Writing and Mental Health


At some point, anticipation to write becomes guilt over not writing enough. This mental line is defined by your expectations: what you think you should be doing vs what you can realistically do. To adjust this line, you must ask yourself: how much time and mental energy do you realistically have to spare? At what point does anticipation turn into stress?

Every writer must find their line and stay just on the manageable side of it.

Take a second and picture your current writing project. Did your stomach sink? Did your chest go tight? Those are signs that your expectations are unrealistic. Give yourself permission to reassess and relax what you expect from yourself. If you can only find time to write on the toilet and anything more triggers that tight-chested feeling? That's okay. Focus on what you can do and let the rest go. And if you need to take a break? That's okay, too.

The idea is that you allow yourself to only do the amount of writing that is reasonable for you and no more. Do not expect yourself to push above and beyond or you'll backslide into stress and worry. You can reassess when your circumstances change, but you should never try to push yourself beyond what is sane and healthy.

Today I looked at old writing advice I'd saved and found something that tried to shame me for going to bed at a reasonable time, suggesting I should sacrifice sleep to write. And I thought, "Why did I save that? Why did I think that was okay?"

We hate ourselves when we're not meeting expectations. It's normalized in the writing community for writers to make each other feel worse as a form of "motivation." We judge worth by productivity.

This is self-destructive. We have normalized harming ourselves and each other.

During the pandemic, I had to help my 7-year-old focus on distance learning. I had to take care of him and my 4-year-old daughter. Every time I thought about the writing I wasn't doing, I was filled with overwhelming anxiety, and when I sat down to write? I couldn't. I wanted to cry every time I thought about writing because I just didn't have the time and mental energy.

I know the importance of mental health. I'm on medication for depression and anxiety. Dealing with these in the past made it possible for me to realize during the pandemic that something had to give: I had to prioritize myself over my writing. I couldn't write in the midst of overwhelming stress, and trying to force it was clearly bad for my mental health.

So I made a choice. Normal life would bounce back eventually, and in the meantime I had to keep my head above water. I prioritized all the things that boosted my mental health: getting enough sleep, going outside, exercise, sunlight, and routine.

And I didn't let myself worry about writing. It could keep, but my mental health couldn't -- my kids couldn't.

It is okay to take a break to regroup, rest, or take care of real life for a while. It is not weakness or a lack of drive. It's reality.

Guilt and stress make us worse writers. We second-guess ourselves, feel like we're being pulled apart, get distracted by it, and lose sight of other important aspects of our lives. We are spread taffy-thin, and we think that's the way it should feel. We talk to each other like it's a badge of honor to rip ourselves apart for our art.

Good physical and mental health don't make you a worse writer, they make you a stronger one. You have more stamina and more ability to focus when you're rested. Your brain just works better when you take care of yourself, when you don't have all that negative clutter vying for attention.

But more than that, you are worth it. You deserve to be healthy and happy.

Art often helps us through pain, but art itself should not be pain. Art should make your life better, not worse.

You are worth taking care of. Don't let anyone tell you differently.