By Angela Cybulski
Tip #1: Let go of the pressure.
If you’re a writer you’ve undoubtedly heard or read some variation of this standard prescription for writing success: anywhere from 2 to 6 hours daily must be spent writing or the writer simply IS NOT – either a writer or writing.
No doubt for some writers this Rx is just what the doctor ordered – i.e. the writer possesses the sort of lifestyle, temperament, and stamina that allow for that kind of daily time-on-task, and can survive on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night while still accomplishing all of the other myriad tasks of a busy family and work life.
But for other writers, even seasoned ones, this prescription could prove fatal and create a type of toxic pressure that shuts down the possibility of living an authentic writing life before it even starts.
The truth is that not all writers are cut from the same cloth. Various factors contribute to one’s ability to commit to so many hours a day, or even every day, to work on a writing project. And when life starts reeling off major curveballs, an overly demanding writing schedule can create debilitating stress around something that should be enjoyable and life-giving. This is why I advise writers to discern a more REALISTIC, and less stressful, schedule that allows you to keep flexing your writing muscles while still allowing you to attend to the have-to’s in your life and which respects your unique writing temperament. Doing so can make the difference between moving forward (albeit at a snail’s pace) and abandoning your writing altogether.
But how do you get started discerning a suitable way to let go of the pressure? Take a lesson from the ball park. Adjusting practice schedules and rehab routines for injuries is a dynamic that plays out over and over across major league baseball, with unique differences depending upon each player’s situation and need.
For example, former Los Angeles Angels star pitcher Jared Weaver was put on the disabled list a few years back for an elbow fracture and so was unable to continue his usual epic pitching schedule and performance. He needed to heal from the injury, work through rehab, and enter into a graduated practice schedule that was appropriate to managing this very serious curveball. Putting him on the same intense daily practice schedule All-Star teammate Mike Trout was managing would not have been an appropriate practice for Weaver at the time; in fact, it would have destroyed him. He needed to readjust his expectations about what he could and could not do in light of the curveball, while still staying in the game. In other words, he needed an individualized prescription that worked for him.
The point is that things change, often drastically. Ball players know this and they deal with the curves accordingly. Sometimes they're benched for an entire season because of the intensity of the curves they’re dealing with. Why can’t we writers cut ourselves some slack and reorient our vision and our schedule in consideration of the way our ability to work has changed?
The key to letting go of the pressure is to acknowledge something in your life has shifted and figure out how to modify your practice to stay in the game. It may not look like what OTHER writers are doing, but that’s not the point. The point is to do what works for YOU.
So, if you’re struggling with the curves and close to despairing of living an authentic writing life, ask yourself this question: Before your life took on the velocity and complexity of piloting a Stealth bomber, how often and for how long were you able to write? If your typical 3 hours every weeknight has suddenly become impossible, can you write for 90 minutes two or three times a week instead? Or if you were writing for an hour every morning before you went to work, can you try cutting back to 15 or 30 minutes several days a week? Taking some of the pressure off may just make it possible for you to keep writing through whatever difficult situation(s) is demanding the majority of your time, attention and energy.
In my case, before the curves started coming in hard and fast I was writing for 15-20 minutes nearly every morning, often more on some weekends . . .
(Wait! Do I hear snickering and snorting? The prelude to incredulous laughter? Before you start wondering why you are reading this and what kind of writer I could possibly be at that commitment level, do yourself a favor and check out Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s brilliant and wholly unique book Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. The book changed my writing life: Barbara’s approach is that a book CAN BE written in just 15 minutes a day. I haven’t seen this advice in any other book on writing. And guess what? It works. Because it focuses on the main goal – COMMITMENT – and removes the major obstacle –PRESSURE – to living an authentic writing life. In a little over a year, I wrote nearly 300 pages of my novel, and I didn’t even write every day. And if you happen to be a guy, don’t let the title of Barbara’s book deter you from reading it. It’s hands-down one of the best books on the writing life out there and the guidance is applicable to every busy writer.)
Now, as I was saying . . .
. . . at one point the curves came in hard and fast and made even those precious 15 minutes nearly impossible. Like Weaver, the first thing I had to do was to make peace with the fact that THINGS HAD CHANGED, my game had changed. I couldn’t go on writing as I had been. This acceptance is essential to letting go of the pressure, both the pressure you place on yourself and the perceived pressure the “industry” places on you.
The next step was to come up with a new writing Rx that was appropriate for me. I came up with a plan to write for several hours a few weekends a month. These days got blocked out on my calendar and I made a promise to myself to set some strict boundaries to protect this time. This meant saying “no” to some – but not all – invitations and events. Remember: no one is going to come up to you with a silver tea tray and serve up hours for you to write in. You need to take the time, steal it if you have to, and make it your own. This can be done, provided you make peace with the reality that things have changed and let go of the pressure that comes from trying to follow an Rx not suited to your needs. You may not be able to control the curveballs coming your way, but you CAN control yourself and how you approach the challenges they present. Look for niches of time that work best for your writing process needs and your unique temperament. And don’t laugh off something so small as 15 minutes just because it doesn’t “look like” what you think qualifies as real writing time. I’m proof a book can come out of miniscule increments of time.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in negotiating letting the pressure off is that you promise not to beat yourself up if you CAN’T do it. That means that if you’ve blocked off a certain time to write, but the baby cries and you need to tend her, DO IT. If your nephew’s wedding is on that weekend and attending it means you won’t write until three weeks from now, go to the wedding. If you're thoroughly wiped out from dealing with the curves and desperately need a nap, take one. Guess what? Your book will survive and will be waiting when you get back. Life happens. The key here is to be realistic and protect the time against less important commitments and distractions.
If your life or your body are in complete turmoil, chances are you have enough pressures and worries weighing on you – don’t let your writing project be one of them. Keep working, but get pragmatic: let the pressure off, come up with a plan of action for dealing with the curves, and move forward with a changed approach to the game. Eventually things will return to whatever your normal is, or there will be a new normal. Either way, following outdated or useless prescriptions inappropriate for your condition doesn’t help you. Focus on what will and move forward.
What are some of the ways you have found to let the pressure off so you could continue working on your creative project even amidst major life changes? I’d love to hear what has or has not worked for you and how you’ve been able to let go of the pressure so that you can stay in the writing game. Perhaps someone else who is struggling can benefit from your strategy!
This is part one of a six-part series. You can find the series introduction here, and you can find successive entries here:
Tip #2: Find a Place Apart
Tip #3: Stay Connected