Your Writing Is Killing You

Mental hygiene for writers? Yes please.

Stop Dying

Yes, you're at risk.

Hi, fellow writer! Have you noticed how crappy you feel?

And you think it's just you, and then you hang out with writer friends or lurk at writing cons or even read writer blogs and it's like, wow, everyone is maybe not doing so awesome.

Is this a thing?

Yes, it's a thing. And it's time we talked about it.

Did you know psychologists have actually done studies to see whether writers are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders? Guess what they found. Oh yeah.

Fact is, we writers live and work in a unique convergence of terrible conditions optimized to make us miserable.

I don't mean (just) the stuff your friends complain about, like shrinking sales or infinite rejection slips. I mean our cultural assumptions about writing, and even worse, the writing process itself.

So what am I saying? Quit writing?

Are you kidding? No. Get smart.

How To Stop Writing From Killing You

(A Skeletal Overview)

Perfectionist? Me too. But I'm working on it. So instead of waiting until I have my first twenty blog posts all lined up, I want to share this with you right now. It's an overview of a talk I gave at a local writers conference a couple months back. One big outline, crammed with info about why we writers feel so bad and what we can do about it now, instead of waiting till we're household names and "enough" to deserve some sanity.

In the coming weeks, I'll unpack this information with a new blog, the audio from my talk, and more resources. At the bottom, you can subscribe to my email list to stay in touch and get it all first.

But you're smart, and you'll find this condensed info here useful right now.

Problem: Writers have crazy high rates of mental suffering.

  1. Someone asked Hemingway: “What's the best early training for a writer?” His answer? “An unhappy childhood.”

  2. So many anecdotes of brilliant, successful, miserable writers. Hemingway committed suicide. So did so many others.

  3. Nancy Andreasen studied 15 successful writers at the Iowa Writing Workshop.
    Control group of 15 non-writers: 20% had a psychiatric disorder. Writers: 73%.
    Mainly affective disorder (depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder): 13% vs. 67%.
    Writers' relatives also had higher rates compared to controls. Later studies (Kay Jamison), similar numbers.

  4. This is real. And we see it in our writer friends, and possibly ourselves.
    Elephant in the room. So much misery, whether you're successful or not.

Premise: Much of this misery is avoidable, if we realize that our writing is not the solution to our problems; it's a difficult, hazardous path.

Paradox: Introverts Become Exhibitionist

  1. Writers are secretive, yet writing demands that you bare your deepest soul to the world.

  2. We may even have started writing to hide our true selves, but dishonest writing sucks.
    As opposed to basketball, chess, programming, crochet, even acting. We had to go write.

Paradox: We're already traumatized, but writing is incredibly hazardous

  1. We need more social contact and healing than the average person, but we go into solitary confinement and listen to the voices in our head. #1 thing not to do when you're depressed.

  2. We need more affirmation, but our path requires insane levels of personal rejection.
    Extroverts make six figures selling other people's stuff – how much can that rejection hurt?

  3. We need more certainty than others, yet the artistic process requires us to lose our way and feel lost in the woods. That's how we find treasure. (Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz.) [Affiliate links? Yes. Thank you. :) And only for books I've actually read and want to share.]

  4. The mental habits we train to make strong stories will destroy our real lives . (Mnemonic: CREaM)

    1. Catastrophizing : Stories need the worst possible outcome, drama. Life is the opposite.

    2. Rumination. Stories need intense focus for years. Life needs you to forget it and sleep.

    3. Escaping the Present Moment : Stories need you to trance out. Life needs mindfulness.

    4. and Maximizing/Perfectionism. Stories need revision. People need unconditional love.

      Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz: every new option diminishes existing options. (XKCD comic)

    5. These habits are like a chisel. Sharpen it, but put it down before you play with your kids.

  5. And somehow we're surprised that we feel kind of crappy. Writing is our task, not our healing. It sucks time and energy. We think success will fix us, but this process is killing us. Need new life skills.

Promise: The good news: we can (and must!) make deliberate choices to outwit these hazards and be successful, happy human beings (not just writers)

Forget the Fixed Mindset; Choose Growth

  1. Mindset by Carol Dweck, she gave 5Th graders a moderate test and told half, “You must be smart at this,” and the other half, “You must have worked really hard.”
    Round 2: 90% of effort kids choose harder test, majority of smart kids choose easy test.
    Round 3: Hard test. Effort kids tried to do all the puzzles, smart kids were “miserable”.
    Round 4: Easy test. Effort kids score 30% higher, but smart kids 20% worse.

  2. Fixed mindset: You are born with set talent, you either have it or you don't. Can't learn.
    Growth mindset: With difficult, intentional practice, you can improve your skills.

  3. Writers are at huge risk for the fixed mindset.

    1. Our culture worships the “born genius”, especially in the arts.

    2. We only read writers' best work. I love Wodehouse, but not all 90 of his books.

    3. If we had childhood trauma, we coped with the magical armor of “being a writer”

      1. We were already reading, escaping into this other, more real, controllable world

      2. A parent or (desperate) teacher admired our work – “You're a writer! You're SPECIAL!”

      3. Our work really was awesome compared to our bored classmates.

      4. Writing became our identity, our promise to ourselves of a future awesome self.

      5. Then we grew up – second trauma of the huge, real world, how hard writing is.

      6. That armor that protected us as kids will choke us. We need to grow.

  4. Warning Signs of the Fixed Mindset

    1. You thrash back and forth about whether you're a “real writer” instead of improving.
      If you fear learning, you're choosing your doom. Everyone has to learn!

    2. You idealize your heroes. Beatles played 1200 shows, King had a spike for rejections.

    3. You rage against “gatekeeper” editors because your stuff is so amazing. (Cure: read the slush pile.)

    4. You fear failure. Don't have to like it, but fear makes it final. IBM: “Double your failure rate.”

      1. Procrastination : You say “life gets in the way,” but you watch 3 hours of TV every night.

      2. You envy successes. If they have it, it means I don't. Reality: awesome writers mean more readers.

      3. You “hate writing,” the actual process, and just want to “get published”. Seriously, that's your plan?

  5. Growth mindset changes everything . You accept where you are, you get help, because you believe you can improve. Who knows how good you'll get? Wodehouse wrote into his 90s. Embrace uncertainty.

  6. But in the growth mindset, with healthy boundaries, you realize that your personal growth and your writing growth make a virtuous circle. They help each other.

Choose to Design Your Life – Writing Requires Massive Energy and Time

  1. Writing would be hard enough if we were starting at normal. We have to catch up on life skills.

  2. Mental Health : You can find affordable counseling on a sliding scale. Generic meds. Do it!

      Choose your thoughts . If you're still thinking the fixed-mindset, trauma based thoughts from your childhood, it's like you haven't showered in decades. CBT. Slow but steady.

      1. Growth mindset: I can and will improve, and my craft doesn't define my worth, now or ever.

      2. Set aside the mental writing chisels in real life, before you cut yourself or a loved one.

  3. Health and Energy : Eat right, lose weight, sleep hygiene – you need this energy to write!

  4. Time : Time is currency of writing. Learn to track it, track progress in hours/words. Adjust process.

  5. Write: Focus on goals, not milestones. You control and subtask goals. (Carrie Vaughn podcast, #38)
    Your goals: Measurable, Specific, Written, Time-Sensitive, Your Passion. Sharing helps. COMMIT.

  6. Money : Get control of your money! HUGE stressor to remove. Incredibly empowering, we need this!

    1. I'm a huge Dave Ramsey fan, his Baby Steps take you from ditching debt to retiring a millionaire.

    2. At least do monthly budget (with your spouse). Changes everything! Free budget tool: I use YNAB, which isn't free but is pretty amazing, with more granular control over multiple accounts.

    3. Separate the money need (and shame) from your writing journey. Craft first, then reward.

  7. Social : You need to force yourself to hang out. You're a mammal and at risk; you need relationships.

  8. Craft : Besides setting writing goals, commit to improving your craft with concrete goals.

    1. Read good writing, bad writing, books on writing. Hemingway: read the masters. King: 4hrs/day.

    2. Join a critique group. Online groups. Be choosy, be careful.

    3. Attend cons. Cons for your genre: Capclave, SCBWI, RWA, Mystery, etc.

    4. Attend workshops. Be careful. Apply to Odyssey Writing Workshop first, Jeanne is amazing

  9. Your first new habit is to add one habit at a time! 1/month is awesome! Go slow, make solid progress.

  10. Final thought: One positive mental writing habit is learning to think like a hero. Take risks for what we love.
    Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson discusses our own hero's journey as writers. Takes real courage, grit.

You're here, you're ready to start writing and living better than you've dreamed. Do it!

Curious About Me?

I'm Bill Alive and I write funny novels.

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Amazing background image CC-BY Drew Coffman (Writer's Block II)