Originally published in Writer's Digest, this article of mine has helped several writers I know through crisis times.
Sometimes life drags us through knotholes backwards. Several years ago, when I lost my mother to Parkinsons disease, grief made everything hard, especially writing. My husband and I were having financial struggles. And I had just learned that an uncle had cancer.
“I’m too stressed to write,” I told my friend Charlotte.
“You have to take care of yourself,” she said. But as I hung up the phone I was thinking of other people I knew who had stopped writing or doing photography or theatre because of events that taxed their emotions. In time, they were halted by new problems that came along. Eventually the sparks of their creativity faded away.
Wildfire Writing asks you to make a choice when the world is sad, stressful or confusing. It teaches that your creative power is ready to be drawn upon, regardless of how blank the page, how scattered your mind, or what is going on in your life. You may be experiencing emotional, financial or physical stress. Still, your creativity can survive.
When life overwhelms you, here are seven ways to take care of yourself.
Put yourself first
If you have suffered serious loss, death or divorce, there’s nothing you can do but grieve. Give yourself a wide margin; let projects drop. Remember: the creative fire is burning within you, and everything that helps and heals the writer/artist/creator will promote the writing.
At the same time, think about how your fire might warm you. Seek comfort in your art. Getting away with a notebook may supply a needed stress-break. Conjuring an off-the-wall short story or a prayerful poem may bring a moment of peace.
Journal your frustrations, indulge your sadness. Write letters. Use your creative talent every day, just for the satisfaction, without considering whether it’s a "useful" project.
Do low-energy work
If you can, finish something you started a while back. Don’t demand fresh material. Get out a half-blank canvas. Polish an old manuscript. Keep it easy.
After my mother died, I couldn’t work under my own initiative. Taking a writing course provided steady assignments, stitching a straight row of writing seams into my crooked days. Rather than rely on yourself, find a coach, instructor or class to lower the amount of energy it takes to keep you writing.
Surprisingly, this is also your chance to write something you normally wouldn’t. Psychologists say that in emotional crisis, aspects of creativity are heightened rather than diminished. Your energy is too depleted for Dr. Codger to care about criticizing your work. Dream Kid can play by herself. So go ahead and try something wild, just because. Keep it short. Submit an entry to a writing contest. Do some wordplay.
You can’t give it all your attention right now, and that’s okay.
The last thing you need is more pressure. Go easy on yourself, or as the saying goes, “Try softer.” Dream Kid thrives in a state of encouragement and relaxation.
Take your normal expectation and cut it. If formerly your quota was one painting a week, try half a painting a week.
Recognize that others around you don’t have a barometer. They can only guess at what to expect from you in your difficulty. Instead of keeping up appearances that you can do it all, acknowledge your need for some days off work, or some time away from this committee, or help with that project.
Put your problem to work
Instead of making it the reason you can’t create, see how your problem can work for you. Let it give you a reason for taking extra time.
With Mother's death, I didn’t have the heart to rub shoulders in social circles. I explained to family that journaling helped me grieve the most. With fewer obligations, I began writing more. Go ahead and pare down your responsibilities by telling people about your life. “My dad’s sick,” or “I’m starting a new job,” or “My husband’s going in for a biopsy.” Whatever your situation, use it to purchase creating time. With the aid of others, you can carve niches for taking care of yourself through the creative process.
Stomp out your stress
Physical exercise can help alleviate emotional and mental stress. One writer I know spent years at her daily writing regimen while she grew depressed and her body slowly declined. At a doctor’s advice, she left off the writing and incorporated morning walks into her routine. Her mental outlook improved, and so did her health and her writing. Consider a swim, game of tennis, bike ride--whatever you can incorporate into your life.
You can engineer creativity benefits into your activity as well. I love to bounce ideas off a walking partner. Walking with a fellow creator has helped to spark ideas. I’ve had some inspiring, art-centered conversations while walking with theatre directors, photographers, healers, potters, and art therapists. Before powering on the stairstepper, grab a magazine that will further knowledge in your field. Make the library, art supply store or bookstore a walking destination.
Write in shorter bursts
When busy or upset, you won’t be able to spend hours at your work. Being consistent is more important than generating volumes. Set a timer for ten minutes after dinner and delegate the dishes. Skip watching the news at night and go write or create. Snip a small pocket of a daily activity--two or three pockets are even better. Make these little bits a priority, keeping your creative work alive. When tempted to give them up, ask people around you for help. Carry a notebook and pull it out when waiting in line, stuck in traffic, or on hold with someone on the phone.
Make necessary repairs
Don’t keep on paddling if your ship is sinking. If you’re having a crisis, especially a middle-sized one that doesn’t take your full attention, you might put it out of your mind, escaping to your studio or desk. We creative people can focus, and stoke those flames, and that's good. But sometimes you and I need to tackle problems head-on. A little cold Groke reality might be in line.
This may be true when a family member needs you, when you’re ignoring a health problem, or when you’re wishing away a financial crisis. Stop your routine and patch the boat--so you can get back to creating.
When I was grieving my mother and our money problems hit, I couldn’t seem to act. Finally I saw that counting on my normal work to make up for financial losses was a mistake at this time.
I signed with a temporary agency and used my secretarial skills to take things one at a time, making a steady paycheck. Financial pressures lifted until I could get back into my routine.
What temporary, practical measures can you take to relieve stress? It may be getting a part-time job, hiring a babysitter, taking a retreat at the beach to focus on your art. The important thing to recognize is that your stressful time won't last forever. Whatever you do to care for yourself will fuel your creative flame.