When a writing life gets out of whack
Here’s an essay I wrote for Writes of Passage, an award-winning collection of essays put together by Sisters in Crime and published by Henery Press.
A writing life can get out of whack for any number of reasons. I love to write and always have, from the moment I first climbed a tree with a pad and pen as a kid and spun stories on my favorite branch. That doesn’t mean I’m immune to the ups and downs of a writing life. The character who refuses to come together, the elusive plot twist, the 100 pages that end up in the trash, the tight deadline, the family crisis—they can all wreak havoc on a happy writer. And that’s just for starters.
What to do, what to do?
For me, the secret to getting staying on track, or getting back on track, with enjoying my writing and my writing life lies in focus. I’m not talking about focusing on what’s wrong or even on what’s right about a particular situation. I’m talking about focusing on being fully present. In other words, I get out of my head and take in the world around me.
When things are really out of whack, focusing on something else—anything else—can be hard to do. We want to force things to happen, solve the problem, brainstorm solutions, get it done…when what we really need to do is to stop all that. Stop thinking. Stop brainstorming. Stop obsessing. Stop fortune-telling. Stop mind-reading. Stop replaying. Stop asking questions. Stop searching for solutions.
Easier said than done when we want answers and positive results. That’s why focus is so important.
When I’m in that state, my first step is to acknowledge it. The simple act of acknowledging that things are out of whack helps shift me out of my instinctive fight-or-flight response. There’s nothing to fight. There’s nothing to flee. That allows me to take my second step. I take a few minutes to breathe in a deliberate manner. I inhale to the count of four. Hold for four. Exhale for eight. I do at least three sets.
Finally, I go for a walk. A long walk. This isn’t one of my frequent walks to work out plots and characters but instead to take in my surroundings and be fully present now, in this moment. To get me into the moment, I often fall back on a game we used to play as kids. I pick a color and look for things in that color. On a walk last week, preoccupied with my mother’s slow recovery from a bad fall, I looked for something red and found leaves, a post and a door. That little game brought me out of my head and into my surroundings.
A few years ago, I spent three weeks alone in a tiny cottage on the southwest Irish coast on what I think of as a personal writing retreat. Many writers I know get away to crash to the finish line with a manuscript, or they meet with writer friends for plotting sessions. That’s not what I was up to. My purpose was to get away from the usual writing walls—deadlines, word counts, page counts, schedules—and the usual writing distractions—social media, the internet, phone calls, movies—and see what happened. My little getaway had no television or Wi-Fi and only intermittent cell phone coverage, but it had a peat-and-coal-burning stove and was located on a lane where I could wander endlessly. Every day, I practiced focus—being fully present—and learned how important that is to a joyful writing life.