Creativity's Workshop

Taming and Training Your Creativity to Write Abundantly


6 Tips for Writing With a Chronic Illness

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



Random Announcements

Paving and dirt

My head is all in a muddle after a very intense weekend, so I will just stick to the important things I wanted to share this morning.

Well, the oval is coming along nicely. Large square bricks have been put down over the top of the concrete ‘walls’ and dark sand is now being spread about. From my careful observations over the past week, I’ve worked out that the inside of the oval is about 6 inches to a foot lower than the surrounding area. The significance? Still no idea.

In other news, this is National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week. Please pop over to the website and take a look. A surprising number of people are struggling with invisible illnesses like arthritis, fibromyalgia, diabetes etc. which have a constant impact on their life. So why not take the time this week to send a note of appreciation or encouragement, letting them know they’re important in your life?

And finally, I highly recommend popping over to A Big Creative Yes and reading the article The False Promise of the Double Zero. It’s very thought provoking and amusing.