Being a Better Writer: Mental Health

Hello writers! We’re back with the final installment of Being a Better Writer … from Topic List #20. Still, I probably gave a few of you a scare there. Tis the season, right?

Anyway, before we dive into today’s writing topic—which has a lot more to do with writing than some of you might think, so stick around—I do want to reemphasize what was said above with a different context. This is the last topic from Topic List #20, and that means that there is currently a Topic Call going for Topic List #21. If you’re not familiar with what that means, well it is pretty straightforward. Have a writing topic you’d like Being a Better Writer to discuss? Head on over to the Topic Call and post it! Get your topic put on the list! That’s it! Hit that link!

And that is all the news I’m doing today. That’s it. Topic call, and the end of Topic List #20. Because I want to dive right into things today. I want to talk about mental health.

Not just in writing, but the whole process. Editing, writing, publishing … the works. Why? Well … because if I’m honest I feel like mental health and its related, associated topics aren’t addressed as much as they should be. Especially if you live in the United States, where decades of neurosis from earlier generations have pounded the idea into many people’s heads that “If it’s not physical labor, it can’t be stressful because it’s not even work.”

I’m not exaggerating about this. I wish I was, but I have been told point-blank before by more than one person that what I do ‘isn’t work and can’t be tiring because all I do is sit and hit keys all day’ or some variant thereof. Because it’s not a ‘real outdoors job’ therefore it cannot be tiring, exhausting, stressful, or even count as effort or ‘real work.’

Now, I’m going to say something right now as an aside: This. Is. Crap. Utter garbage. And I can say that with the highest possible authority, because I’ve done some of the hardest of the “real jobs” out there. I paid my way through college working on commercial fishing boats. I remember one week where I tracked my time working, on my feet, and it was over 150 hours in one week. That’s right, I was getting two hours of sleep a night or less. I’ve been so tired from those jobs that I’ve literally fallen asleep before hitting a bed and slept for 20+ hours at the end of trips.

BUT … I would never say that what I do now is any less stressful or hard work. Is it easier on my body? Yes. I’ve got some long-lasting impacts to my knees and the rest of me that came as a consequence of all the hard labor I’ve done over the years.

But have I been just as mentally fogged at the end of a day in which I’ve edited over 60,000 words as I have at the end of a long day on a fishing boat? YES. Writing, editing, and publishing a book is exhausting. My legs may still have plenty of energy at the end of an 8+hour writing session, but my mind? It’s been through a wringer. I’m exhausted. I have ended 10+ hour days of fishing and 10+ hour days of writing with exactly the same mental fog of fatigue.

As someone who has done both ends of the spectrum, from commercial fishing boat and cannery work to sitting at a desk all day trying to figure out how to make an imaginary person’s declaration of love sound genuine, real, and in characterI am someone with the authority to say “both of these are exhausting.”

Are there people who shirk and aren’t that tired? In both paths. There are just as many people who call it a day and slack off on a fishing boat after a single set as there are people who “write” by sitting in front of a keyboard watching Youtube and then after 3-4 hours writing a single sentence that they’ll “touch up” tomorrow. Yes, both exist. But far too often one type of job gets a free pass in the public mind, while the other doesn’t.

Okay, stepping back from that aside and explanation, I wanted to make that tangent clear because as I stated at the start and with the lead in … Many, many people, especially in the US, believe this to be true. “Oh, it’s just writing. What do you have to be stressed about?” This is a question I’ve had directed at me after expressing to someone that I’ve had a long day, because many people in the US have bought into a fiction far more outlandish than anything I’ve ever written, the fiction that “brain work isn’t real work.”

Unless, of course, you’re a CEO or a C-Suite executive. Then it’s the most draining, compensation-desperately-needed job in the world.

But back on topic, today we’re discussing mental health and writing precisely because of this false perception. A false perception that many writers fall into the trap of. A belief, pushed fiercely by some, that writing and similar work “can’t be real work” and therefore cannot be the cause of stress.

And this mistaken belief? It can wreck you.

See, there’s a danger with buying into this mindset. If you do, if you’re one of those people that decides “Well, writing isn’t shoveling, so therefore it’s not a ‘real job,’ and shouldn’t be stressing me out” one of two things can happen. Each of these, I’ll not, is something I’ve seen happen with writers.

The first is that the person will work right up until they start to get stressed or feeling the pressures of writing, be that fatigue of some kind, stress over not being able to get a scene right, or anything else and assume that because they’re feeling stress from something that “shouldn’t be stressful” they’re doing it wrong. And then they stop. This is similar to those who think “writing must be easy” then try and realize it’s not and quickly give up, but different in that it’s not the difficulty of writing that’s making them call it quits, but a belief that they must be doing something wrong if writing feels stressful, tiring, or anything else that’s not “easy.” Not knowing how to “properly” do it, they drift away.

The second is that the new writer—or even old one—will keep pushing on despite the stress. They’ll just … compartmentalize it. They’ll assume that the fatigue will go away as they get better at their craft—and in some ways they’ll even be correct. Or they’ll assume that everyone just “deals” and keep on pushing. Or maybe they’ll do their best to ignore it, keeping the mindset of problem one above but instead adding it to a pressure cooker that now includes the belief of “when you’re a real writer you won’t feel stressed.”

In other words, both of these outcomes are not ideal. The first simply makes someone quit, while the second tries to shove it aside or bottle it up or add additional stress by saying “When I become a real writer I won’t feel so wrung out.”

And all of these are … wrong. There’s no simpler way to put that. Each of them has its own issues, and each of them will lead to problems. The first we don’t need to discuss quite as much, though we will, because it’s largely a case of saying “don’t stop.” But the second? Yeah, we need to break that down and talk about it.

So, quickly with the first then: If you felt stressed, fatigued, drained, etc, after trying to write, you didn’t do anything wrong. Congratulations, that’s writing. The issue is only that you let it drive you to quit. Now, is that to say that you’re just going to have to “deal with it?” No. But for that, we’re going to get into the second part of things.

Now lets talk about the second part here. In it’s own section. You’re writing, you’re feeling that stress, that tiredness, etc. And I want to stress this here:

This. Isn’t. Wrong. Writing is work. It’s hard. It requires mental agility and flexibility the way only the arts can. You ever see those performances of professional symphonies or orchestras and notice how much they’re sweating by halfway through the show? Art is exertion. That stress you feel? That fatigue? Do not ignore it.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean backing off the moment you feel fatigue or stress either, stopping or quitting. It means learning to manage it.

Above I did say that it is partially correct to assume that you’ll “just get better at handling it” as you refine your craft. And in a way this is true. Like anything else, we can improve our output, be it in miles run or weight lost by working towards that goal. When I first started writing, my goal was to write 1000 words each workday. And that made me tired.

But I improved. I continued to get better. Before long a singe thousand wasn’t making me quite so tired. So I raised the goal. Eventually I found a plateau where my gains for going past it didn’t beat the fatigue, stress, and other factors catching up with me at 3,000-4,000 a day.

However, getting better wasn’t the only thing that made that fatigue go away. Which is why I said it’s a partially correct answer. Getting better will reduce the stress and fatigue, but it won’t counteract it. Neither will ignoring it or attempting to push past it with the idea that it will just “resolve itself.”

You may notice that I didn’t say “get rid of it” above. Which is a related problem. Some people assume there must be some way to do this “writing” thing “correctly” and all the stress will just … not happen.

Sorry, but that’s also not going to be true. No, ignoring it won’t make it go away. And you can’t just “not have it” unless you stop writing. Which, given the topic we’re all here for, isn’t an option either.

That’s why I referred to counteracting it above.

We’re going to make an analogy for a moment. Imagine you and your writing, editing, etc, as a canning project. As in canning food in glass jars, yes. Why do I choose this example? Because it involves a tool known as a pressure cooker.

Now, you can’t avoid the need for a pressure cooker with many foods. It’s part of the process. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you won’t be doing any canning today.

Picture that pressure cooker. They’re a giant steel pot with a reinforced lid that clamps down, to use heat and pressure to produce something. This pressure cooker? That’s your mind while writing.

And a pressure cooker is something that can be quite dangerous. It’s a pressurized steel cylinder, after all, using heat, hot steam, and the pressure in its name to can its contents. But if that heat, steam, and pressure isn’t properly managed … the results can be disastrous. Even deadly.

However as we noted above … you can’t can certain foods without it. It’s an unavoidable part of the process. So how do you keep your pressure cooker from becoming a literal bomb inside of your kitchen?

You manage it. You eye the pressure gauge, and the heat you’ve got under it. You also use a valve on the side of the lid to let off pressure before it can reach dangerous levels.

So it is with our writing. There’s no avoiding the stress, fatigue, and other challenges that come with the writing process. They’re part of the process, either created by mental “friction” as “heat” that starts to warm up the pressure cooker of our mind, or pressure of deadlines, trying to find missing apostrophes, or other bits of the process.

We cannot eliminate these stressors. Which is why it is so important that we counteract and manage them. First by acknowledging that they exist. And second by learning to monitor ourselves and make use of our “release valves” before our minds figuratively explode.

So … what are some of the ways we can manage ourselves and reduce that pressure we see building? Well, I’ll start with a clear one that many—myself included—often forget: Sleep.

Sleep is incredibly vital, and yet if you ask most experts around the world they’ll point to statistics showing that most people, especially in first-world countries, do not get enough of it. Sands, even I fell into this trap, learning only after I got a Fitbit that tracked my sleeping habits that for months I’d been getting only five hours of sleep each night, three hours less than what is considered healthy.

Worse, it can be easier to double down on lack of sleep with writing because of that incorrect public mindset that “just because it’s at a desk, it can’t be tiring.” This can keep us hard at work long after we should have taken a break, gotten a nap, or even gone to bed.

Truth is, we don’t just need sleep to recover, but also to unwind and relax. I’ve heard sleep described as “time for the brain to defragment” and I think it’s an apt comparison. It’s not only that we might make more errors or become sloppy if we’re low on sleep, but that by not sleeping, we’re letting all that mental “clutter” build up. Which makes it harder in turn for us to manage ourselves and how stressed out we might be.

Get the sleep you need. Let your mind be sharp and at the ready so it can properly gauge your stress and your work alike.

Another important stress and fatigue manager is, amusingly enough, the exact opposite of the first we gave: Physical activity.

Look, we know how long we may sit in a chair slaving away at our keyboards. And not only does that allow mental pressure to build, but it’s comparable to holding your arm out at arm’s length. Eventually, you’ll need a break. Something different. Physical activity not only gives your mind a completely different set of inputs to focus on, but we gain additional benefits for our physical bodies as well.

Both are important to mental well-being. Whether it’s a walk, a bike ride, jogging, yoga, flash-mobbing your local mad-doctor obsessed with reanimating the dead, or something as simple as jamming to your favorite music while cooking a meal, getting some sort of physical activity to break up a writing session is a great form of pressure relief for our stress.

Sometimes, we just need to take our minds off of things. Give our brains other input. Sort of like turning down the heat on our pressure cooker so that the steam inside it can settle down. Or sometimes as a vent, a way for us to “bleed off” the pressure we’ve been feeling as we distract ourselves with something else.

There’s another reason I bring this up, however: Physical activity and being healthy is good for the mind. Studies for generations have shown that there’s an advantage to having a good healthy cardio level that ripples across the whole body, the mind included. Treating ourselves right physically has a very real and measured impact mentally, and this means that taking even small steps toward getting sleep or being physically active can have a profound effect on our ability to counteract the mental pressures of stress and fatigue.

Feeling close to burning out? Take a walk. Change your inputs. You’d be surprised what 15 minutes of napping or walking around the block can do.

Another approach we can use to manage our stress levels is, to what might surprise many, entertainment! This is most akin to a pressure-release valve of anything else on the list, though some forms of entertainment can, like physical activity, stretch our mind in new and different directions that can also be helpful.

But that stretch can be both educational and like stretching a tight muscle. Watching an episode of a favorite show, playing a few minutes of our favorite video game, even reading a book where we don’t have to worry about the writing of it, or any of dozens of other options available to you can all be a good method of helping regulate the pressure.

Board games, interesting Youtube videos, a quick power-jam song, whatever. Maybe for you entertainment is going out to eat with friends. Or picking a cheesy movie from MST3K. You can’t do these things all the time—after all, the writing needs to happen. But you can do them sometimes or when your work is done for the day as a method of regulating our mental pressure, have some entertainment. Something fun. Something to take your mind off of your pressures so that when you do go back to them, it’s hopefully with a new perspective and vigor.

Now these aren’t the only ways we can manage or counteract our stress. There’s friends and family, hobbies …. the list is endless. Rather than trying to summarize all of them, I’ve offered a few common ones that could be most helpful, and encourage looking for the ones that best help you.

But I do want to talk about one more thing before closing this titan of a Being a Better Writer post: Overwork, exhaustion, and burnout.

Sometimes … we don’t manage stress well. Sometimes we miss the signs, or think we’re doing better than we are when we’re not. Sometimes we’re so caught up in our fatigue and our push that we miss the signs others see, that we need to take a step back and recharge.

Now I want to make something very clear: This is not shameful. I’ve worked myself into exhaustion more than once. It’s just something that happens to some of us when we’re very devoted to what we do. It’s not a mark of shame, nor is it embarrassing to have to take a break to recharge.

When you get sick, you don’t keep going. Only fools do that. You step back. You rest. You recover.

Burnout and fatigue? Overworking ourselves to exhaustion? It’s better to catch it early. But if we can’t, then we need to give ourselves the time to recover when the pressure cooker finally blows.

Rest. Recover. Then come back. It’s okay. Reevaluate your warning signs. But don’t add further pressure by attacking yourself for letting the pressure cooker blow. It’s in the past, and it happens. Recover. Reengage. Don’t worry about it.

The point of today’s post is threefold. First, acknowledge that the writing process will bring stress, pressure, and fatigue. It’s not wrong to feel that. However, as discussed, it is wrong to not work to counteract that. There are many things we can do to manage and counteract our stresses. Breaks, sleep, entertainment … the list is large. Please use the tools at your disposal to measure your pressure and keep it at the proper point.

Last but not least, if you miss the signs and the lid blows off, resulting in overworked exhaustion, realize that it’s not the end of the world. Rest, recuperate, and then get back to it. After you’ve taken the time you need. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It happens. We learn by doing.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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