Caution: May Be Habit Forming

Authorial Essentials
Authorial Essentials

Believe it or not. This is a post about writing.

A little over a year ago, I finally gave in to the fact that I had a problem sleeping and that it was having an effect on my overall health. My brain would get into this high-creative cycle, and when I turned off the lights and closed my eyes, the little hamster wheel in my brain went into overdrive. I couldn’t shut it off. I found myself lurching in to work with as little as three hours of sleep some days. It was unsustainable. So I made two pledges to myself: go to the doctor to get a treatment solution, and listen to my body when it said it was tired. That meant prescription sleep aids and going to bed at 7pm if I was tired enough to go to sleep at 7pm.

I used the prescription only as needed, and only had to fill it a few times. I found that once I got in the routine of regular sleep, the over-the-counter sleep aids were enough to slow down the hamster wheel when called for. And now it’s exceedingly rare for me to get less than seven hours of sleep. And honestly, I quite prefer the lower-dose sleep aids because, as the label says, they are “Non-Habit Forming.”

The same can not be said for writing, which was the underlying cause of my sleeplessness.

Ray Bradbury described it thusly:

“You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.”

Here’s the fine print, the Devil’s invisible ink clause that many of us don’t realize we’re signing up for when we become serious writers. Writing seriously–productively–requires discipline. Anyone who’s ever done National Novel Writing Month knows what I mean. In order to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, it requires butt in chair, fingers on keys, brain in “Drive” to produce on average 1,667 words a day, every day for a month. That’s all well and good for a month, but for those of us who do this kind of creative insanity year round it becomes a habit. For some, a kind of addiction.

We structure our time around being creative–a switch that does not always flip on and off so easily. And when we get to the end of a project, there is always another project waiting. And thank goodness for that, because without something else to be working on, that routine we’ve established is disrupted. I find myself getting twitchy. Distracted. Itching to be doing something, writing something, and it almost doesn’t matter what. That void needs to be filled. I’ve written in the vicinity of ten novels–some only first drafts, some polished–though I might be forgetting one or two. I’m around midway through my next novel, with two more in the series to follow. I have outlines for three more unrelated books, one of which is about 1/3 written already. Beyond that, I have a list of eighteen other novels that I’d like to write, all recorded on a little document labeled “Novel Pursuits” back when I thought that was funny.

And let’s not even talk about the short stories. That’s a whole other list.

The rate at which I come up with ideas I’d love to write outpaces the rate at which I write. If I never come up with another novel idea, at the pace I’m going now I might not even live to write them all. Frankly, that idea terrifies me.

Damn…the existential dread reminded me of another novel idea. Time to update the sheet.

The thing is, a writer writes. It’s not just because that’s what makes them a writer, like it’s a job description. For many of us, a writer writes because they have to write. We write because we don’t know how not to write anymore. Sometimes we near the end of a difficult project and tell ourselves, “After this, I’ll take some time to relax, maybe read some books, teach myself how to knit.” And two days in, you’re writing down ideas for the next novel on the back of a receipt on the bus. Going cold turkey is a bitch, isn’t it?

Creating is like an addiction, a habit, a source of comfort the creative retreat to time and again. It’s a place where we can control, shape, and make sense of the world in a way we can’t in the rest of our lives. And as addictions  go, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse. But be mindful of your daily life as well.

Take the time to nurture friendships and activities that are something other than writing. Trust me. They’ll help feed the creative fire in different ways, whether they inspire new stories or help form new ways of seeing existing stories. Allow yourself time to rest. Find a way to quiet your mind, whether it’s mediation, or reading, or quiet walks. Find some way to slow down the hamster wheel from time to time and you’ll return to the writing refreshed and eager to create. It’s okay to take a night off every now and then. Or heck, use that time to do editing and rewrites instead. Who am I to judge?

It’s okay if you aren’t writing at your NaNoWriMo pace every day. I once met a happily productive (and published) author who professed to writing only 500 words a day. If you do that every day, without fail, you’re still turning out over 182,000 words a year. And when you’re in the zone, 500 words is nothing. It’s a walk in the goddamned park.

But bottom line, take care of yourself.

We have a lot of stories to tell, you and I. We need to make sure we’re pacing ourselves so we can tell them all.



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