So, this post is going to be about self-care and how I do it as a writer. You may get some ideas from it and you may not. Self-care is critical for writers right now, and for everyone else. We live in . . .interesting times. The most important take-away is that I developed these self-care techniques by listening and paying attention to myself, especially to times when I felt more calm and relaxed, and by trying to do more of that. Here is what works for me.
1. Very cozy bedding. My bed has been my oasis going back over 30 years. Someday I’ll write an essay about it. I work very hard to raise the comfort level of my bed and my bedroom. In fact, soon after the 2016 election, I went out and bought a duvet, probably the best purchase I’ve made since then. I always sleep on 200-250 thread count sheets in calming colors (usually white) that I’ve purchased on sale. I try to keep my bedroom uncluttered and calm–so that I can anticipate some respite most nights.
2. Baking bread. I’ve also baked bread for about 29 years, a very simple recipe I listed on the blog years ago here. Baking bread is one of several things I’ve found to make with my hands that calms me down. It never feels like a chore. As soon as I get that floured dough in my hands and the smell of yeast, flour and sugar wafting through the house, I go into the zone. Bonus: the end result is delicious and fortifying. The key for me, however, is the process. I go through the exact same steps to bake my bread, from mixing the starter to cleaning up afterwards and this is a great comfort. The ritual is everything.
3. Exercise and yoga. I do yoga three days a week, with great thanks to Yoga with Adriene for the variety and convenience. Right now I’m walking our dogs twice a day with my husband for a total of thirty to forty minutes walking–unfortunately kind of slowly because of all the sniffing, but it is what it is. We also have an exercise bike that I use to “complete the stress cycle,” as Emily and Amelia Nagoski suggest in their fantastic book Burnout: Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Honestly, this book was life changing for me.
4. Hand-sewing, slow stitching and visible mending. I used to hand-sew a lot as a child–funky, oddly-stitched seventies-style projects. I’ve recently taken it up again, hand-stitching a few pillows for my backyard chairs, making gifts for friends and doing a lot of visible mending projects. Here’s the key for me–it’s very much about process not product. If my stitches aren’t perfect-that’s not the point. The point is the rhythm of sewing and making something with my hands. Another practice I find comforting and calming.
5. Sleep apps and Sleep Stories. These are a relatively new discovery but a game changing one that has gotten me through some rough times in the past few years, from the start of the pandemic, the death of my father, and my husband’s health crisis (more on that below). I find the sleep stories on Calm, Slumber and Sleep Cycle (I’m particularly partial to the train stories, like The Flying Scotsman, London to Edinburgh, which my friend Elisabeth turned me on to) to be useful not only in falling asleep but in staying asleep and improving the quality of my sleep. I fall asleep before the end of the story almost 100% of the time, which is the point.
What does all this have to do to writing? Well, it helps keep me in a headspace where I’m more likely to do it. But that leads me to #6.
6. Self care and writing. I’m working mainly on a textbook for teaching creative writing right now, as well as a memoir and blog posts like this. I was working on my second novel but that is on a hiatus for the moment. But I’m trying to keep the bar low. I feel satisfied if I make daily progress on a book chapter (the goal is a chapter a week) or a part of the memoir or one of these blog posts. But my new mantra is really one thing, one day at a time. The focus is the textbook because I have a deadline for that (which I may need to push back a few weeks but that’s ok). The other stuff is just extra or lagniappe as we used to say, when we lived in Louisiana. It will all get done over the long term and if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t meant to be.
Full disclosure and update: I started this blog post during the first summer of the pandemic, when I was teaching. Most of the time I am teaching and directing an MFA program and that takes priority, since that’s my job and my students deserve it (although I write before I teach, before I do anything really, because I can’t write well if I’m worn out from the other stuff). But for almost three months, from mid-October to Mid-January 2021, I didn’t write at all because we had a family health crisis. My husband was and is recovering from a freak Sudden Cardiac Arrest and a medically induced coma that happened in mid-October. We both had to go on family leave in adjusting to an entirely new normal and I was and am doing a lot of caregiving, which I feel lucky to be doing because he almost died. In another strange stroke of luck, I happen to be on sabbatical this semester, devoting myself, work-wise pretty much to my textbook for teaching creative writing, a research trip for my next novel and promoting my debut novel, The Lost Son (preorder info and more here). In the fall, I’ll be back to teaching and making new adjustments, with new expectations. But I’ll still be making time for these 6 practices, because they’re critically important to me.
So, listen to yourself. In the swirling world that demands so much of you, pay attention to what brings you peace and sanity and do that. As much as you can.