Turning Whine Into Gold
While the writing life can be full of joy (We make our own hours! We’re doing what we love! We work by dreaming up new possibilities!), I think we can all agree that it is also full of scenarios that can suck us into whirlpools of stress. Many of them have to do with the added pressure of deadlines.
How many times have you read a long editorial letter right before a deadline and emailed back, “This looks doable!” even as your stomach knots? Publishing is a business requiring cold hard deadlines, yet the writing it relies upon requires nurturing whose exact quantity is unknown. It’s like all those times you told your spouse you’d be down for dinner in fifteen minutes, only to descend after an hour or more flew past.
While writing that last paragraph, my sister was sitting behind me using her laptop trying to order something on Amazon Prime that was on flash sale. Ten minutes until the sale ended: pushing herself faster than she would have liked, she hit “send” too soon and had to cancel the order because the item would be automatically sent to her home address while she is visiting me for the summer. Seven minutes till the end of the flash sale: she re-entered all the info and hit “send”—yes!—but the order was rejected because they wouldn’t send to our PO box. Five minutes till the end of the sale—tick, tick, tick—and she could barely navigate the form. She finally found the place to add the street address but had to cancel another time because she typed in her debit card information rather than the desired credit card. Only three minutes to go! She took a deep breath, centered herself, and retyped the order slowly and successfully.
You could almost see the adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her heart rate was elevated. She’d been holding her breath. Her muscles were tense, causing typing errors. She got the job done, yes, but now she’s in the next room doing yoga.
Many of us writers adore deadlines. They inspire us to organize our workload and get things done. Help us prioritize. And let’s face it, without a bit of time squeeze, many writers would surrender to the couch and the bonbons.
But the adrenaline response that can see us through a tight deadline is an emergency measure. If invoked for the long haul, aided by the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol, it can break down your body (think heart attack, chronic pain, raised blood sugar, weight gain, inability to sleep), frazzle the mind (memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, anxiety), and lead to self-medication (alcoholism, sleeping pills, other drug use). Add to this the fact that most writers are sensitive in every way, and it’s important to get a handle on stress before it manhandles you.
So what can we do in this uncertain, novel-a-year market, in which so many of us have known the kind of stress that scrambles our brains and clamps down on our problem-solving capabilities?
The answer is obvious: we need to learn how to handle stress better. Right?
To prolong our creative lives, we need to become even more sensitive to stress so we can recognize quicker its deleterious effect in our lives.
Stress is an injury to the soul in the same way that an ankle sprain is an injury to the body. After you sprain an ankle, would you ever think to say, “I think I’ll go out and run a few miles to get rid of this pain?” Of course not. Yet what do we do when a deadline looms and we feel our hearts pounding and our muscles tensing and our creativity floundering? We roll up our sleeves, dig in, and redouble our efforts.
That may not be the way to achieve optimal results.
In times of stress, we need full access to our store of wisdom, creativity, and the optimistic belief that we will prevail. These characteristics are the polar opposite of those exhibited by someone mired within a prolonged stress response.
The lower your tolerance is for stress, the quicker you will nip it in the bud and take restorative action. The simple reminder that you chose to be busy can remind you of the joy writing brings to you. Add a walk outside so the back burner thinking can kick in, a snack with protein to even out your blood sugar, and a glass of water to get the blood flowing, and the answers that seemed so elusive a half hour ago may start flowing through your fingertips—even with a deadline looming.
Everyone’s ability to tolerate stress is different. The main point here is to take the time to tune in and learn what stress feels like in your body and mind. When you see the signs, don’t ignore it. Stop and find a way to relieve it.
What symptoms of extended stress have you noticed, and what have you done to address them? Please share what’s worked for you!
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.
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This --> "Stress is an injury to the soul in the same way that an ankle sprain is an injury to the body"
I've been ignoring that soul sprain for entirely too long, hoping that more effort will chase it away. Not the most effective way of dealing but certainly not when doing something creative.
I know the symptoms, I can see them bubbling to the surface and I can feel when they're taking control. Stepping away is hard though. I'll exercise or clean the house to clear frustration. But what works best for me, is to shut everything down and do something that requires me to be there and only there -- climbing or riding, for example.
Great topic, Kathryn!
Yes, that! One of the most powerful messages in my life, that everyone should hear once and not forget! And yes, stepping away is so hard. But so necessary.
Yes, stress is debilitating. I haven't had to deal with too many overlapping deadlines for my fiction and blog posts yet, but I deal with it on a daily basis in my day job. I fell into a funk the past couple of weeks and it wasn't until I hit "send" this past Friday, did I realize it was that looming deadline that was causing storm clouds to gather. I wasn't exercising, to use that time to work, and that simply exacerbated the problem. It's tough to stand back and be objective about what's happening and what you should be doing differently to alleviate stress. Thanks for this, Kathryn.
I have a friend who let it get out of control to the point that she had adrenal fatigue, which can take more than a year to recover from if you can at all. We just can't keep producing those hormones at a consistent rate. As our own bosses, we writers have to care for our own work environments and conditions so we don't let our families and business partners down.
This is such a great post-thank you! I'm about to start a new project with a January deadline, and even though I know I'll meet the deadline, thinking about everything ahead of me is causing my heart to pound and my mouth to run dry...I have to remember that every book is written one word at a time, no matter what book it is. And, yeah, yoga definitely helps!
And that stress can be left over from the last project, or overlapping as Densie suggested, inflaming all. Glad you know the symptoms in your body and that you know how to handle it. Making ourselves remember to tend to it is the trick, which is why a regular practice like yoga helps.
I have a lifetime of 'being tough' (read: ignoring pain), so the hardest part to stopping, is recognizing that I AM in pain! Once I realize it, I'm good about letting go.
I figure if I can't do something about it, do it.
If I can't, worrying only makes it worse.
Now I just have to figure out a way to recognize pain earlier...
Great reminder post, Kathryn. So true.
You bring up a great point, Laura, in that humans are remarkably adaptable human beings. We can adapt to so many levels of pain that it can take someone to look at us in horror and say "What on earth are you doing to yourself?" for us to come to our WITS (see what I did there? 😉 )
Wow! So muscling through is definitely not the answer. Thank you! I'm grateful you wrote this post, and glad that I took the time from my deadline to read it. Illuminating. Thank you!
Haha so proud of you Kathleen for taking a quick break to read this! Your comment offers great optimism for your stress-reduced future.
Where is the "Love" button on this blog post? I'd love to print this out and hang it in our house (not for my husband who "gets it", but our adult kids/grand-kids who think books write themselves!) I am pretty good about plowing through stress, but as you said, recognizing it is part of the way to handle it.
I'm a "planner" and try to schedule my time as well as I can. It's all the other life things I can't control that throw me for a loop and reaching for a margarita! (Which never helps with my writing.) 😉
Hi Jill, I think it's so important to role model this behavior for the next generation. Maybe if we can figure it out, and they learn to appreciate the ways the benefit from the changes within us, they stand a chance at avoiding stress-related disease so they can be productive well into their older years. A wise woman once told me, at one of the most stressful times of my life: "Everything that comprises your life is worthy of your attention, but you only have four burners on your stove, not twelve. And in reality you have one fewer, because if you don't keep the pot that contains your physical, emotional, and spiritual health simmering, you won't have enough energy to cook on the other three."
That wise woman you speak of, Kathryn, sounds a lot like a woman counselor I went to years ago who poured out a bit of pop from her can for each stressful situation in my life and then shook her empty pop can at me and said "this is you, empty after everything else. You need to keep some 'pop' inside you so that you can function.'
Very similar to the burners on the stove. 🙂
Love that, Jill, thank you for sharing!
Nice post, Kathryn! Your words ring true!