For writers and creatives, the daily battles can be won not just through countless counter attacks, but with extra doses of self-care and time set aside for creative pursuits.
What do you do when you feel completely drained, hollowed out and physically incapable of adding one more thing to your “to do” list? I’m sure that in addition to sighing in frustration or flinging out a few choice profanities, you probably begin a pairing down of duties – prioritizing and eliminating the fluff. If you’re anything like me, creative pursuits are usually the first casualties.
There’s a military term for this ruthless culling: collateral damage. You make the choice to lose a few souls in order to protect the greater good. Unfortunately, sometimes during the miasma of war, with bullets flying and turmoil all around, collateral damage can be tough to identify. Usually, the weakest targets are the first to go, and so it is with daily life. We ditch our morning pages, skip our afternoon sketching, and our nightstands pile up with unread books.
My pile of untouched New Yorker magazines is a testament to just how merciless I’ve been lately with my own culling and prioritizing. I’m still finding time to write my morning pages, but often those three sheets of indecipherable prose are the sum total of my output for the day. I’m getting the basics done – an accomplishment I’m grateful for every day – but I yearn to achieve more. It’s certainly satisfying to discover you are meeting all your basic needs – what I like to call Adequate Adulting – but in the grand tradition of many a mid-life crisis, I find myself wondering, “Is that all there is?”
A few years ago, I read a great piece by Cary Tennis over at Salon. A beleaguered expatriate wrote in asking for advice on how to handle what she considered the complete implosion of her years living abroad.
“I’m still broke, my visa is going to run out again, and I’m stranded,” she admits. “Now I find myself procrastinating in the most insane manner.”
“The hole I am in feels inescapable, growing darker and deeper every day.”
In addition to her feelings of shame and failure, the expat faced a mountain of unfinished, necessary paperwork. She just couldn’t find the wherewithal to complete the forms, and every day she put it off the situation became more dire.
“I am trapped,” she laments. “Each time I try to think of a way out (applying to creative writing programs, job applications, etc.) obstacles pop in my mind.”
“I hate who I have become: cowardly, afraid, pathetic,” she concludes.
“The passion and drive that I once had are gone. Worst of all, I’ve lost the ability to dream.”
Cary’s advice is like a cooling balm. Rather than scold her or immediately spit out an endless list of solutions, Cary decreases the volume. His first suggestion is a recalibration of daily undertakings so that self-care becomes the focus.
“I would simply say that you have overdone it,” he begins kindly. “You have pushed yourself too hard, you have exceeded your capacity, you have proven yourself human, and it is time to retrench. There is no shame in this. You must recover.”
“I know there is a place where you are loved and accepted,” he continues. “Go there. Let yourself heal. Get some breathing time. Leave the world alone for now. It will take care of itself.”
Cary’s advice to focus on self-care in times of chaos was, to me, a revelation. I’d never considered before that instead of continuing apace and trying to outrun my anxiety and stress; I should just stop, breathe, and regroup. So often we are so caught up in our “must dos” and “should dos’ and the evil little “have to’s”, we squander all our resources and arrive at our (arbitrary) finish line depleted and depressed. Sure, we’ve crossed off most of our tasks, but there’s no celebration in the completion, only a girding of the belt and a once-more-into-the-breach steeling of the nerves before we begin our Sisyphean endeavor all over again.
There has to be a better way, and after years of trying everything and berating myself for never quite living up to my expectations, I seized upon Cary’s advice: I restock, I check out, and I restore my resources and my sanity. I also make sure to take a moment to perform my own little therapeutic ceremonies: I pull out my band of poets (Neruda, Dickinson, and the crew), and reread old favorites (Anne of Green Gables has gotten me through many a tempest), and I revisit past passions and sentimental touchstones.
I also try to follow Cary’s advice to that sad, desperate traveler by connecting with the artists and creators who found a way to produce great art amidst the ambushes and carpet-bombings (both real and metaphorical) scattered about their own private battlefields.
“Your regular method, when you meet resistance, is to power through, scheme, conjure,” Cary astutely surmises. “I suggest you try something different.”
“Before you go back to America, spend a week in one museum. Contemplate one sculpture and think how long it took. Those who made great things had to stay in one place a long time. Their options were few. That is still the case. The plodders are still at it, invisibly making things we briefly admire. Learn from them. Contemplate what it takes to make a halfway decent thing.”
“Slow down. Get healthy,” he concludes. “Take some time off. Catch your breath. Make a plan. You can sally forth again when you are strong enough.”
This move towards simple self-care is a fallback I employ quite often, and it’s advice I give – solicited and unsolicited – to friends and family whenever I see that they are beginning to drown in an ocean of responsibilities and petty chores.
“Take a deep breath,” I tell them. “Get enough sleep; try to eat a little healthier, go for a walk. When you’re ready, then start again.”
In Simple Abundance, Sara Ban Breathnach explains how self-care can help us refill our well without mindless consumption of food, alcohol, drama or whichever vice we choose.
“Whenever we’re anxious, worried, nervous or depressed, without thinking, we instinctively swallow food and drink in order to push away the uncomfortable negative experience we’re feeling in our gut. We hunger and thirst, but it’s not for a bowl of ice cream or a glass of wine. It’s for inner peace and deeper connection.”
Her recommendation on how to overcome this need to self-medicate with mindless consumption mirrors Cary’s instruction to that decompensating student.
“The next time you reach to put something in your mouth, take a minute to focus your awareness on what you’re doing before you do it. Are you eating because you are physically hungry, or anxious? If you’re anxious, a walk around the block instead of into the kitchen would be better for you and more loving.”
“Learn to create ceremonies of personal pleasure that can nourish your deeper longings,” she advises. “Realize today that you hunger and thirst for a reason. Ask your authentic self to reveal your deeper needs, so that Spirit can quench and satisfy your parched and ravenous soul.”
Are you suffering from a parched and ravenous soul? In addition to taking a walk, going on an Artist Date or picking up those abandoned books and magazines, I’m going to suggest you begin by mixing up the rank and file of your own personal army. Promote creativity to corporal if you have to. Make sure writing and painting move up in the ranks – they aren’t made for the front lines anyway, they carry much more value as strategists able to supply more nuanced strategies.
Remember, throughout history armies have charged not just with mounted cavalry and a stockpile of weapons – they made sure the bugler announced their advance. The flags flapping and trumpets blaring aren’t there just to intimidate the enemy; they’re there to rally the forces and give the troops a fighting chance.
And when your courage fails, think of Shakespeare’s King Henry V, encouraging his weary warriors to fling themselves “once more unto to the breach…”
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’