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Self-care for writers
Look after yourself with these tips to avoid burnout and nurture your creative wellbeing.
Self-care is an important part of sustaining your writing – and your career as a writer. You need to take care of yourself first, or you’ll have nothing left to give others. And that includes your readers.
If you prioritize self-care, you’ll enjoy your writing more, be less prone to burnout, and have the mental space to be creative. It’s not a nice-to-have-but-I-don’t-have-time indulgent extra. It’s necessary for you to do your job – and to be a good writer.
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What is self-care?
Self-care has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, in the mental health, personal development and wellbeing space. But it’s also a practical, pragmatic and essential part of surviving modern life – and writing life.
Self-care simply means taking an active approach to protecting your own emotional, mental and physical health. By taking steps to look after your wellbeing and happiness, you can cope better with what life throws at you. You can reduce stress, avoid burnout and head off mental and physical health problems.
It’s important to recognize that self-care isn’t selfish or indulgent. Remember those pre-flight safety talks, where you’re told to put your own mask on first before helping others with theirs? This is good advice in any situation – not just a depressurized airline cabin.
Why do writers need self-care?
As writers, we can be as prone to burnout as anyone. We may feel the pressure to be productive, and work long hours. This may especially be the case if we’re trying to fit writing in around a full-time job or caring responsibilities. We might write late at night after the kids have gone to bed, or early in the morning before work. Instead of taking a lunch break, we even might shut ourselves in our car to write. This is how Joanna Cannon famously wrote her first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.
“I wrote it in secret. I wrote it at three o’clock in the morning, before I went to work, and in a wide variety of NHS car parks in my lunch break.” - Joanna Cannon
Writing can itself be a form of self-care: Joanna Cannon also says that writing was her way of dealing with the stress of her career as a junior doctor. But working all hours is unsustainable – even if you love what you do. We all need to recharge our batteries from time to time.
But self-care for writers isn’t just about avoiding overwork, stress and burnout: it’s about nurturing your creative wellbeing. It’s often said that you can’t pour from an empty cup: you need to fill your own first before you can help others (a variation on ‘fit your own mask first’). But you also need to draw from a creative well first, before you can share your art with others.
7 ways to look after yourself
Self-care is as individual as you are. Take a moment to think about what nourishes, replenishes and re-energizes you. Everyone’s different: it could be spending time with friends, or spending time alone. It might be going for a walk. Or it might be to “go home, throw on some Kenny G and take a bath” – to quote Ross Geller in Friends.
If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, flip the question around: what do you find drains you and depletes your energy? For example, does being with other people energize or exhaust you? Can your self-care include doing the opposite of that?
Here are some ideas to try:
1. Take a break
We’re often told to write something every day. While this can be good advice that helps many writers build a writing habit, it can sometimes feel too onerous. Writing shouldn’t feel like a burden, or something that provokes guilt if we don’t stick to a rigid routine – and it’s always OK to take a break. Sometimes life gets in the way and we’re forced to pause for a bit.
Procrastination is generally seen as a Bad Thing in writing circles. But there’s a difference between passive, destructive procrastination; and active, productive procrastination. If you put off your writing because you need a break (rather than out of passive avoidance), it can have a positive effect on your work. An intentional, deliberate pause - such as going for a walk to clear your head, or resting when you’re tired - can benefit both you and your writing.
Taking a break is also an important part of the creative process. In his book The Art of Thought (1926) Graham Wallas, a social psychologist and educationalist who helped found the London School of Economics, proposed a four-stage model of the creative process. The stages are: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. The incubation stage is critical, and involves taking a break and stepping back.
We’re often encouraged to put a first draft in a drawer for a few weeks before coming back to edit it. But you need this ‘incubation’ pause at every stage of the writing process. Take a break and you’ll come back refreshed, re-energized – and full of new ideas!
2. Go slow
Slow down, you crazy child, as Billy Joel once sang. You don’t always need to race ahead, keep up the pace, maintain momentum, run with the crowd or follow the latest trend. Stillness is also part of your creative journey. Slow down, and listen to your internal voice.
Our always-on, capitalist culture puts a high value on productivity. Productivity is no bad thing: you need to produce a book, after all; and it will help your career and book sales if you write more than one. But it’s not the be all and end all. And forcing yourself to be productive can be counterproductive. Inspiring as stories of authors who churn out a book a year are, you don’t have to. You can go at your own pace. Especially for your first book, when no one’s holding you to a deadline.
You may have life, financial or health circumstances that mean the time you can spend writing is limited. You shouldn’t feel guilty about that. Do what works for you. Even if you do have the time, energy and will to write a lot every day, it’ll do you good to slow down and smell the roses from time to time – physically, mentally and creatively. Your writing will still be here waiting for you.
Mindfulness meditation has many benefits, including reducing anxiety, managing stress and increasing focus. It can also help still your mind so that you can visualise your fictional world and hear the voices of your characters. You’ll learn to observe your thoughts without getting distracted or caught up in emotion – a useful skill for any writer. And it’s a great way to practice self-care by taking some time out for yourself on a regular basis. Try meditation apps such as Calm or Headspace.
4. Make time for ‘me time’
Take some time out to do something you enjoy. It may seem impractical and indulgent when you’re super-busy – but it’s important for your stamina as a writer, your creativity and your mental health.
What makes you feel good? It could be going for a walk, doing some yoga stretches, meditating, reading a chapter of a book (for pleasure rather than research!), listening to music, watching a film, or having a coffee with a friend.
Cultural pursuits such as watching films, reading books, listening to music or visiting art galleries are especially beneficial – because you need to consume art in order to create it. If you’re feeling uninspired as well as tired, do something cultural to give your creativity a boost. You need to refill your creative reserves as well as your mental ones.
5. Look after your physical health
If you have physical health problems, you should, of course, seek medical advice. Serious health issues can be debilitating and get in the way of your writing. But so can minor, low-level issues that have more to do with lifestyle factors.
You don’t need me to tell you what to do. You know what to do: eat healthily, drink water, take some exercise and get enough sleep. It’s hard to write when you feel tired, sluggish or under the weather. It’s an act of self-care to address those lifestyle factors related to diet, exercise and sleep that you have control over.
A healthy lifestyle can boost your creativity as well as your physical and mental health. Going for a ‘plot walk’, for example, is great for coming up with ideas as well as getting some fresh air and exercise.
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6. Phone a friend
Social support is essential for mental health. And meeting up with a friend – especially a fellow writer – can provide both a much-needed break and a creative boost. Feeling stuck on a plot point? Talk it over with a friend who ‘gets’ it and can help unlock the problem for you. Struggling with a draft of your short story? Show it to a friend and ask for feedback. Or just meet for coffee and a chat to take a complete break from writing. You don’t even have to meet in person: pick up the phone, send a text them, or write an email.
Writing may be a solitary profession – and you may need that focused alone-time to concentrate on the worlds you create. But you don’t have to do it all alone. It’s useful to balance your splendid isolation with some social interaction. Consider joining a writing group, going to a literary event, festival or workshop. There are also online options, such as joining an online forum or remote co-working via Zoom.
7. Be kind to yourself
It’s too easy to be hard on ourselves, and on our writing. Give yourself a break. If self-compassion is a tough concept for you, ask yourself how you’d support a friend in the same situation as you – and try to support yourself in the same way.
If you struggle with perfectionism or impostor syndrome, it’s easy to judge and criticize yourself and your writing. Self-compassion means being kind and understanding when confronted with your struggles, difficulties and failures. You don’t have to be perfect. Imagine a friend showed you their scrappy first draft and asked for your comments. You’d probably go easy on them, understand the stage they were at with their writing, and offer some constructive feedback.
Go easy on yourself too. Give yourself credit for your achievements and the bravery of creation. And know that you’ll grow, develop and improve.
Self-care is vital for our mental health and wellbeing. As writers, it’s also an important part of our creative process. Take good care of yourself, as the Fraser Hayes Four once sang. You’ll enjoy your writing more, be less prone to burnout, and have the mental space to be creative. In short, you’ll be a better, happier writer.