Writers Anonymous: A 12 Step Program for Addicted Writers
by Steff Green

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Writing is stressful. The all-consuming beast gobbles your free time, invades your every thought, and turns your family and friends into monstrous distractions keeping you from your muse. We writers tend to be an intense bunch, diving headlong into each project and not moving from our computer unless beckoned by fire, theft or act of God (sometimes, not even then).

But the writer by nature deals poorly with stress. If you're stressed or your health is suffering, the urge to create disappears. If you're a writer sinking into the peat bog of insanity, perhaps it's time to put your writing life through the 12 Steps for Addicted Writers.

1. Keep Sight of Your Goals

If you're anything like me you have a hundred writing projects on the go at once: novels in progress, novels making the rounds of agents and editors, short stories and poems, freelance articles to be written, article queries to be written and sent, e-books to write, website content to write, a blog to update and other work for clients to complete.

No wonder you're overwhelmed! Your energy is spread so thin you won't do any of these projects well.

I'm not saying you should pick one thing and stick to it, because one of the joys of writing is experimenting with different forms. But if the writing is no longer fun, you have to remember why you're doing this in the first place. Where does your real passion lie?

My passion is writing fiction. But my goal is to use writing to provide my family with a second income so my husband can quit his awful job and begin his home business manufacturing custom drum kits. At the moment, this goal is most important to me, so my nonfiction is my first priority because it can finance this goal. When I've finished everything I need to do for nonfiction that day, I write 1000 words on my novel, or do some editing. Although I have ideas for short stories and poems, I leave these alone because they don't directly relate to my two immediate goals.

What are your writing goals? Are you wearing yourself out for little gain? Can some of your writing give a little?

2. Establish a Routine

The body thrives on routine. If your writing is a job -- full-time or part-time -- you need to treat it like one. Set yourself work hours and make yourself an 'office' space where you arrive at the beginning of your writing day. Write a to-do list. Keep a calendar of your deadlines and goals. Schedule phone calls with your editor and agent the way you would schedule meetings. Unplug the phone and internet while you write; these are 'timewasters' that sap your workflow. Your boss doesn't approve of timewasters.

By the way, your boss is you.

Push yourself to stick to the routine. Within a few weeks you'll naturally fall into the same pattern. By scheduling specific work hours you establish your writing as an important part of your life and teach your brain to shut off non-writing concerns until your free time.

3. Embrace a Hobby

Most professional writers started off writing as a hobby. Now, writing is my (second) job. When I'm not at work or writing, I'm indulging my hobbies: reading, painting, travelling and archery. It's important to embrace an activity purely for relaxation with no goal other than to enjoy yourself.

Hobbies enrich your writing. If your character is a potter, why not take a pottery class? Go to the firing range if your character is a cop. Whether it's cooking, painting, martial arts or fossil hunting, hobbies keep your writing fresh and your mind calm.

4. Remember What's Important

You're on deadline, furiously tapping away in your room. Your toddler screams from the bedroom and you just CAN'T HANDLE THIS RIGHT NOW. Could be, it's seriously time to sit back and think about what's really important in your life.

Your family should be the centre of your universe, and your mad desire to write should stem from the inspiration and support they bring you. I wouldn't be the writer I am today without my husband. And I will leave my computer every time he needs me, because he's my husband and I love him. Why would I be doing this crazy writing thing if he wasn't there encouraging me?

Spend time with your family. They love you, bestseller or not. And one day, when the writing income dries up and this fickle business spits you out, they'll still love you. Remember that.

5. Make Time for Friends

Every once in awhile, take time to sit at a coffee shop, on your porch, or curl up on the phone with a trusted friend. You're not going to talk about writing, so your weekly call to your crit partner or writing buddy does not count.

Friends are there to keep you sane. Hanging out with them and sharing their laughter, tears and adventures enriches your spirit. Value them for their ability to bring you back to earth again, and let them take you out for crazy adventures occasionally. Don't become so wrapped up in writing that you forget to live.

6. Exercise

Exercise produces endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people are... well, happy. You want to be happy, right? I know exercise sucks. I know you hate it, but... you don't really hate it, do you?

It's hard to motivate yourself to get up and do the exercise, but once you start, it's great. I love pumping weights at the gym with my Judas Priest CDs on full volume, or taking a walk through the park and breathing in semi-fresh (I live in the city) air. You'll be healthier, work off that stress-induced chocolate belly and have more energy to fuel those writing binges.

Exercise fuels your writing in other ways. On weekends I do sword-fighting with my husband. Not only is this heaps of fun, but I have a wide knowledge base to draw from whenever I need information about swords or other arcane weapons for my novels. And being able to train with those weapons myself (I've done two-handed sword, competitive fencing, basket hilt, poleaxe, archery and mace) I understand the situations and problems my characters encounter on an intimate level.

7. Celebrate Your Success

We were financially stretched when I first began making money from writing. I wanted to put away every cent of my first check to make sure the bills got paid and we had enough food for the week. I always remember my beautiful husband shoving that $50 check back into my fist, saying, "No, Steff. You're spending this money on yourself. And that's final."

I brought myself a new outfit I'd been admiring for awhile, and every time I wear it I think how I earned it with my writing money. I feel so proud of myself. I look at myself in the mirror and think "I'm a writer. I buy things with my writing income."

So treat yourself every time you have a success. It doesn't have to be big. My new clothes didn't break the bank. You could spend $2 on a chocolate bar when you finish your first novel draft, or treat your spouse to dinner out when you sign your first contract. Celebrating success helps you to stay focused on achieving your goals and enjoying the writing process.

8. Learn to say No

"Can you come over and help me move house?"

"Do you want to run a stall at the garage sale this weekend? It's for a good cause!"

"Can you finish this report by Monday?"

I'm terrible at saying no. I'm gradually getting better, but I still give in and say yes more often then I should.

Writers constantly juggle their writing around everyday life. If you're at home writing, friends and family assume you have all the time in the world to do their chores and run errands and watch wayward children. Learn to say no. Writing time is work time. If you don't write, you don't get paid.

If you can't say no, but you know you should, have someone else say no. Sometimes I send my husband in to say no for me. He's a strong personality, whereas I am a pushover. And when I do say no, I feel guilty. Husband doesn't feel guilty. Problem solved.

If you have someone to help you do this, good for you. If you don't, learn to say no. Learn really quickly.

9. Listen to music

Music plays an immense role in my life. It has defined every moment of my existence, from the albums my dad used to play when I was a girl, to the angry lyrics I'd belt out in my room as a teenager, to the songs my husband and I fall in love with together.

To me, listening to music makes any activity -- no matter how loathsome -- enjoyable. On housework days I crank up the stereo and dance while I clean (for anyone curious, my favourite housework albums are Manowar Kings of Metal and Iron Fire On the Edge).

Writing is no different. Most of the time I love writing. Sometimes I hate it. If I hate it, but I have a deadline, putting on some music can really power me up.

Many authors find lyrics distracting and only listen to instrumental music while they write. Many cannot listen to music at all. I'm not one of them. Music isn't a distraction to me, it's a driving force. I infuse the energy of whatever I'm listening to into my prose. For adventures, it's Manowar; for dark novels I love Burzum, Skepticism or Satyricon. For young adult, it's Avril Lavigne.

10. Change scenery

After more than six hours slogging away at my desk I have to get out. I go for a drive (with my husband, of course; I don't condone reckless driving by blind people) or a walk, accompany my flatmate on the food shop, reorganise the garage, anything to avoid my desk. A week of long writing hours and I'm frothing at the mouth to go away on the weekend, to never touch that computer again...

If you're anything like me, you need regular breaks away from your desk. Make sure you schedule writing-free vacations, so you always have a break to look forward to.

Sometimes if I've hit a slump, moving my computer gives me a new burst of life. Write at the kitchen table for a week and see if your writing feels different. Pack your laptop off to the nearest Starbucks and write in the corner with a steady supply of caffeine. Visit your in-laws for the weekend and write at their coffee table. Sometimes the change is all you need to kick-start your muse.

11. Meditate

You don't have to subscribe to a new religion or learn any complicated breathing. Just sit in the quiet for a few minutes and take deep breaths through your nose, breathing out through your mouth. Concentrate on thinking nothing. This is more difficult then it sounds. Every time you feel a thought or worry creep in, push it away.

Some people, myself included, find this easier to do with music playing in the background. Use soft, instrumental music. My favourite is Beethoven.

You could practise yoga. I took a class once, and many of the single exercises and breathing techniques remain part of my relaxation practise.

Another method of meditation is to attend church. Whatever faith you embrace, spending an hour or two in your god's house listening to words of wisdom or serene choirs clears the head of negativity. Have you ever been to your local chapel outside of regular service times? I love sitting in our city cathedral during the day and embracing the solitude of that cavernous hall. It's the perfect place to enjoy meditative prayer.

12. Inspire yourself with art

If I feel stifled or my creative brain takes a holiday to Timbuktu, I refresh myself with a visit to a local art gallery, play or concert. By admiring someone else's art for a few hours, I feel inspired to return to my own.

I subscribe to a free "What's On in the Arts" email newsletter in my local community, so I have a source on hand if I need creative stimulation. Local galleries, museums and theatre often have their own mailing lists.

Alternatively, if you don't want to leave the house, grab a stack of your favourite old novels or some new books you can't wait to read. Make yourself a delicious snack and settle in to some guilt-free reading. I promise by the end of the first book you'll be itching to start writing again.

Find Out More...

Feeling Guilty about Writing Too Much for Too Little? Shed the Guilt, Discover the Rewards - Susie Yakowicz

Copyright © 2010 Steff Green
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Steff Green is a New Zealand-based freelance writer who lives with her cantankerous drummer husband and their medieval sword collection. Her work appears in over 70 publications in print and online, and she blogs about writing and heavy metal music at http://steffmetal.com.


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