Why self-care matters for writers

Tree with sky

Sometimes people tell me it must have taken “a lot of discipline” to spend seven years writing a book.

Nah.  I hate the word “discipline.” It sounds like torture to me:  the helpless writer handcuffed to the keyboard! eschewing all forms of pleasure! in the service of the Great Puritan God of Literature!

Ick, ick!  I don’t want to live in a nunnery, subsisting on dry breadcrusts and water which I have to share with the skinny white mice who are my only companions behind iron bars of penitence.

I prefer my writing hours to be fueled by enthusiasm, desire, excitement, joy, great food, treats, an inspiring environment, and/or an urgent need to figure everything out.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way.  My seven years were a kind of self-torture: I got stuck and blocked, I tried to handcuff myself to the desk, I cursed and got up and did loads of laundry instead — and I filled my cup with self-loathing as I wished that I had what real writers must have, that golden halo called “discipline.”

Through all that, I learned some things — about writing, and mostly about myself.

I learned that yes, writing is tough.  There is a reason that more people “want to write” than actually do write. But that reason isn’t what I’d thought.

Many of my coaching clients come in saying something like, “I’m just lazy, I have the time and I have the space, I don’t know why I don’t write…”

I know why.

It’s not the straw man we call “laziness,” nor its cousin, “lack of discipline.”

What’s causing them, or me, to freeze up before we even begin is fear.

For this ailment, I don’t prescribe discipline.  I urge extreme self-care.

Clients often don’t want to hear this. They fear that if they go too soft on themselves, they’ll never get anything done. What they need, they think, is discipline.

This might be true for something like, say, a cardio workout. (I wouldn’t know — heh.)

For writing, I learned the hard way that the opposite is true.  The idea of Discipline, far from helping me make progress, trapped and stunted me.

The more we push, the less chance we have to flower.

If a seed is given good soil and plenty of water and sun, it doesn’t have to try to unfold, it doesn’t need self-confidence or self-discipline or perseverance. It just unfolds. It can’t help unfolding.

If a seed has to grow with a rock on top of it, or in deep shade or without enough water, it won’t unfold into a healthy sized plant. It will try — hard — because the drive to become what you are meant to be is incredibly powerful. But at its best it will become a sort of ghost of what it could be. In a way, that’s what most of us are.

—Barbara Sher, *Wishcraft*

Now I don’t strive for “discipline.” When I’m terrified, I work on the fear. I try to write into it — toward, not away from, what’s scariest. I trust that as I begin to move through fear, I’ll have no trouble putting in the hours. When I am juiced, it’s hard to tear myself away for things like, you know, meals. Or people. Or even laundry.

Now I believe in nurturing not only the writing, but also the writer.

Learning to be gentle with myself was the best gift of my seven years of “discipline.”

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