Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Lynn Alfino
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I learned the hard way. Early writing success and regular assignments soon led to 18-hour stretches at the computer with few breaks and little outside contact. Exercise was a foreign concept and to compound the problem, I was living and working in the same small room (which had taken on the ambience of a prison cell). Within six months, a 30-pound weight gain, increasing depression, and lack of contact with friends made me realize how unbalanced my life had become. I knew I had to do something.
Online writers' groups provided much needed camaraderie and professional writing advice. The eclectic mix included well-established full-time writers, part-timers holding down outside jobs, and those in the throes of shopping articles around for their first sales. Many were successfully juggling writing, work and family responsibilities. So I set out to discover their secrets for keeping mind, body and soul together.
I posted an online invitation for interested writers to share details of their health and work habits. More than 20 writers responded within one week. Using these writers' responses, I've developed 10 tips writers can use to be healthier and happier.
Schedule regular breaks. The importance of taking breaks throughout the day was cited by three-quarters of the respondents. One third said they eat dinner outside their work area to give themselves a break.
Move those bones. About half of the respondents admitted to weight gains, ranging from a few to more than fifty pounds, since they began writing in earnest. Exercise can help ward off lethargy and depression, and jump-start your thought process through increased blood circulation. Whether you choose to walk your dog or run on a treadmill at a local gym, physical activity can make you feel better and increase your productivity.
Try different work areas. Varying your workspace might provide new visual and sensory stimulation. Editing or writing drafts in your family room can be a good way to be with others while still working on your latest project. A trek to the local library can also provide social interaction, albeit peripheral, and remind us we're part of the living. If noise is a problem, try wearing foam earplugs.
Make a writing schedule. Some writers hold other jobs and must carve out a special time in the evenings or weekends to pursue their craft. Scheduling your writing, even jotting the time in your calendar, can help ensure a balance between solitude and time with others.
Get dressed. For some writers, staying in their bathrobes may subconsciously encourage slacking off, while getting showered and dressed may give their brains the message that it is time for business.
Keep communicating. If you are a sociable type, giving up an outside job to write full-time from home can come as a big shock. Gone are the opportunities for water cooler interaction with co-workers. If you are committed to working from home, participating in a writers' group can help provide a sense of community. Calling friends or even chatting with local storekeepers can provide the human voice you occasionally need to hear while you're working.
Create an open workspace. Even if your workspace is a windowless closet, a favorite painting, plant, or cut flowers can remind you that there's a world out there. Natural beauty can provide the visual inspiration so necessary to refresh the soul and ready the mind of the work period ahead.
Clue in to fatigue. Sleep disorders such as insomnia or oversleeping plague many of us, and may be symptoms of anxiety, stress and imbalance. Immersing yourself in a character for a novel or intensive research for nonfiction can mean you are tired for a long period and not really present to the moment. It's hard to produce brilliant work when you're nodding off at the keyboard, so get the sleep you need.
Watch out for depression. By its very nature, writing is intensely introspective work. Writers and poets are four times more likely than others to suffer from depression, according to the American Association for the Prevention of Suicide. Dickinson, Eliot, Poe, Emerson, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald -- all suffered depressive illnesses. For Hemingway, Woolf, and Plath, suicide followed.
Happily, gone are the days when self-destructive habits were acceptable parts of a writer's romantic mystique. Today's writer faces stiff competition, and it is the clear-eyed pro who meets editorial deadlines and circulates a steady stream of queries. As one published writer, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted in the survey, "I've learned what every writer has to learn. Drinking does not produce good stuff. Oh sure, it looks good at the time, but the next morning -- it sucketh!"
Watch for signs of depression, such as feelings of unending sadness and hopelessness; ignoring your personal hygiene; overindulging in food, alcohol or other substances; and withdrawing from friends and family. If you feel you are losing your grip, don't hesitate to talk to a professional. You may have issues to sort out before regaining your equilibrium.
Don't dismiss laughter. The bottom line is, while the writing lifestyle invites and requires reflection and solitude, we must make efforts to reach out and include friends, family and community. Get out of your chair and away from your computer, and get face-to-face with people on a regular basis. Such fun interactions may even provide new writing ideas!
Originally published in Writer's Digest, April 2002.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Lynn Alfino is a veteran freelancer whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across North America. She regularly contributes to Writer's Digest and The Writer, among others, and is currently working on a book about the annual 1049 mile Alaskan Iditarod Dog Sled Race. Originally from Toronto, Canada, she now lives in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.