourself onto paper, but that’s a really great time to take work in. That’s a really good time to find shows or comics or movies or books and try and replenish that creative well for when you are feeling ready.
[Howard] I need to tear the question into a couple of different elements here. Bad times. That is such an enormous bucket. How do you keep writing during bad times? It is entirely possible that the very best thing for you during a particular bad time is to not write, is to not think about writing, and to do something completely different, and I can’t answer how to categorize that. I just gotta come out and say that time might exist. Then there are bad times. I remember at one point my daughter talking about how she had a whole lot of trials and everything was really hard. What she was describing was I’m a teenager. I’m here to tell you that, yes, that is terrible and it is really hard. But when you are a teenager and you are experiencing that, many of the adults are looking at you and saying, “Oh, sweetie. I do not want to tell you about my 30s.”
[Howard] I do not want to tell you this. Because the lessons you are going to learn right now are going to allow you to function when you’re in your 30s. It is possible that the bad times you are having are things that… The lesson that you learn from them is, oh, I need to change my schedule. I need to change my diet. I need to get some exercise. I need to do something in order to mitigate the bad time and carve out time to write. I don’t know… To the person that is asking the question, I don’t know what kind of a bad time you’re having.
[Victoria] That’s true.
[Howard] So I don’t have the answer.
[Victoria] I also just want to say, last note, because I think this is getting into a question that we don’t get to answer, really, is that often times we become very distractible especially in these days. Like, your computer is a great tool of distraction. Sometimes it can also feel like a very precious thing. You look at a Word document or a blank screen and it feels very official, because everything that you write becomes a typed thing. When I am feeling… Like, specifically susceptible to these moments, I switch to pen and paper. I scribble along the top of the page so it’s already not blank anymore. I might just doodle or do something. I find that it helps me turn off some of those extra voices, some of those extra distractions. It’s not to say that what I put down on paper will be great. Often times I don’t use it. But it’s a great thinking tool to re-open that door. Or maybe I’m not in a good enough place to write, but maybe I can plot. Maybe I can brainstorm. Maybe I can play a choose-your-own-adventure with those scenes, where I’m how can I make this scene worse or stronger?
[Howard] I would love to have a three hour session with me and Victoria and Dan and Brandon and half a dozen other people where we just talk about unlocking.
[Howard] Because all of our strategies are going to be different, so my suggestion… I did unlocking session at WXR on the cruise ship. It was one of the most beautiful discussions we’ve had because we were able to look at this question and talk about our respective bad times and come up with strategies. It may be, listener, that the answer for you is to talk about it with someone.
[Brandon] All right. Victoria, you have some homework.
[Victoria] I do have a homework. I like this homework because it involves getting a piece of paper and some colored pencils. I feel like that just…
[Victoria] it taps back into like that elementary school or that young, like, joy of, like, creating something. I want you to create a lifestyle tracker. This is a very simple grid where you essentially make like an x-axis and a y-axis and down one side you put different things. I want you to put at least three things which are craft oriented, reading, writing, planning or plotting. I want you to put three things which have nothing to do with your chosen craft. Is it eating healthy, is it taking a half an hour walk, is it stretching, is it self-care? Then, across the top, I want you to put the dates. You can start with a track that just goes for 30 days. I tend to get overwhelmed by that, so I do a 10 day tracker. The point of this tracker is I want you to track each of these things every single day and color in the squares if you do them. The reason is because when you get overwhelmed, it can be very easy to lose track of time. If you struggle with anxiety and depression, a day becomes a week becomes a month. Suddenly you haven’t written in a month, and you don’t understand why. I am very good about that thing of if I start something at the beginning of a month, and then I mess up on the third day of the month, I’m like, “Oh, well, try again next month.” The goal with the lifestyle tracker is the most that you can lose is a single day. Every single day a fresh start. I find that even if you get to 4 PM and you think this day is lost, again, you’re not losing a week. You’re not losing a month, you’re not losing a year. You’ve lost a few hours. Go and nail something else on the lifestyle list, if you feel like I can’t make today, I bet you can do 30 minutes of self-care. I bet you can take a bath or put on a facemask or like, do something nice for yourself. Then color in that square and see every single day as a fresh start.
[Brandon] Awesome. So this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go take care of yourself.