How I Quit Writing.
WARNING! Epic post alert. You’re going to be here awhile.
Two years ago my husband and I went to Paris together for the first time. It. Was. Magical. We fell hard for that city, and while we did make a regretful pilgrimage to the Louvre to pay our respects to Mona Lisa (regretful because we couldn’t get out of there fast enough) we ended up skipping all of the other touristy destinations. We skittered around the Champs Elysees and overslept, missing our appointment to hit the top of the Eiffel Tower. I am from a tourist town, and frankly, tourists are pretty much the same everywhere. I didn’t want to see tourists. I wanted to see Paris.
So what did we do instead? We walked. Sans map—and save the occasional glance at our navigation app to locate a particular arrondissement—we simply peered around corners and decided which way to go depending on what street and shops looked most interesting. Our next great adventure—places I never knew existed, maybe even new friends—were potentially, literally, right around the next corner. It was so fun!
So the magic of Paris for me is not only that it’s beautifully built, or that it has a particular, gentle light to it, or that it’s history-rich (if history were foie gras, Paris would be the goose. All that drama just chocked down the throat of the Seine!), it’s that you can just keep doing this—roaming until you’ve gorged yourself on her (and is there any doubt that Paris is a she?) before turning another corner—et voila!—relief in the form of a bottle of wine and cheese. (Guys, I actually lost weight doing this. Paris is the Best. Diet. Ever.)
And, by the way, while I value being in shape, my poor body was not used to logging these miles. So about midway through my third day, as we were launching ourselves up a picturesque street that nevertheless asked quite a bit of us in return, my legs…stopped. Like, I was telling them in my brain to keep going, but they were too busy tingling—not in a chafing sort of way, but inside the flesh, as if all the champagne bubbles I’d consumed were now attacking my thighs. (Death by champagne. I should be so lucky.) Essentially, I had walked so much that my legs had turned into the equivalent of a spoiled two-year old in the full throes of a tantrum. It. Couldn’t. Hear. Me. So—clearly being the adult in charge here—I very reasonably sat down and had some wine until they decided to work again.
Okay, so why am I telling you all this?
Because last summer, after years of pushing myself professionally, with deadlines (both reasonable and not), and while meeting tons of people (both enjoyable and not), and having my own fair share of wonderful highs and crushing disappointments, my brain—like my body in the streets of Paris—shut down. It went numb.
Mind, it didn’t tell me it was going to stop working—every week I would tell myself I was going to get back on the treadmill, plot that new book, write that 2K a day, blog and promote and be social, Social, SOCIAL!—but in retrospect (always in retrospect) I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d just come out on the other side of a particularly tough previous year—and mind you, I was through it, I had won, I was happy and free and beginning new things—and for the first time in almost ten years I had breathing room in my work schedule. Which was when my brain decided, “Great. I’ve done my job and got you through that. Now I’m going to go sit at a cafe in Paris–with or without you.”
Forget trying to get it back to work, I couldn’t even get it to care. I didn’t walk around singing ‘Let It Go’ or anything—I was now too busy worrying about not caring—but the bloody thing didn’t work. James finally started asking, “Um, are you going to start work today?” And I wasn’t sure because for the first time in years I was more interested in what was going on in front of my face than what was happening in my head. (Procrastination! I told my brain. Um…no, it said. Life.)
I also finally learned what the word was for the numbness I was feeling: Burnout.
Here’s a line from my journal just a few months ago:
11.20.14 – Having a day where I feel like where I am is exactly where I need to be.
This, on a day when I wasn’t a writer. Something that would have been unimaginable to the person I’d been for the past decade. But, in my defense, all I can say is that it just felt so good not to be numb.
So I quit writing. What did I do instead?
–I stopped, dropped, and rolled every time the little people in my life entered the room.
–I worked out and really paid attention to my body, instead of treating it like an obligation I needed to get through.
–I went to the beach and filled my head with the sound of the waves—no books, no words, no goals.
–I took care of a loved one who fell critically ill and was humbled, not hurried, doing it.
–I played with my friends.
–I took care of myself.
And I finally got clear enough to realize that when your body—or in this case, your brain—stops working and refuses to start again, you should probably take a serious look at what the hell you’re doing to it. I knew that if I was going to write again—if I was going to allow it back into my life with all this other really good stuff I was cultivating—I could only do it in a healthy way. Here are the life hacks that’ve made that possible:
Meditation. (did you know there’s an app for that?) That stuff really works. I have a thirteen minute one that restores my whole day, but I can do it in as little as seven. (Try Happify, if you’re interested. I like it.)
Physicality. I’m working with my doctor to make sure my body is happy and firing on all cylinders—blood tests, the whole works. After all, I gotta live in this baby for another forty-plus years, and I’d started showing signs of serious stress. Insomnia, throat closing up, panic attacks, teeth grinding. Once they start it’s hard to stop. Better to head them off, and quick.
Less writing. Writing is different from other jobs I’ve had in that it’s almost impossible to turn off, but I do it now. I no longer write all day, even though it’s my full-time job. I average 2-3 hours. Then I go get a life. Surprisingly, this hasn’t affected my pace. I’m fresher and happier when I hit the page because I have a full life beyond it. Who knew?
Gratitude. I practice it, man, and it doesn’t feel like I thought it would. It’s not this easy-breezy, ‘Oh, I’m so thankful for my awesome things! or whatever. Instead, when I’m really feeling it, it’s like a racehorse who has been returned to his stall after a hard workout, and he’s getting a rubdown. He did his best and now he’s being an animal, reveling in it. That’s how I am with my blessings. I did my best and it’s all good work—thank you, thank you, thank you.
Cherry pick my obligations. I focus on what I like about my job, and I ignore the rest. Frex, I’m “supposed” to be on Twitter. It’s not that I don’t like Twitter, but I really like my personal Facebook page because it feels like a safe place where I can be authentic, and a bit silly, and actually connect with my readers. It’s a gathering of the people I want around me, and those who actually want to be around me. They are my tribe, my self-proclaimed VPeeps, my friends and readers. I don’t ever get harassed the way some writers do online. Why? I think it’s because I’m not seeking the approval of those outside my milieu. My readers give me a safe spot to be vulnerable, and if someone is remotely untoward? They close ranks. I love them for that.
(Cherry-picking sub header: I also stopped supporting people who don’t support me. Not everyone in this biz is nice. You don’t have to play with them.)
New Hobbies. I’m not going to share them because they’re still new to me. They feel green and fragile, so please indulge me in that.
Goals. Yes, I still have them. I have three novels sitting in my immediate future, things I actually crave writing, and I have a master list I look at every week. I still stick to a schedule and make my deadlines. However, I am thoughtful about whom I partner with, and exceedingly careful about what I commit to. (I say ‘no’ a lot.) I’ve partnered up with a new publisher, Gallery, who is doing some real outside-the-box stuff, and am excited for SWERVE to be a part of that.
Honestly, though, I can no longer say that I’m a relentless careerist. I still can’t bring myself to care enough for that. Yet it’s enough for me that I’ve figured out how to create hard (rather than work hard) without grinding myself into the ground, and that’s why I’m writing this. I’m seeing a lot of the authors I started out with, career writers who have been running as hard and fast as I have, who are showing signs of burnout, too. And I want to tell you all: it’s okay to include hours of daily life, real life, in your writing routine. The worst thing you can do is allow yourself to get in a position where your publisher doesn’t really get behind you, or a particular book doesn’t do as well as you’d hoped, and you look up from the page, bleary-eyed, only to realize that there’s nothing else there. The good news is that if you’re like me, and you’ve logged well over your ten thousand hours, and you’ve already spent years of your life developing the habit of reading and writing, you can do less of it and actually produce more and better work than ever before.
This has already gone on too long, but I’m going to give you an example, with a caveat: I hate advertising word counts and word wars and “1K in 1 Hour!” exercises because they’re essentially meaningless metrics. You can hit that goal in one hour, and still have four pages of utter crap. None of that’s meaningful unless it’s meaningful to you.
That said, I wrote 27K in the last two weeks with days off, as needed, for real life, and I did it writing only a few hours a day, more or less (more if I could, less if I could ;) ). There are aspects of writing that I can streamline because I already have the habit of reading and writing in my life. I also know exactly how I work after ten books. And when I need to I can take my foot off the gas and use my reserves to coast.
What I can’t do (if I want to be in this game for another decade, and another decade after that) is spin my wheels or drive myself into the ground. Screw that.
If I’m going down, it’s going to be death by champagne.