From the Editor's Desk

Writing and Your Mental Health

Let me put on my writer hat for a bit and talk to you writer-to-writer. Over the last year, I’ve been strongly reminded that I can’t create the powerful stuff that really comes from my core when I’m stressed out.

And especially not when that stress is somehow related to writing.

In defense of the art, it’s never the project’s fault, but sometimes the people or circumstances associated with it have detrimental effects. Sad, but true.

So after a decade of wordsmithing, I’ve learned this is vital: Stay away from people and things that cause unhealthy stress.

Which, as an introvert, is everybody some days. Ay, there’s the rub. But there’s normal stress, the kind that kicks a person into gear–like getting feedback from a trusted editor (see entries Andy, Jeff, Meredith in the Handbook of Cat’s Personal Experience)–and there’s undue stress, the kind that eventually leads to psychological exhaustion. So it’s about time I tacked a list to Scienda’s fridge.

  • Avoid underpaid work and underfavorable contract terms. They devalue the effort and cause the writer resentment sooner or later.
  • Avoid work that’s not truly enjoyable. Crime doesn’t pay, and neither does writing, so it better be fun. The reason? Any serious un-fun spills over into my primary career, which is my family life.
  • Avoid underpaid work on underfavorable contract terms that’s not truly enjoyable. (Signed, Captain Obvious.) This often comes disguised as “a great opportunity for starting out,” so sometimes it’s less obvious than one would think. I learned that by starting out.
  • Avoid relationships that may cause one to fear for one’s professional credibility due to association. This is huge, but sometimes difficult due to qualitative factors. However, the gut instinct counts. There’s enough stress available already without adding untrustworthy conduct to the list.
  • Avoid relationships that ask one to compromise convictions. Over the years, there’ve been three instances where I’ve chosen to discontinue working relationships due to the philosophy presented by the publisher. Each time, I felt buoyant with relief.
  • Avoid relationships that demand more than they give:
    • Time.
    • Knowledge and skills.
    • Trust.
    • Respect.
    • Courtesy.
    • Grace in misunderstandings.
    • Right to opinions and personal boundaries.

That last has a particularly bad side effect, for me: When I’m dealing with a bad relationship where the right to one’s opinions and boundaries are getting infringed, it deeply, deeply affects my ability to write. Creative writing is self-expression, after all. And boundaries are what we use to guard the vulnerability of self-expression. When I feel like my boundaries are getting trampled, I go silent.

Besides that, excessive demands of any kind–underpaid writing, non-reciprocal requests for favors, or misuse of my time and knowledge–drain my energy and take up my day. I already have four kids, and they, not others, are my designated dependents. No energy equals no writing.

What about “taking every opportunity to work one’s way up”? Well, a lot of available options don’t lead to greater experience and connections. There’s no ladder involved–just a rabbit trail of someone else’s ambitions, into which one is being asked to invest without return. Therefore:

Avoid settling for poor terms of work or poor relationships on the notion that nothing else is available.

Good work and good relationships come along in due time. Good work gives a return. Good relationships don’t offer clonelike agreement; they do offer constructive support, so that one can give freely without having to defend one’s natural limitations from overtaxation. There is no point burning out by spending one’s resources on others’ ambitions. And there is no point jeopardizing the ability to make good connections by getting one’s name tarred with other people’s less-than-good ways of operating.

In the beginning, reputation is all there is. In the end, too. And that’s a great thing, because it says money is not the defining factor in one’s hopes and dreams. Integrity and skill are primary currencies as well. It’s a basic principle of human communities, no more a product of our time and culture than the blueness of the sky.

So, in many ways, writing has become my mental health. I never realized it but it acts like a personal barometer. Every passing year, I have more incentive not to tolerate the clutter of unproductive work or stay stuck in friendships-that-aren’t. I get older. Life gets busier. Energy gets lower. And ultimately, it could cause me to lose my words. As someone who doesn’t talk out loud very much at all, that’s serious stuff.

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3 replies »

  1. Back here, reading this again. It really struck a chord with me yesterday when I first read it, but I have so many thoughts going ’round my head it’s hard to make them line up properly for me to comment.

    This is excellent advice. And many authors fall prey early on because we are desperate for any kind of link to any kind of publication just to get “out there.” And we are often not educated enough, much less experienced enough, to read the warning signs.

    I think this is SO valuable because once we do start seeing those signs we often think, “Well, this is just how things are.” But when we find the proper situations–where we are valued, where there is real synergy, where that uneasiness dissipates–we can clearly see the situations that are not right for us.

    Love this in particular:

    “What about “taking every opportunity to work one’s way up”? Well, a lot of available options don’t lead to greater experience and connections. There’s no ladder involved–just a rabbit trail of someone else’s ambitions, into which one is being asked to invest without return.”

    Great post.

    • Thanks, Kat.

      “I think this is SO valuable because once we do start seeing those signs we often think, “Well, this is just how things are.” But when we find the proper situations–where we are valued, where there is real synergy, where that uneasiness dissipates–we can clearly see the situations that are not right for us.”

      That’s what it took for me. Having a posse is a priceless balancer, and I would have quit awhile ago if not for that.

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