I’m teaching a course entitled World Ethics this winter with DeVry University and I’m psyched! It has been five years since I have functioned as a professor of philosophy. For a good while, I thought I might never teach or write again without the carrot stick of “getting tenure.”
In the field of academia, you have to “publish or perish” — get your work OUT THERE or die. I wondered to myself, “Without a job that pays me to research, write and publish, will I ever write again?” To wit: this is not a wise thing to think about when you’re jobless and utterly burnt out.
I have come to see writing like our circadian rhythm, that internal clock which governs our body’s temperature and the secretion of hormones… something that we cannot mess with for too long without paying a high price. Daily writing, like daily meditation, can help me “treat” an exhaustion in me that getting more sleep simply cannot touch. Still, sometimes it can be hard to get started.
In order to bust out of feeling stuck, I’ve come up with these eight steps to keep myself energized as a writer. I’m constantly editing these steps so please keep me informed about what works for you.
1. Keep a consistent rhythm
Pick a few things to do each day that nurture you…things that you would encourage a child to do in a daily way, i.e., go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time every day. Eat three small meals and two snacks-a-day around the same time (8am,12pm, 4pm, 6pm, 8pm). Sleep 8-10 hours a night. Did you know that Americans are the most sleep-deprived, profit-first people on the planet? That explains why we are adrenalin junkies with addictive tendencies; caff up, work hard, “play” (i.e., consume) hard. How do you think that routine is working for us?
People with seasonal affective disorder — most Pacific North Westerners — have to be especially careful to prevent disturbances in our cycles in order to keep our jobs/livelihood, friends, mates and family members. Long-term disruption to our natural rhythm creates physical, emotional, financial and creative havoc, just ask the sleepless people hooked on The Home Shopping Network. When they wake up the next day, the only thing they’re writing is a check.
2. Know the color of your lobster?
When you put a lobster in a pot of boiling water, it jumps out to preserve its life. You put the same lobster in cold water, turning up the heat gradually, and she stays in there, acclimating to the temperature, until, that is, she boils to death.
I can feel the temperature rising in my pot lately, so I’ve just ordered a bunch of ice-cubes – a week-long vacation, vitamin D supplements, extra coaching, Korean spa time – to cool things down. Being burnt (out) leaves me utterly empty of good stories to share.
3. Buddy up
When on field trips to The Woodland Park Zoo as a kid, we were told to “pick a buddy and be accountable.” Teaming up with someone offered each one a chance to pay attention to a relationship – you now have another person to keep alive – okay, that might be a little extreme for kindergartners. But, let’s face it, writers are too often loners and as any scary werewolf movie will show you, lone wolves can become freakishly rabid.
To stay well, we have to stay connected. Writers who check-in with someone – preferably an ally – tend to get their work finished and, as a result, they are more likely to get that work published. If you are a people-pleaser like me, you’ll want to “be good” and get a verbal “gold star” from your writing buddy. Ask your pal to do this in writing as well as out loud and you’ll be on the right track.
Partnerships are famously successful when they are focused on one thing that is relevant to both members. For instance, in the workplace, some – especially introverts – resist a team approach to progress and, instead, prefer working with a partner to get things done well and on time. Connection doesn’t just feel better it promotes collegial morale. In exercise or weight-loss programs, people seem more inclined to get up an hour early rather than hit the snooze button if there’s someone who’ll be counting on them for moral support. In twelve-step groups, people pair up to double their progress when walking together through the shadows of their past. On our own, we rarely unload destructive beliefs that feed into self-harming habits.
4. Squeeze in some “useless” time
There is another kind of rest that is almost as crucial to our well being as sleep and that is being useless – good for nothing and no one. In Chinese philosophy this way of being is called wu-wei or “actionless” or unselfconscious “action.” Non-doing is often necessary when we find ourselves spinning with worry and exhaustion. But, how do we do nothing? I start out by making a list of stuff I like to do that does not improve myself or anyone else (not even my loved ones or the planet). Even the most selfless Mother-Teresa type needs to charge her batteries.
Here’s my list of useless “activities”:
Watch things that make me laugh: Glee, South Park, Family Guy or Daily Show.
Watch my dog rub her back on the grass in serpentine shimmies.
De-clutter (desk, car, house) – seriously, this relaxes me.
Make beauty – wearable art – with my hands and oddly-imaginative design sensibility.
Give myself monthly 1/2-day meditation time.
Soak up ANY sun (as I said above, we in Seattle are bleached of Vitamin D).
Be near or in the water (a Jacuzzi or tub, on a ferry boat or listen to ocean waves)
Stare out a window.
Look up at the sky.
See fun movies with a friend.
Sing along with Ella (et al.).
Read for fun (whatever I feel like, resist self-improvement books).
Warm up in front of any fire.
Walk in the woods with a friend (preferably one that has, or likes, dogs).
If your body is without a cushion for too long, you’ll get sore, brittle and perhaps feel like you are falling apart, like Humpty Dumpty. And, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes doctors – even new age healers – can’t put you back together again.
5. Know your triggers
After 20 years of therapy and 24 years of hanging out in some kind of support group, I think I have finally located my triggers that suck my energy:
a. going too long without eating protein;
b. forgetting why I am standing in a super-sized Target or Costco store with over 100 aisles of products manufactured in China;
c. screaming children amped up on sugar, and;
d. having (or overhearing) conversations with people who think that absolutely every challenge (physical, mental, financial, creative) can be fixed with the right thoughts or positive self-talk. Grrrrrh!
6. Know you don’t have to know it all
Needing to be brilliant as a writer is as practical as needing to have your way at all times. It is a nice idea but it’s not going to happen. Energizing your inner writer – getting her to need to communicate – is an experiment. It’s not like knowing everything and then sharing this wisdom with the world…pedantic writing is NOT good reading.
7. You don’t have to have will power, just willingness
Making inflexible rules about writing is similar to being on a permanent diet. If you start off determined to avoid your favorite binge food by eating a salad for lunch every day, your diet will last approximately three days. At least that’s when I threw out the bowl of lettuce and reached for a gigantic tub of popcorn with a lot of melted, sharp-cheddar cheese on top.
You have to pace yourself – chunk down your writing goal to something small (and put the goal in WRITING), commit to doing it (out loud), do it, cross it off your list, reward yourself and, if you feel like it, tell your buddy–so that you keep the generative momentum flowing. My own coach, Molly Gordon, says, “By doing this five-part routine you’ll be creating new neural pathways!” Plus, trying and fulfilling on what you say you’ll do builds integrity; it feels good to be someone who does what she says she will do. Don’t believe me? Try it.
Science supports my claim here: Humans have a limited amount of will power. It’s like oil. So don’t even try to quit smoking when you’re eating veggies, or abstaining from your one big glass of Chardonnay, or when you’re trying to live more simply by de-cluttering your house…. “Rots of ruck!” as my Mandarin teacher used to say. Instead of setting yourself up to fail with impossible expectations, make your writerly goals measurable and ridiculously easy to complete and don’t forget to celebrate ANY progress along the way.
8. Practice makes Ritual
I’m not talking about reciting The Stations of the Cross while crawling on your blood-soaked knees. I’m talking about setting your watch for 15-minutes to write non-stop and without a censor. Do this as an experiment. Ask yourself a question related to what you like to write (and learn) and answer that question before the buzzer rings. Do this writing exercise once and then see how you feel. Try doing it everyday for a week if you really want to sink it into your bones.
Let me know if this works to enliven your inner writer. If you’ve experienced some better tricks that work for you, please share them with us here or contact me via my website.
Jennifer Manlowe, PhD is an author, educator, writing and publishing coach with over 20 years of experience helping people express themselves in ways that bring joy, self-sufficiency, good pay and a sense of contribution. She loves hearing from readers and writers and is eager to support them as they launch their creative work in the world! Let me be your Memoir Mentor!
Be sure to schedule a 15-minute complimentary book coaching session via email: AuthorizeU@gmail.com. If we begin working together, my eBook—Writing From Life: A Wise Guide to Publishing Your Memoirs—will be yours as part of the coaching package.