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The Write Life: Hello, Wrench

Sometimes life throws a wrench into everything.

That happened to me at the beginning of August with several family emergencies and health problems colliding at the same time. We weathered a multi-day struggle of figuring out which able-bodied adult was taking care of who and trying our best to not simultaneously burnout.

During the worst days, I shifted into Minimal Work Mode, which includes writing 250 words per day, responding only to burning questions, and checking in to confirm deadlines won’t be missed. All other work had to sit! It takes me a solid day to recover from this level of emotional stress, so after the first full day of rest, I was able to start shifting into a slightly more regular workflow, just keeping lighter hours and ensuring flexibility in case something else popped up. (Which, uh, it did.)

While you can’t plan for life’s wrenches, you can make generic plans for how those wrenches can affect your writing life. Are you someone who feels comfortable throwing in the towel on writing and taking a break until life settles down again? Or are you like me and you need to write daily (even if it’s not on your main project)? Knowing which you’re comfortable doing, and then creating a plan around your work can save a lot of pain in making that decision while you’re already in the midst of distress.

Here’s My Minimal Writing Mode in full:

  • Check To-Do List for Burning Items
    Is there a project that
    has to have attention today? Usually my writing life isn’t deadline oriented, but when it is, I may have to ensure I can get a submission posted. Many times if I send an email to the stakeholders and explain the situation, they can accept the submission late. (I’m talking about people who I already have a relationship with, not the last day to submit a short story to a magazine—that opportunity might just have to be missed.)

  • 250 Words Per Day
    This is a number I set after many years of practice and a realization that even when I’m very sick, I can put together 250 words reliably and quickly. (This has been tested through intense colds and food poisoning, so I feel confident about it.)

  • Plan to Write a Blog Post
    Blog posts are easier for me to write quickly when I’m under stress. If I have one in progress that doesn’t require research, I can add 250 words to it. But if I need to start something new, I have a pre-written list of topics I can choose from. The pre-written list means I’m not wasting mental energy thinking up something, I just have to choose.

Keeping up my daily writing practice in the middle of family emergencies and health chaos may seem inconsequential, but for me it’s a chance for self-care. Whether I’m writing a blog post or spending time in a fictional world, it’s a chance for me to take a beat, sit with my thoughts, and organize something. (When the rest of my world feels disorganized, that feeling becomes even more important!) Knowing what my “easy” mode is and being able to set the boundaries for the minimal effort to keep me happy means I’m always prepared when life throws a wrench in all my plans.

That said, some of the health chaos will be continuing through the coming months, so I’m placing this blog along with some other monthly responsibilities on hiatus through the end of 2022. Keep up a healthy work-life balance in my absence and feel free to say hello and check in with me on Twitter!

 

 

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The Write Life: The Juggling Act

While writing is never an easy undertaking, I’ve been struggling more this year. Focus has been difficult, as has maintaining priorities. “Eyes on the prize” is a mantra I’ve been repeating as I continue to become distracted by other responsibilities and projects and things that Sound Cool but have been stealing my attention and energy. It’s been frustrating to be forced into choosing and being unable to do everything when I’m used to being an ace at my juggling act. But it’s time I accept a truth: when I keep dropping a ball, it’s time to leave the ball on the floor.

Dropping an activity—or even deprioritizing it for a limited time—is difficult for me. I feel the pressure from other people (someone was expecting or looking forward to my contributions!), the pressure from consistency (doing something regularly is more likely to draw and maintain an audience), and the pressure from myself.

Screaming woman with multi-colored balls falling around her.

Photo by Zak Neilson on Unsplash

Admittedly the pressure from myself is the dumbest reason and the one I should be able to let go of easily, and yet…

I have a lot of expectations regarding what I should be able to do. While that usually matches reality, it sometimes comes with a steep cost (especially when I’m looking at a year of increased mental and emotional burden). I was talking to a friend about a deadline recently and said, “Can I make it? Of course. Because I will literally kill myself before missing deadlines.” Friends, that is not a healthy way to be. Especially if what I’m striving to meet doesn’t have a career, mental, or emotional payoff that will support refueling the inevitable burnout.

One of the reasons I need to step away from some of the things I’ve been doing is because they don’t support my career path and goals. (This is a good starting place if you need to reassess your own responsibilities, by the way.) As I was making a list of what I need to work on for the second half of this year, I realized how many of the things on that list weren’t writing a novel or writing articles for pay or writing workshops. When I started fitting those things in around the other responsibilities, it became obvious what was choking my goals and where I needed to step back.

I’ve already trimmed some responsibilities and am taking a hard look at the other jobs on my to-do list. It’s difficult to say “no” when something sounds cool or fun, or when I can see how it might fit into Alli’s Puzzle of Freelancing & Writing. But I can’t let Cool and Fun outweigh Time, Energy, and Mental Health. It hurts to let go of opportunities in the short term, but in the long term, my future (and my writing life) will thank me for leaving the dropped ball on the floor.

 

 

For full access to The Write Life, sign up on Patreon for $1 or more per month. You’ll also receive a personalized thank you in a future edition of The Write Life.

The Write Life: Finding Focus

My writing life has been very scattered of late. While I still have writing time planned daily and I haven’t broken my streak (still at least 250 words a day every day, just like the last several years), what I’ve been working on has been haphazard. After I finished my last writing project in early March, I’ve been struggling to focus on the next project.

  • I’ve started an outline and draft for another writing workshop.
  • I’ve revisited my next novel outline and taken a few notes on what threads I may need to reevaluate as I draft.
  • I’ve dawdled with a new short story.
  • And I’ve drafted the beginnings of a few new blog posts.

But I’ve had a lot of difficulty sticking with anything. (Or finishing anything, as you might have noticed how many times I said “started” or “beginning” in that list.)

The end of last year and beginning of this year has been really rough on my mental health. I’m starting to come out of the worst of it and am reassessing my schedules and routines to find better ways to ground and care for myself. (Sleep. Sleep has been a BIG problem.) But it’s difficult to focus on writing when my mental health is so out of whack. (Not to mention that the lack of sleep finally caught up with me and I’m sick for the first time in two years.)

A writing life is about a lot more than ideas in the brainpan and words on the page. It encompasses a whole lot of other things—priorities, time management, mental and physical health. When one of those things is out of whack, it’s hard to have a bountiful and satisfying writing life. I mean, the mechanical side is there—I’m putting words on the page every day—but the focus to finish and the confidence to keep going through a hiccup? Those are the things I’m struggling with.

When I’m experiencing this kind of struggle, I allow myself a little grace, focusing on just 250 words per day and not pushing beyond that. I also release my grip on “what counts” as writing and am more likely to include stream-of-conscious brainstorming, notes, and questions. (Hey, all those words eventually get me to the finished story, so why not count them?) The last thing I do—and the thing that often helps the most during these times of struggle—is I follow my attention.

If I want to capture the ideas for a presentation on writing time travel fiction (slotted for May with the Orange County Public Library, register here for the virtual workshop), I work on that instead of the project I’m “supposed” to be working on. That allows me to capture some of the excess thoughts cluttering my head and reduces the number of things distracting me. Hopefully I only need to do this for a day or two, and then I can resume my regularly scheduled writing. (But sometimes it takes more time to get a brain back on track.)

These little “vacations” are what I do instead of taking a break from my words, but for anyone not chaining together a consecutive streak of thousands of days of writing—a break is probably a really good idea!

Mostly this month I’ve been working on ways to bring my physical and mental health in line, including drinking more water, making more time for mindfulness, and doing my very best to accept that some days any effort is my best effort.

What have you been doing to care for yourself in your writing life?

 

For full access to The Write Life, sign up on Patreon for $1 or more per month. You’ll also receive a personalized thank you in a future edition of The Write Life.

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The Write Life: Getting Scheduled

July began with a desperate plea for help reprioritizing my life. Thankfully, my friend Jennie Jarvis stepped in to provide some structure to my internal flailing and give me a very simple method to prioritize my time and projects: does it make money or not?

I have a generous, but ultimately unhealthy habit of volunteering my time and energy in many unpaid ways. I love helping other writers—and some volunteer opportunities just sound like so much fun—so I’m not surprised I volunteer over and over and over. But when I’ve done that too often, or overlapped projects too much, I end up stretched thin, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Even though I’ve been working to say “yes” less and to only volunteer when I honestly have extra time and energy, I’m still spending more time on unpaid activities than on paid activities and badly bungling my time.

Which, uh, is a problem.

So, Jennie’s earth-shattering reprioritization system is as simple as categorizing projects as to whether or not I’m getting paid for my work, and then making sure I schedule my day to spend more time on paid projects than unpaid projects. Her strategy also allows for projects that are not currently making money but should in the future, such as developing websites, podcasts, workshops, and writer tools.

Writing time on personal projects (which would be projects unrelated to paid work) is kind of a third category, since all short stories, novels, and anything else we write for traditional publication is kind of a question mark as to whether or not (or when) it will sell. I’ve been regularly dedicating an hour and a half daily to writing, so I kept that time set aside (and still sneak in five-minute chunks here and there as time and ideas allow).

Honestly, this whole process is so easy to figure out I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself. (I mean, I do. It’s something about missing the forest for the trees.)

I’ve been using this new system to restructure my time and reprioritize my projects for the last month, and while I had some difficulty adjusting (and had to make some tweaks for real-world application), I’d say overall I feel more confident in my ability to keep up with my workload and more balanced in the choices I’m making. For someone who struggles so much with mental health, getting my schedule under control has been a HUGE help. So, thanks, Jennie!

If you are struggling with your projects, responsibilities, and how to prioritize your time, I recommend taking a look at your list to see if anything I’ve described here might help get your life under control.

 

 

For full access to The Write Life, sign up on Patreon for $1 or more per month. You’ll also receive a personalized thank you in a future edition of The Write Life.

Not the Post You’re Looking For

I’m off to DragonCon this week, and while preparing for that adventure is certainly an added distraction this month, it’s not the reason I’m phoning in this blog post. Life has gotten unexpectedly complicated and busy. But that’s one of the most consistent aspects of life, isn’t it? Just when you feel like you have everything under control, something comes along to disrupt the flow.

Many of the things currently disrupting my life are good things (including prepping for my favorite convention of the year and my friend moving back to town), but some of them come with additional emotional complications or stress. Right now I’m reminded to pay additional attention to my work-life balance, to make sure that I’m taking care of myself and my needs, and to cut back on responsibilities where I can. Which is why you’re reading this blog post instead of one of the ones I’ve been working on.

Here’s the take away from this short post: when you’re busy or when life is being unexpectedly complicated, it’s okay to cut back on your responsibilities where you can. This might not be the blog post that you’re looking for, but it’s a reminder I’m happy to share.