Avoiding the Pitfalls of {too much} Solitude

I work at a university, which is another way of saying that I never had to leave school. At least I’m on the other side of the red pen, now. And I still get to have that school year mentality—the one where Christmas break, spring break, and summer vacation are the most wonderful times of the year.

Ah, summer vacation! I start looking forward to it in March (pretty much the day after spring break ends), because I am going to get SO MUCH done. When May rolls around, I think with awe about the months spanning uninterrupted before me. I make elaborate lists: write, work out, write, read, write, yard work, write, home improvement… I wake up early, excited to get started. Why can’t the entire year be like this?

And then, about mid-June, the novelty wears off. I start to get…bored. I sleep in later. Seven a.m. turns into seven-thirty turns into me barely cracking an eye when everyone leaves the house. The sad truth is, as much as I love my writing time, my mind starts to unravel when left to itself for too long.

As I’ve been doing this summer thing for awhile, I’ve developed some coping techniques. When the kids were younger, I was still at my wits’ end by August, but at least it was never dull. Then they started getting drivers’ licenses. The house got too quiet. My low spot was the summer a few years ago when pretty much my sole hobbies were playing Candy Crush and crying (yeah, I know—so many warning signs). After that, I took a good hard look at myself.

Writers, of necessity, spend a lot of time in their heads. We long for those quiet hours when it’s just us and the keyboard. But this isn’t a healthy place to stay for too long. These are some of the things I’ve learned that keep me functioning.

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  1. Take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. After my rock bottom summer, I started seeing a wonderful endocrinologist, who did some blood work and prescribed a medication for hypothyroidism that changed my life. It turns out that was what I needed to combat depression, but everyone is different. Don’t neglect yourself, and don’t downplay symptoms.
  2. Stay in touch with other writers. And not just through text on a computer screen. I have a writer friend I don’t see often, but we message each other every now and then and meet up for lunch. It’s incredibly invigorating to have even just that little bit of contact. Critique groups are wonderful for that, too. Also writing conferences.
  3. Join or start a critique group. I know I mentioned this already, but it’s important enough to repeat. A thriving critique group is hard work, but a go-to support group is a lifesaver. It’s also a source of accountability. I find it a lot easier to sit down at that keyboard when I know three other people are waiting for 5,000 words by Tuesday.
  4. Get some exercise. I am the world’s most reluctant athlete. I don’t get runner’s high—I get runner’s I-hate-this-I’m-so-miserable-and-why-is-it-so-damn-hot-(or-cold-or-windy)? Some might say I don’t run far enough (I’m looking at you, my marathon-running critique partners). My answer to that is…well, I won’t say it here. But even with as little as one yoga session and a couple of walk/jogs with the dogs every week, I find my body refreshed and my brain churning with new ideas.
  5. Hide the snacks. Getting rid of them is best, of course, but that’s too hardcore for me. I’m guilty of leaving treats in plain sight—right at this moment I’ve got a family pack of Reese’s Pieces, some strawberry peanut M&M’s, a bowl of tortilla chips, a box of candy left over from Christmas, and half a bag of chocolate Chex Mix on my kitchen counter. And that’s only what I can remember without going to look. Welcome to my sugar-addicted life. It’s only a few steps from my laptop to Chocolate Heaven—not nearly enough to count as exercise, more’s the pity. But out of sight, out of mind, and putting all that stuff away in a cupboard helps. And right after I finish this, I’m going to do just that.
  6. Train your family to be supportive. This one doesn’t always work. But if you’re fortunate, you may have someone in your life who will not only respect your writing time, but help pull you out of any writerly funks you may fall into.
  7. Learn something new. For awhile, I made a game of developing a new skill every summer. One year, I learned how to knit. Another, I took piano lessons. Last summer, I canned 36 jars of peaches from our tree. (For someone who hates to cook, that’s a huge accomplishment.) New hobbies keep me busy when the words don’t come, and hey, now my characters can talk semi-intelligently about knitting, pianos, and canning fruit. This summer’s goal? Dog agility training. Really.
  8. Or volunteer. Or otherwise become involved with something external and different. My family is usually supportive (see above), but my husband is occasionally guilty of uttering the words, “Since you’re not doing anything this summer, why don’t you…” But you know what? One day a week of working at his business has actually been good for me. For one thing, it resets my mind. After applying it to new and challenging problems, I return to my writing refreshed. Also, new skills: if your characters need intimate knowledge of state and private vehicle impounds in the state of Utah, I’m your guy. And it keeps me on a reasonable getting-out-of-bed schedule.
  9. Finally, have something to look forward to. For me, it’s road trips, days at the lake, and returning to my fulltime job in August. Ah, fall semester! I can’t wait.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

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