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Here's What No One Tells You About Managing Stress As a Writer

Your deadlines are looming and your creative spark isn't catching fire. You've poured more cups of coffee than anyone should reasonably drink and you're trying every trick in the book to induce the muse. Your thoughts run in circles trying to find the right words to type but you've deleted almost as many lines as you've typed.

Like any job, writing for a living has its stressful moments. For the typical observer looking at the writing profession from the outside, it's assumed that you spend your mornings at the coffee shop, wearing a fedora (okay, maybe that's a stereotype), chatting with the locals and languidly spending hours to find the perfect word for your eager audience.

The truth, however, is quite different from that scenario. The writers who make a living at writing have deadlines and word count requirements that often require hundreds of words per hour and constant creativity, even if you only managed a few hours' sleep last night. And that's in addition to the research that goes into what is written before words are even put on the page.

Creativity is exhausting

While writers who do it as a hobby write whenever the mood hits or the muse visits, professional writers must write daily—regardless of how creative they feel. One of the great advantages to writing for a living is to work in your favorite place and set your own hours, but the daily need for boundless creativity also has its drawbacks, too. Especially for writers who have solid deadlines that must be met and several projects going at once.

Professional writers often have solid deadlines and several projects going at once
Professional writers often have solid deadlines and several projects going at once.

One of my favorite quotes from Stephen King, in his part-memoir/part-instruction manual, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is this one:

There is a muse, but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He's a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it's fair? I think it's fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he's got inspiration. It's right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When I read that passage, I understand exactly what King is talking about, especially when he refers to "grunt labor." In my own words (which are far less poetic than King's), I feel he is referring to the work that must go into writing before the "magic moments" happen. Particularly, it's important for a professional writer to understand that it won't be magical every time you write. The magic will happen and you'll eventually write an amazing passage that people talk about for years to come. But you will have written hundreds of non-magical passages before getting to that point. It's just how it works.

Most of the time while writing, it will be difficult to find the right words and will be hard to be "creative" when your mind is focused on the mundane details of life. Bills due, errands to run, children and spouse needing attention—the constant tug-of-war that happens in a writer's mind between creativity and routine can be distracting. Sometimes, it can even be detrimental in the process of meeting multiple deadlines.

Your daemon or genius is flighty

In a TedTalk aimed at artists in general, especially writers, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of a time in Ancient Greece and Rome when people believed that creativity was a divine entity, separate from the artist himself or herself. In Greece, it was referred to as a daemon and in Rome, it was called a genius. In both cases, it was something outside of the artist—a supernatural thing living in the walls that would visit the artist to ensure those "magic moments" happen. And there might be things the artist could do to summon the genius, but there was never a guarantee the flighty thing would show up. Whether or not this happened, however, was beyond the artist's control.

Further in the discussion, Gilbert speaks of the changes that occurred with rational humanism and the belief that all the magical moments in art were a direct result of something the artist did or didn't do. She notes that this belief, which places all of the burden of creativity on the shoulders of the writer or artist, can produce extreme anxiety and a sense of failure in the inevitable moments when it doesn't happen. It can likewise produce extreme ego.

Gilbert ends her talk wishing that artists (including writers) would return to the ancient understanding of genius to avoid the pressure that is placed on them in the creative cycle. In such, she reiterates Stephen King's point that the magical moments won't always be there, and that's okay. The trick is to keep writing, to keep working, and eventually—your creative genius will pay a visit. But only on his or her own time schedule. It's a visit that can't be forced, even if you're wearing a fedora in a coffee shop.

Uninterrupted time alone is crucial

Another method I've observed that's useful in managing stress as a writer is to insist on some alone time to work and protect it fiercely. As a mother of three children, this becomes especially hard over school holidays and breaks—days that keep them running in and out of my office with various requests or complaints. Even when they insist, "I'll be quiet," simply having another person in the room is distracting for me as a writer, which often makes the whole coffee shop routine difficult. I've found very few coffee shops without a lot of other customers present.

This insistence on alone time includes social media. I find that if I have notifications turned on in my social media or personal email accounts, the simple interruption of someone else seeking my attention is enough to completely destroy whatever magic moment I might have been achieving. Maybe this means that my genius is an introvert, I don't know, but I do know it slows down my writing process significantly when I allow these distractions to be present.

Your preferred writing environment might be different than mine. However, my guess is that many professional writers share the need to fiercely protect their alone time to achieve their writing goals for the day. While it's possible to write surrounded by noise and distractions, if you're like me, your best work will never come from that environment.

A writer's best work will never come from a loud, distracting environment
A writer's best work will never come from a loud, distracting environment.

Read when you're not writing

Another way I've found to cope with stress as a writer is to read. Reading is a relaxing activity for most people, but even more so for professional writers. Beyond the relaxing aspect of it, it is highly useful in building your skills (and therefore, your confidence) as a writer. The more you read, the more you are able to take in writing skills such as dialogue, description, and characterization—particularly if you are reading an amazing writer who has much to teach you.

Here's how King puts it:

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It's hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it's true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but "didn't have time to read," I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

Reading is the creative center of a writer's life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in … Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
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