When I was 13 and spent a week training and performing with the best vocalists and coaches in my state, one of our directors said something during one of our rehearsals that I will never forget.
“When you’re in an orchestra, you have to take care of your instrument,” he told us. “It’s the same for us. We are our own instruments. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t make good music.”
I understand this much more now that I am consistently using and taking care of a violin. There are many parts that make a violin produce its famous quality sound, all stored within its protective case. All of equal importance, whether you are actively using them or not.
You can’t just leave a violin lying on the floor, pick it up and play it whenever you feel like it, then put it back and go about your day. You have to make sure your strings are in tune and change them out if they break. You have to make sure your bow is tightened and properly rosined. After you play, you have to make sure your violin is clean. Then you have to put everything back in that case just as carefully as when you took it out. Every single time you play.
If you do not care for your violin, it will not produce the sound you want, you won’t get enjoyment out of playing it, and chances are, it won’t last.
The same goes for the entity responsible for producing the words that magically appear on the pages of your paper or digital documents: You.
If the ability to create is based on mood, then do what puts you in a good mood. Think of this as “tuning your strings.” The metaphor works, just go with it. Before we get to the physical aspect of our existence, let’s first talk about things from a psychological perspective.
Though many often don’t realize it, writing — and creating things in general — requires a lot of brain power. Not only that, but you have to be able to focus on whatever task lies before you long enough to complete it from start to finish, and you have to be able to organize your thoughts and feelings efficiently enough in order to do that.
If you are not psychologically “well” — your strings are out of tune — you won’t be able to write the words that form the sentences that make up the pages of your story. You might be able to try, but it won’t come out right. Or it will take much longer than usual to make your words sound just right (to play the correct notes).
I’m not just talking about traditional mental health here, though that is certainly a factor many writers must consider quite regularly. There’s also the consideration of whether or not you’re taking care of your mind in general. Are you giving yourself positive feedback? Saying nice things to the mirror? Are you communicating your frustrations? Being honest about what you need from those around you? Are you giving yourself time to mentally and emotionally rest and recharge?
If you aren’t “in the mood” to write, then you need to make sure you are doing something to fix that, to tune those strings and get yourself in the right headspace for adequate creative expression. What you do to get to that place is really up to personal preference and what you have found works for you. I find running with music extremely motivational, and it can almost always lift my spirits, even if only temporarily, just in time for a productive and fulfilling writing session.
Remember not to work yourself too hard too often. If you wind a violin string too tightly or put the wrong kind or amount of pressure on it, it will break. Broken strings are easily replaceable, but the more you can do to avoid this happening on a regular basis, the better.
Unlike a violin string, there is only one you, and if you’re too tightly wound and put yourself under constant pressure for too long, there is no replacing you if you fall apart in the aftermath. Humans are tough, and can physically and psychologically heal from many kinds of wounds. But exhaustion and burnout affect people in different ways, and for many, recovery is a long, difficult process.
So how do you avoid breaking your strings? You force yourself to rest, even when you do not think you need or or would “rather keep working.” You take a day off and spend time with loved ones instead. You write for fun before and after working on something for someone else. Most importantly, you learn to recognize when you are becoming too stressed and do everything you can to take care of it before it causes you long lasting pain.
Writers, like many artists and people in other processions, put massive pressure on themselves to perform to the best of their ability for as often and as long as they can. There is this ongoing trend of “working hard,” the grind, the hustle, all things that can very well get you to where you want to be, but never in excess.
Because what happens when you put so much pressure on yourself that you snap? It depends. You might suddenly find it impossible to get out of bed. You feel physically ill. You are so tired that you barely even know who you are or what day it is. Even when trying to do something you once loved, you can barely gather even the slightest bit of enthusiasm on its behalf.
Be careful. Be smart. Pay attention to how you are feeling. Rest.
We don’t have protective cases that keep us safe when we’re not writing. Not really, anyway. You aren’t a violin that can rest comfortably in soft padding surrounded on all sides by a hard shell when you aren’t in use. You are always exposed to the elements. Always exposed to stress and uncontrollable factors. Always, if you want to get technical, in the potential path of danger.
And this is why you have to make self-care a regular part of your schedule whether you feel you have the time or not. Now, many people view the term “self-care” differently, but when I use it, I’m not necessarily talking about two hour bubble baths and guilt free Netflix binges that don’t end until 3 a.m. (though, on occasion, there isn’t anything wrong with this type of self-care. Whatever helps you relax is good enough).
When I talk about self-care in the context of writing and “being a writer,” what I’m really referring to is overall wellness in a very manageable and practical sense of the idea. I don’t get to use my degree in health communications much these days, so you better believe I’m going to jump at the chance to use it now!
For writers, self-care can look like:
- Going to bed at a reasonable and regular time
- Doing regular digital “detoxes” (even just logging out of everything for a few hours before bed)
- Exercising in a way that is manageable and mostly enjoyable for you personally
- Making time to cook and eat food that makes you feel good and guilt-free
- Allowing yourself time to write “nonsense” just for fun on a regular basis
- Not beating yourself up when you don’t meet a goal or miss a personal deadline
- Encouraging yourself to be proud of your work and accomplishments even when no one else is.
I have always looked at self-care as a means of making sure you can do your best in all areas of your life simultaneously (notice I said “best,” not “perfect”). If you want to be a good writer, it’s not enough just to work yourself tired every day for the rest of your life. You have to sleep, and shower, and eat, and go for walks. You can’t do your best work unless you are your best self.
Taking care of yourself means you are much more likely to be able to write the quality words that inspire those who read it. In the end, isn’t that what truly matters most of all?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.