by Julie Cox
“Self care” is a term with multiple possible interpretations. The simple version, “take care of yourself first, so you have something left when the rest of the world needs something from you” is the accepted baseline, but it’s up to the individual what that means. The air travel “put on your own mask before helping others with theirs” is a common analogy. It’s a combination of physical, mental, and emotional tasks to shore yourself up. In some connotations, self-care is almost synonymous with self-indulgence. And indeed, every once in a while that IS taking care of yourself. But for writers, and many other kinds of creatives, self-care is frequently not self-indulgent, but the exact opposite: self-regulation.
How often do writers think to themselves, “I could write, but -” This is frequently a sign a writer needs to get out of their own way. They need to set up or reinforce habits of self-care that are not fun, and don’t necessarily feel good, but that set them up for success – and to have the time and energy left to write.
First Tier: Physical Needs: “I’d write, but I’m too tired/don’t feel well”
For writers, it’s tempting to let our physical selves slide. After all, it’s our brain that’s important, right? Yes, but physical maintenance is a vital component to those brains. It’s the life support system. Physical energy is not so far removed from mental energy. Ask anyone who’s been on an extended recovery from a physical illness or surgery how much mental energy they had – usually, not very much. So part of having the energy and willpower to write is exercising, eating nutritious food, sleeping, taking medication (whatever that entails), and keeping up with hygiene. It’s a little humbling what a difference it makes to the brain when its body’s needs are met.
In “self-regulation” terms, this kind of self-care means developing exercise routines that you can’t skip (having an exercise buddy or at least someone to push you is helpful), planning and preparing nutritious meals ahead of time, setting sleep schedules for yourself (setting alarms both for waking AND going to sleep helps), and by all that is holy keeping up with all of the medical stuff that goes on with those of us in less than optimal health to begin with – doctor appointments, medication, and therapies. Take care of all this stuff deliberately, keep yourself as healthy as you can, and writing will be easier.
Second Tier: Mental Needs: “I’d write, but I’m overwhelmed by all there is else to do.”
Repeat after me: “Better living through lowered standards.” There is never an end to the Other Things You Need to Do That are Not Writing. You’re gonna have to let some things go … and learn to not care, or feel guilty, about prioritizing your writing.
Whether you work full, work part time, take care of a household, go to school, whatever – the responsibilities of day to day life are overwhelming. There is never an end to what work or home or life will ask of you. But there HAS to be something left for you, and for your writing. You can’t give all your mental effort away; don’t be the Giving Tree. (Also, fuck that book.) So you have some prioritizing to do. This is Mental Effort Triage, and writing has to stay near the top or it will never happen. Do what you must, and weigh your options when it comes to anything else. This task, or writing? You can’t do everything. There will have to be choices. Prioritizing your writing will mean letting some other things go. And that is a-okay.
One method for conserving more of your mental energy is, like with physical needs, getting tasks on a schedule, as automated as possible (especially bills – autopay is your friend), so that they take up as little mental and actual time as possible. I try to think to myself, “What can I do now to get that stuff out of the way? What favors can I do for Future Me, so she can write?” Setting yourself up for success with routines is key to taking care of yourself well enough to write.
And take your medication.
Third Tier: Emotional Needs
This one’s harder, because everyone’s emotional needs are different, but it works on the same principal as the other two. Keep yourself emotionally healthy, develop routines, plan ahead. Know what your emotional cycles are like and plan to deal with them. Develop a plan for what to do on unexpected down days. Having a difficult time with someone significant in your life? Put some effort into fixing it. Dealing with emotional issues in your own head? Go see a counselor, join group therapy, read a book, practice mindfulness – whatever practice gets you into the right frame of mind. And by God, if you find yourself being emotionally damaged by something, change it. Life’s too short for that.
Many people have trouble processing and expressing their emotions. Working on this a little bit at a time is definitely good self-care to make you a better writer. It’s not just static emotions, either. Authors need to experience emotion in order to give it a bigger punch in their books. So seek out joy, and contentment, and fear, and sadness, and anger (in appropriate and healthy settings). Do things that scare you, go to beautiful places, interact with people from other walks of life, argue with your crazy uncle on Facebook – wait, no, never do that last one. Go to church or pray or study if that’s your thing. Love other people fiercely. LIVE! Your own stories play a massive role in the stories you tell others.
Much of what I’ve discussed is just self-care, as opposed to self-care for writers. The biggest difference is you are not just taking care of yourself, you are taking care of your Author Self. Stay as healthy as you can. Be mindful of how you spend your energy. Take care of your emotions. Plan ahead; automate; schedule; be deliberate about your choices, and set yourself up for success. It’s not just your own happiness that is at stake, but your art. Protect that.
Julie Cox has a number of fantasy, sci-fi and/or erotic works published with Circlet Press and elsewhere. Her work can be found at writingwhilehuman.com, and she is on Twitter as @SQLPi. Her novel, "Capricious", won the 2014 Best Bisexual Book Awards for erotica and is also available on audio via nobilis.libsyn.com. She is an activist for progressive ideals, and lives in Texas with her children and many pets.