Writing as Self-Care

True confession: I love reading books about writing far more than I love writing. I read them in hopes of becoming a productive writer with little or no effort on my part. Much to my disappointment, books about becoming a productive writer always repeat the same boring advice: make a writing schedule and stick to it.

For many years, I thought I was somehow exempt from this advice, like it applied to everyone else but me. “Writing schedules are for people who struggle with writing,” I’d think to myself with no small sense of smugness. I congratulated myself for not being one of Those People. As I found out much later, it’s true what they say: denial is one hell of a drug. Yes, I wrote regularly, but only when forced to crank out pages because of non-negotiable deadlines and serious feelings of guilt and shame. To stave off panic, I wrote in frantic binges that left me exhausted. And then I wouldn’t write again for days or weeks because I told myself that I needed to “take some time off” to recover. I rationalized that creativity and brilliance couldn’t possibly be forced, but would instead strike me like lightening at just the right moment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, little writing was accomplished.

I wish I’d read a few books about writing and the importance of making a schedule and sticking to it while I was still in grad school. This week I’m reading Paul J. Silvia’s book, How to Write a Lot. In his book, he argues that people who write a lot do so by writing a lot. If this sounds like the same boring obvious advice given in so many books on academic writing, it is because it is. This is exactly the kind of advice that I didn’t want to hear and yet should have heeded. I was always somehow hoping that academic writing would involve something other than writing on a regular basis. I think I was hoping that thinking a lot about writing would equal actual writing.

When I’ve tried to make a schedule, I often find that I flagrantly disregard my own rules. The problem, of course, is that even I don’t respect my own writing time. Other people do not respect my writing time, either. People will want to hold meetings. Students will want office hours. Friends will want to have coffee. I attempt to help people and take care of their needs, congratulating myself on my altruism while ignoring my writing.

I know that to be a productive writer, I need to write. However, lots of people (including me) still seem to expect to write a lot by not writing. I was thinking this week about WHY it is actually so incredibly difficult to follow the simple advice to schedule writing.

I’m sure that there are lots of reasons why we find it hard to stick to writing schedules. For me, sticking to a writing schedule is difficult because it requires me to prioritize myself. I confess that the idea of making myself my own highest priority often feels foreign.

I know lots of people who struggle to make themselves their own biggest priorities in life. Life includes all kinds of people and things that need our care and attention. Nevertheless, I think academics in particular struggle with prioritizing themselves and their own writing. We put other people, their projects, and their priorities above our own. Academic lore is full of stories and anecdata about busy people who take care of everyone but themselves. I think of grad students I knew who always came to seminars with huge dark circles under their eyes from not sleeping. I know professors who don’t eat regularly. I know academics who are too exhausted to write. We go without sleep, we don’t take breaks, we work to the point of exhaustion. Who has time to prioritize themselves, let alone their writing?

Keeping in mind the idea that to write a lot one must write a lot, I’ve started to try to change how I think about writing. In the past, I thought of academic writing as a mundane and boring chore. I decided instead to try to think of writing as a form of self-care. I’m now scheduling self-care time into my day. My current morning self-care routine includes exercise, meditation, and my own writing. I try to remind myself to view my scheduled self-care time as something sacred. It is time for me alone. It is my time to think, reflect, take care of myself, and write to create something new that has never existed before. I’m trying to throw out the idea of churning out X number of words per day or meeting page limits. Even if I only write for fifteen minutes, I make it a point to congratulate myself for taking care of myself in one more way.

Writing feels so much better when I think of it as a way to take care of myself as opposed to a chore. The best part is that I’m actually getting more writing done than ever.   

[Photo: Sedona, Arizona, 2011]