Last fall, I had a spate where about six different deadlines hit me within two months. It was INTENSE; I was working for hours each day just to stay on top of things, and by the end of the two-month stretch when I turned in everything I’d been working on, I’d developed a persistent pain in my forearms that I thought was tendonitis. I’d had similar issues off and on throughout college, but they’d never hit the point of being completely debilitating, and I figured that once the deadlines went away the pain would, too.
Instead, even with greatly reduced work activity, the pain increased – to the point that I could hardly scroll through Twitter on my phone without feeling agonizing jolts from my fingertips all the way to my elbow. I made an appointment with my physical therapist, hopeful that it would be a quick fix. Instead, she informed me that the pain was not due to tendonitis – it was due to several injured nerves in my forearms, similar to carpal tunnel but more widespread. She gave me a host of exercises to do, but warned me – and has repeated this warning several times in the intervening months – that really, the only thing that was going to truly heal my nerve injury was rest.
Over and over again, something has emerged in talking with my writer friends: We writers, as a whole, are terrible at taking a break. We’re terrible at resting, at self-care, at allowing ourselves to have fallow spells in order to fill our well creatively. More writers than I can count, especially those who’ve been published or have books under contract, have worked themselves into illness or injury – repetitive stress injuries like mine, repeated colds, severe anxiety, depression, and more. Often, I see writers Tweeting about having just finished an especially grueling work in progress, and how they were going to celebrate by – you guessed it – diving right into something new.
I’ve seen friends refuse to give themselves breaks (even when they weren’t on deadlines!) through serious sickness, family disasters, the deaths of loved ones, and day job stresses. I’ve seen writers keep pushing themselves even when they’re so stressed by publishing that they’re breaking down into tears every day or two. Some of this is due to punishing schedules imposed on them by external deadlines, yes – but often, the pressure is completely internal.
Now, I love the creative rush of having a project that’s consuming all my waking thoughts just as much as the next writer. But between the nerve injury slowing my pace enormously and a recent bout of serious illness due to my cystic fibrosis, I’ve had ample time lately to think about the importance of rest and gentleness to ourselves. And here’s what I’ve come to:
- Without rest, we will all hit our breaking points. Whether it’s a panic attack in the middle of the grocery store, depression so intense you can’t get out of bed, a repetitive stress injury that impedes your ability to work, or something else, we all have our limits – and if we push too hard, we’ll eventually reach them.
- Self-care is, in some ways, even more important for writers than for people in different fields. As a writer pursuing publication, it can feel like the goalpost is constantly moving. First, it’s getting the agent. Then, getting the book deal. Then, getting good trade reviews or blurbs from the authors you love. Then, selling well. Then, getting the next book deal – and the next, and the next, and the next. When there is always something else to aspire to, it can be hard to recognize and celebrate the moments when you ARE succeeding. I’ve have friends who are NYT bestsellers who still struggle with crippling self-doubt and still feel like they’ll never get where they want to be. If left unchecked, this kind of pattern can leave us anxious and stressed, unable to muster any of the joy that drew us to writing in the first place. It’s crucial to take time to connect with ourselves, to do the things that bring us happiness, and to celebrate the small successes – even if that’s just “I finished this draft!” or “I wrote a scene that was really tough for me!” Self-care and self-celebration are vital to make sure that we’re not burning ourselves out constantly chasing the shifting goalposts of our field.
- It’s okay to take breaks. I sometimes get the feeling that we worry we won’t keep being able to call ourselves writers if we don’t have a project in the works 24/7. But sometimes, the circumstances in our lives – or in our bodies or our brains – demand that we step back, take a break, and allow ourselves to focus on other things for awhile. This might be because we’re struggling with our latest rejections, or because we’re battling illness or injury or mental health concerns, or simply because something else in our life has become more pressing for the moment. Regardless of the circumstances, It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to have a little while go by without cranking out the words every single day. It’s okay to be gentle and forgiving to ourselves, and treat our own bodies and spirits the way we’d treat those we love.
- Sometimes a fallow period leads to greater creativity later on. Nobody is a machine, and sometimes when we’re exhausted, taking some time away can be exactly what we need to recharge our creative tanks. I try to remember when I’m in these fallow periods that I’m not being lazy or slacking off – I’m letting my brain and my spirit connect with the things that feed my creativity, so that when I’m ready to get writing again, I can have inspiration when I need it.
- We MUST get help when we need it. The only thing worse than continuing to work ourselves into exhaustion when problems are rearing their ugly heads is to do that and to neglect treatment for those problems, too. I made that mistake last year, and I’m still regretting it: Because I thought it would go away on its own, I was slow to get in touch with my physical therapist to deal with my nerve injury. I wonder all the time if I could’ve saved myself a lot of pain and been able to work much more right now if I had just called her up as soon as I started feeling the first twinges of pain last fall. Likewise, whatever the problem that’s besetting us, it’s important to recognize when we need help – from a doctor, a physical therapist, or a mental health professional. Far too often, I think we undermine our own problems, brushing them off as not being that big a deal – until they suddenly reach the point where they become completely crippling.
Do you struggle with taking breaks in your writing life? Have you found especially good self-care tips that help you balance your writing career with everything else? I’d love to hear about them!
Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Her debut novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2018.