Thursday, September 14, 2017

How I Accidentally Became A Writer Who Doesn't Write, and How It Sort of Saved My life

Folks have all sorts of reasons why they write. Some do it to make a living, some do it as a creative outlet. Some like being part of the community. Some people need it for self-identity.

I do it for the same reason I wrote stories when I was eight-years-old, lugging around my dingy white notebook filled with a first novel about Mandy, the girl who lived in a treehouse.

Because I'm a storyteller.

I actually feel most comfortable with this description of what I do. More so than "author." I get stories in my head and I write them down. Occasionally they win awards or sell a modest amount or make a bit of money. Not a lot. It's never been about the sales/money for me.

I am fortunate enough to have a husband who not only supports our family financially, but he also supports my writing as a creative outlet. 

So how is it that I found myself overwhelmed with deadlines and anxiety and a dread of writing and the publishing world that had turned something I used to love into something soul-crushing?

Well, let's see.

Starting the publishing journey is like rolling down a snowy hill. You start out as an enthusiastic snowflake, gain some momentum, turn into a snowball, roll along gaining more speed, and suddenly this thing that used to be about writing and creativity becomes about promotion and productivity and deadlines and it's not that fun anymore.

And when you have a lot of stress in your life--could be family stuff, other jobs, money, health, whatever--adding more stress because you feel obligated to publish a book every three-six months or get left behind--this becomes the straw that broke the camel's back.

Part of my writing stress is self-imposed. I'm an all-or-nothing writer. Once I dive into a story, I become all-focused. I think about it in the morning when I drive the kids to school, I skip lunch, I skip dinner (families tend to not like that so much), and my brain is pretty much a whirlwind of THE BOOK until it's done. This is just the way my process has always been. I have short intense bursts of creativity--I call it the "punctuated equilibrium" approach to creative writing.
What I noticed as I aged was that my ability to deal with stress--my resilience--was starting to crumble. Things that used to roll right off me were causing insomnia and anxiety. My brain was a jumble of stuff to do for the kids, the family, the dog, the house, and the book. 

Guess what wasn't in the jumble?  


I wasn't in the jumble. 

More specifically, my happiness was not in the jumble.

My days were about to-do lists and I rushed from one thing to the next, not engaged in the moment but focused on getting the next thing done. The next thing to worry about.

We only have so much emotional energy in our lives. If we use up all of it worrying about the kids or family or book, there is nothing left for us.

It's almost impossible to "remove stress" from your life. Being healthy is not really about removing the stress. It's about becoming better at managing the stress.

And so, after pushing myself to finish a holiday romance in time for Christmas (that's a deadline that can't be moved back, by the way), I decided to take a breather and figure out how to manage my stress better.

My initial idea was to take a short break--maybe a month or two--and then slowly work back to a regular writing schedule.

I took a month off. 

I took another month off.

I started to add "WRITE" onto my to-do list. But...interestingly, it didn't happen.

I did this over and over again, feeling guilty each time the day went by and the "WRITING" thing didn't happen. And then...I stopped putting "WRITING" on the to-do list.

The first time I did this, I was giddy! I felt like a kid playing hooky. How could I have a to-do list without writing on it? Impossible!

Actually, it was strangely liberating. I started to figure out stuff that made me happy again.

I made lists that had things like "hike in the forest" "have lunch with the girls" "plant pumpkin patch in the garden."

I told my husband I was stripping my life down to the studs, and then building it back up. I needed to get down to the very basic stuff I need to be happy and healthy, and then add back the extras. Figure out how all these pieces fit.

I spent a lot of time researching simple living and minimalism and Hygge and I came up with a list of things that work for me every day. And my resilience shot up. I became better at managing stress. And believe me, with a 14-year old teenage girl, I have stress that would make your hair turn white. (Yes, my hair is white).

These are the things I do each day to feel centered and happy. After nine months of not writing, I feel...better. Much better. I didn't intend to take nine months off, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Now I'm attempting a new writing process, one that feeds my soul instead of crushing it. I need to find a way to incorporate this into my schedule without it taking over everything else. And I'm ignoring every single thing about publishing and focusing only on writing. Back where I started. Over forty years ago.

This week was the first week back. It felt good to work on my book and to dive back into research and a new writing challenge. But I still managed my walks, cooking dinner for my family, and going out with friends.

It's not uncommon for women to overburden themselves with responsibility and to ignore their own health. I'm talking physical and mental and emotional well-being. We put our kids and family and jobs on the totem pole, but often we don't put ourselves there. Either we're at the bottom of the totem pole, or not on it at all.

I realized this year either I put myself on the damned totem pole, or I'm gonna fail. I needed to replenish my emotional energy.

Most of all, just needed to find my happy.

I found it.

Now I'm ready to write my happy.

Looking forward to a fresh start,



Lori said...

Good for you! It's so hard to take time for yourself. Cheers to feeling creative again!

Penny Watson said...

Thanks Lori! xoxo

Donna Alward said...

GIRLFRIEND... this was an excellent post.

I had contracts that wouldn't let me take time off. Or actually... I kind of did, but I half-assed it, trying to regain some sanity, trying to manage my stress. Which meant I also half-assed my writing schedule. Which meant I handed in books, but I handed them in late, and it took me over 2 years to bounce back (which might have been shortened if I had just stopped completely and had a real break). Even now, I have to monitor it very very closely so I don't slip back into overwhelm stress ball state.

I'm glad you're feeling better. Your post made me remember that I was going to go to yoga tonight (too late now). I'll check tomorrow's sched for a morning class.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this.

Heidenkind said...

I've missed you and your books! But I totally understand the need to replenish. Looking forward to the next novel!

I also wrote my first story when I was 8. It was a mystery where a group of friends investigate a mystery in the basement. Lol

Penny Watson said...

Hi Donna! Glad you are doing a good job managing the stress is a super way to do that! I think having the stress mixed with guilt feelings about doing stuff "half-assed" is a real problem for many women. We don't cut ourselves a break. Keep taking care of yourself and being kind to yourself! xoxo

Penny Watson said...

Hi Jenna! You are most welcome.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Tasha! Maybe your mystery friends in the basement can meet up with Mandy in the treehouse some day. Hee hee!

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

Love this. As you know, I've been taking a long break myself. Starting to get the urge to work again, but also with a very pared down situation going forward. I am NOT doing all those things I thought I *had* to do. Turns made no difference! - Laurie

Penny Watson said...

HMCW--Here's my feeling about it. Those things we are being pressured to do--daily, weekly newsletters? blog tours and paying big bucks to promo companies, joining author groups where we agree to promote other peoples' books that we have never read, etc etc--we don't have to do them. We can choose not to do them. I hate that the writing world is putting pressure on folks do to all these things. I decided the things I like the best are book readings and connecting with my readers. Those are the only things I'm going to focus on when this next book is done. I'm making a definitive choice not to do the other stuff. WE CAN DO IT!

Unknown said...

Love this. And it's only since I decided to enjoy the writing that I'm, surprise, enjoying the writing. Not worrying about the publishing, just enjoying the writing. And doing the other things in my life that make me happy and whole.