Sunday 29 September 2013

Dark Article - Writing While Ill

Writing While Ill

By Casey Douglass


At various times, I have searched the internet for any articles that might feature tips on how you can feel like grim death but still write as much as you want to. If such an article exists, I’ve yet to find it. In lieu of this, I thought I might just have a stab at one myself, knowing that it could easily turn into a case of the blind leading the blind, or at best, a show of solidarity with no real answers. If nothing else, I am hoping it might get me past some of my own frustration at the least.

This piece will focus more on people with long term health issues. If you have the flu or a cold or something like that, do what you want and be thankful you will recover. If you are the type to force yourself to sit at the laptop trying to catch your snotty sneezes in a wet tissue while your fingers struggle for purchase on the keys, knock yourself out. If you have to take yourself off to bed to tremble under the covers and curse life, do that too.

I have been chronically ill for more than a decade, and while I don’t want to get into the details, it’s a real fucker. My prospects for recovery are now pretty much as close to zero as they can be, and I am gaining a collection of other health issues like some strange macabre set of Pokemon. This means that even if I really feel like writing something, my health can very much get in the way, be it struggling to sit upright or just feeling so exhausted that my eyes struggle to focus and my hand to write. This bugs me, it really does. I can usually tell the difference between this kind of obstacle and the “writers block” kind which seems to be equal doses of procrastination and lack of ideas, which is a different beast altogether. I have worked through a lot of my own issues in that area: the anxiety that writing can cause, the mental tension that comes with trying to suss things out and the lure of quick feel-good pastimes like firing up the Xbox for a quick game of something. If you do suffer from that kind of issue, there are certainly some good books on creativity, procrastination and writers block out there, and it is well worth investigating those.

As far as the illness side of things, yes you can power through and force it, trying to shoehorn yourself into some routine where you write everyday without fail, but what happens when day after day you have to reduce your word counts, lose other things that you enjoy being able to do or just feel so shit in yourself that you lose all interest in life in general? The last thing you will be worried about then will be your writing. On the other side of the coin, what if you just wait until you feel like writing? Days can drag on to weeks and maybe months, waiting waiting waiting. Not a very attractive prospect either.

Like many things in life, it seems to be that the middle ground holds the most promise. I find that I can sometimes write when I feel very bad, and other times I just have to concede defeat and see how I will be the next day. If the next day is no better, there’s always the day after. This creates its own kind of stress of course, which is why you need to have some kind of basic self awareness and enough drive to actually stay the course, or you might end up floundering in a sea of apathy which takes even longer to get out of. Every time the thought enters your mind “Can I write something?” you need to realistically judge if it’s feasible, not just procrastination, and won’t make you feel too ill.

I sometimes have the fantasy of wondering what it would be like to wake up at my laptop/notepad one morning having written and worked so hard that I just had nothing left to give. Then it occurs to me what that would do to me and the health consequences I would likely have to live with for the next weeks and months. I guess that that is at the heart of so many writing issues and doubts. Any writer wants to feel that they have done their very best, not held back or compromised and achieved something worthwhile, overcoming all the obstacles that that may entail. This is very much the game, whether you are ill or healthy.

This balancing act is all that I have found mildly useful since trying to increase my writing output and quality while struggling with my illness. I don’t doubt my motivation, and as far as my ability, past evidence does indicate that I have some. Of course there are always doubts about how far you can take something: do you have what it takes to turn pro, build your readership and become the name on at least one person’s lips when asked which writer they recommend?

Like any skill, the most important thing is just to write. It’s the only way to improve your craft. Any obstacles that get in the way of that need to be assessed on an individual basis, and the decision taken on how best to deal with them. Don’t become a writer who needs everything to be perfect before you start something, and don’t waste money on writing aids or too many books that teach you about writing. Write and put your creations out there and you are a good way towards winning the battle.

This article has come to an end without much in the way of answers, which I thought might happen. With this in mind, I will share a few general writing tips that I have found particularly helpful below.

Keep a notebook to write down ideas as they come to you. I find that if I do this, my mind sends me more ideas, as I am showing that I am interested in what it has to say. On a day where I feel too ill to write, the ideas often flow like this, and can lay the foundations for some good writing when I have a better day.

When you have finished a first draft, leave it for a few days and work on other things before coming back to it. We get too close to our own writing, and just a few days focussing elsewhere will help you in a big way when you come back to begin your editing process. It’s the mental equivalent of trying to see an elephant from an inch away or moving back a few metres and seeing the whole thing.

Acknowledge that some days, you will be in a media consumption mode rather than a creation mode. I might write for a few days and then find myself wanting to read/watch films/play games more than actually write. In my own experience, I find it is best to just allow this. I don’t know if it refills the wellspring or just gives my mind a break or outlet for other pressures, but I find it broadly helpful. Just take care that it doesn’t become your default mode. I find that too much of this makes my mind feel more sluggish and leaves me more prone to procrastination.

These are the tips that I consistently put into use and that I have seen work time and again. There are lots of other things you can do of course, but like anything, that becomes a personal choice for the writer and it’s their own personal task to see what works for them and what doesn’t.