Creativity's Workshop

Taming and Training Your Creativity to Write Abundantly

6 Tips for Writing With a Chronic Illness

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A woman sick in bed...If only my hair looked like that when I was sick in bed...

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

I’ve been living with a chronic illness since 2007. Some days I feel almost normal, other days it’s a battle to get out of bed and make myself food for the day. This constant rollercoaster of energy, emotions and doctors’ appointments is an everyday occurrence for many people, writers included.

I usually don’t mention my health too much on this blog because it’s not the main theme of Creativity’s Workshop. However, over the past 6 weeks I’ve been through a rough patch with my health which has had a big impact on my ability to write.

I went looking online for writing tips for people suffering with illness. There didn’t seem to be that much practical information out there. While “If you wouldn’t go to work feeling this way, then don’t write” may be great advice for those dealing with the flu or other acute circumstances, most people with chronic illness aren’t able to go to work anyway.

So I have compiled a list of 6 tips that I found helped me personally. If you know of any other tips or posts on this subject, please add them below in the comments. I’d love for this post to become a good resource for other writers in this situation.

Tip 1: Know How Much Energy You Need for Each Task

Some writing tasks require a lot of mental energy and clarity. Other tasks can be done on auto pilot. The trick is to match each task with the amount of energy you have on hand at the time.

For example, I find writing first drafts of novels or blog posts requires a great deal of mental clarity. However, doing a final edit on a blog post requires a lot less energy. I usually have a clearer head in the morning, so that’s the time I schedule my quality writing time. Editing can be done during my afternoon slump.

I also keep a Slow Day List going where I write down any kind of task I can do when I’m feeling below par. The list contains tasks like:

  • Finding images for my blog posts.
  • Pinning images on Pinterest.
  • Social media, e.g. chatting and retweating on Twitter.
  • Mocking up cover art for my upcoming short story collection.
  • Tweaking sign up forms.
  • Reading a book about writing.

This list serves two purposes.

  • Firstly, it helps me keep my priorities straight so I spend my valuable energy where it’s going to do the most good. If I’m feeling well, I won’t allow myself to be distracted by the things on my slow day list.
  • Secondly, it helps me remain calm when I’m having a slow day. Rather than thinking about what I would be doing if I had the energy, I know I can still be useful by doing the tasks I’ve already set aside.

It’s a waste to do a low energy, monotonous task when you’ve got the energy to do a more complex task. It’s also not worth driving yourself into the ground doing high energy tasks when your health has taken a dip. Take note of your ups and downs so you can plan around them, rather than trying to plough through them.

Tip 2: Do Important Things Before They Become Urgent

Rushing to complete a blog post or a newsletter creates stress, which causes you to burn more energy than necessary. By planning and perhaps even completing things before they become urgent, you can not only create a buffer between you and your deadlines but also produce higher quality work.

For example, instead of trying to work out the title and subject of your blog post a hour before it’s due to go up, why not spend a little time the week before outlining the main points you want to cover? Then, even if you do have an energy slump, you still have notes to help you write.

There are many ways you can create a buffer between you and deadlines. You could:

  • Brainstorm ideas for upcoming posts or even create a series of posts to develop the subject. This will give your blog more cohesion and direction.
  • Keep a notebook of ideas for posts and points you want to cover. When you’re feeling mentally hazy, you can look back over your notes without having to come up with a fresh idea.
  • Write the first draft of your posts in advance so you only need to do a little clean up work before publishing.
  • Use the schedule feature on your blog to organise your posts and take the stress out of remembering when to publish.

By changing your mindset and routine, you can actually reduce your stress (and therefore reduce your energy output) while increasing the value and quality of your writing.

Tip 3: Have Backup Plans

There will always be bad days that catch you unawares. On those days you’ll need to rest. When you’re in that situation, it’s good to have a backup plan.

For example, if you’ve got a blog you could:

  • Prepare a few blog posts that aren’t time sensitive so you can publish them whenever you need them.
  • Keep a record of the best writing posts and articles you’ve read recently. Then, when you’re having a bad day you could publish a post with links through to other articles your readers might enjoy.
  • Ask a blogging friend to guest post for you that week.

If you’re working on a novel you could:

  • Research some details you need for your story.
  • Create a vision board.
  • Create a storyboard.
  • Find photos of the characters or locations in your story.

With chronic illness, bad days are inevitable. Be flexible and change tack if necessary.

Tip 4: Maintain Motivation Through Positive Means

When you’re not able to accomplish everything you’d planned it’s easy to get frustrated, perhaps even giving yourself a ‘stern talking to’ in the hope it will keep you going. But goading yourself into further work isn’t the answer.

Guilting yourself into doing things will only work temporarily, and you’ll feel dreadful while you’re doing it. Muscling past haze and fatigue may actually be more damaging in the long run.

Instead, keep yourself motivated by being positive. Remind yourself why you love writing. Believe in what you are writing. Envision how things will eventually turn out and then focus only on the next little step you need to take.

The old adage is true: You can catch far more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Don’t beat yourself up over what you haven’t yet accomplished. Inspire yourself to keep going.

Tip 5: Connect With People

Most people who are dealing with chronic illness spend a lot of time at home. Some are housebound or even bedridden. For most of us, though, modern technology allows us to connect with people without needing to leave the comforts of our home.

Both writing and illness can lead to isolation, so it’s important to actively seek to communicate and connect with a community. E-mailing fellow writers, reading and commenting on people’s blogs, using social media wisely – all these things can help you become part of a community and keep the focus of your attention away from your illness for a while.

For a writer to truly do good work they need to see the world from many different perspectives, if only to see their own lives in detail. So set aside time in your schedule to interact with the great and varied world outside your door.

Tip 6: Set Up a Schedule You Can Maintain

Finally, the most important thing is to keep a sustainable schedule. A cycle of boom and bust (where you manage heaps of stuff one day and then can’t get out of bed the next) isn’t kind to your body and could make your illness worse.

Be reasonable in what you expect from yourself. Celebrate what you’ve managed to do each day (even if it’s only a small thing) and allow room in your schedule to move things around if need be.

At the end of each week, look back over what you’ve accomplished. Remember the positive things you’ve done and try not to dwell on the negatives.

After all, there’s always tomorrow. 😉

What about you? How do you cope with days when you aren’t functioning at your best? I really want this post to be a resource for other writers in similar situations so please add your comments.

****

Since writing the above I’ve come across the following helpful posts on this subject:

Kristine Kathryn Rusch – Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Illness

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Author: Jessica

I'm a writer who refuses to pin myself down to one genre, hopping from science-fiction and fantasy through to literary and even the odd western now and then. Check out what I've written at www.jessicabaverstock.com or follow me on Twitter @jessbaverstock.

12 thoughts on “6 Tips for Writing With a Chronic Illness

  1. I have a rare metabolic condition, so many of my days are spent lethargic and sickly. I write when I can but I’m hoping to write more frequently. This is a really thorough and a great resource. Thank you for writing this I really appreciate it.

    • I really feel for you. It’s difficult to stay motivated and get things done when you’re dealing with lethargy. I hope you’re able to find a schedule that works for you.

      I’m very pleased you benefited from this. If you write about the subject in the future, or find other sites that are helpful, feel free to comment with links. 😉

  2. Thanks for the post. I suffer from chronic pain (very severe) due to osteoarthritis. The pain is so bad at times all I feel like doing is sleeping. I have to take strong pain medications just so I can work & get around. And even with the medications the pain is still very present. My condition has definitely hurt my writing as well as many other activities I want to pursue. It may seem hard to understand or even fathom for most people but believe me I would give anything to just have a normal day.

    • Oh Dennis, I feel for you. Chronic pain invades both your body and your mind, making each day an ordeal. I have great admiration for those who deal with pain on a regular basis. I wish I could share one of my normal days with you. 🙂

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

  3. Thanks! I just got through deciding I would never try to write to get anything published ever because of my health. I would write Just for me, just for fun. I never have written a book or been published, so why start now? Just because I want to help people, it takes all the focus and energy I can muster just to get through a day sometimes. I am like you, some days are great. But a lot, more than half, not. I have congestive heart failure, fibromyalgia, some kind of arthritis, it is argued which one, low adrenal, low thyroid, and I just got through with a staph infection requiring hospitalization (because it was inching nearer my heart), complete with three negative pharmaceutical drug reactions, an electrolyte imbalance, and a severe lack of sleep. And that’s not even all my problems. But it is the major things. On a good day, I just want to be able to catch up: to enjoy being relatively out of pain, to be with people, to see a good movie, read a good book,…maybe go shopping, clean house, catch up on chores. So, I tell God, nope not gonna write. Why add that burden to myself as well? And seriously God, who do you know who is as sick as I am and able to make a living writing? Why even try? am I not asking the impossible of myself? Then, not 24 hours later, an hour ago, today, I read your post. And I thought, well, if Jessica can do it, okay God, I got the message, maybe I will give it another try. So, with your guidelines, which pretty much fit me, and the knowledge you too and all these other posters are writing amidst the suffering, I will give it another shot. Thanks for your inspirational blog and everyone posting!

  4. In short, it’s just really nice to know I am not alone. Thank you all for sharing.

    • Wow, Susan, it sounds like you’re having a really rough time of it! I can relate to what you said about just wanting to enjoy good days. When you’re able to get your head above water there seems to be so many little things that need doing in the window of opportunity before you’re next doused by health.

      In the end you have to do what will give you the greatest quality of life. It’s not worth sacrificing your basic life-necessities (like interacting with friends and family) to attempt a goal you might not currently be well enough to achieve (making a living wage from writing). If it’s a choice between being able to manage basic daily tasks and writing, I choose the life tasks even though it pains me not to write.

      However, I personally find that when I’m consistently writing I feel happier and sometimes even healthier. I view it as something I need, just like exercise and good food, to keep my body and mind functioning as best they can.

      Perhaps aiming for short stories or essays, pieces that could be completed with a couple of good days together, would help you work towards your goal. Seeing those words in print would still reach your goal of publication and may be easier to accomplish than an entire novel.

      Whatever you end up doing, I wish you happiness as you battle with your health problems. We all understand your pain and we are here to cheer you on. You are definitely not alone. 😉 Thank you for sharing your comments.

  5. Jessica, I’ve been living with Fibromyalgia since 2001. Now I’m in my prime and I have to manage what is an unpredictable and terrifying illness. Thank you for contributing to the dialogue. These are very practical and helpful pointers. Keep on keepin’ on.

    • Thanks for the encouragement! I’ve dealt with Fibromyalgia too and can relate to your description of it being unpredictable and frightening at times. If you ever post something about writing with your condition or find other useful resources, please feel free to come back here and add links in your comments.

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