Wellbeing for Writers

I’m pleased to announce that my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers is now available from Amazon Kindle, Smashwords and other online sites.

Born out of my long experience as a part-time author alongside former careers in psychological medicine, life coaching and Bach flower therapy, this is a guide about how to maximise the satisfactions and minimise the frustrations which often arise while writing, publishing and marketing a book. Topics include structuring the process, finding inspiration, maintaining physical and mental health, coping with criticism, aligning personal values with writing, and more.

While mainly focused on the psychology of authorship, it also includes plenty of tips about the basic practicalities.

Most of the content is available for free on this blog … but for a nominal cost you can read it combined in one volume, rearranged in a logical order, and revised and updated throughout.

Please have a look on Amazon or Smashwords, and forward this to any of the aspiring authors among your circle of contacts.

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When doctors become writers

Several of my friends and acquaintances have, like me, exchanged a career in medicine for one in creative writing.

Some had to retire early from medicine because of illness or family circumstances. Some chose to leave the profession after becoming “burnt out” by the continual exposure to human suffering, the weight of responsibility for people’s lives and health, frustration with the administrative aspects, or the long hours. Others were simply driven by an overpowering desire to write. For me, after 30 years in medicine, the reasons were mixed.

Working as a doctor provides a wealth of material for fiction writing. Although the settings of my own three novellas are mainly non-medical, drugs and diseases play crucial roles in all their plots. The risks of breaching patients’ confidentiality, libelling professional colleagues or offending readers’ sensibilities must be kept in mind, and I am currently debating whether the satirical novel which I wrote while working as a junior doctor in a psychiatric hospital is too politically incorrect to publish.

Unlike such well-known figures as Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov and Arthur Conan Doyle, most “physician-writers” will never achieve fame and fortune as authors. They will usually experience a drop in income and status and, no longer having a structured work environment or daily interaction with colleagues, must become entirely self-motivated. Life coaching can help with adapting to the transitions and, in my experience, the freedom and stimulation of developing a new career in mid-life more than makes up for the losses.

Outside criticism, and self-criticism, may suggest that those who choose this path are no longer making a worthwhile contribution to society. This is only partly valid, for the written word can have marked effects for better or worse on people’s well-being. I am always delighted if someone tells me they have benefited from one of my medical books or enjoyed one of my novels. But while doctors have direct contact with their patients and are usually able to tell whether their treatments have healed or harmed, writers do not meet the majority of their readers and will never know the wider impact of their books.

 

 

Other writers: competitors or colleagues?

Writing is a solitary occupation. Most writers prefer to work on their own in a quiet room without interruptions from people, pets, phone calls and texts, or noises from the street. Such a peaceful environment is often unavailable, as I have been finding lately since having two mischievous foster kittens in the house.

Despite their wish for peace and solitude, writers do benefit from contact with the outside world in general, and with other writers in particular. But for a number of reasons they may not get very much. Members of most other professions can hardly avoid forming peer relationships whether through a shared workplace, a culture of teamwork, or requirements for continuing education and supervision. In contrast, writers seldom meet other writers unless they make the deliberate effort to join societies and groups, whether in person or online, and to attend events and courses. Many of them have introverted personalities and are not naturally drawn to social activities, perhaps viewing them as an added distraction from the serious business of writing. Also, they may regard themselves as in competition with each other for sales, or be wary of having their ideas stolen if they share them before publication.

Abuses can occur, but I think the benefits of contact with other writers outweigh the risks. Since making a serious commitment to fiction writing I have gained a lot through discussions in Linkedin groups, and occasional personal interchanges with the four other women writers in my circle of friends. We have reviewed each others’ manuscripts, exchanged tips about the self-publishing process, and provided encouragement when the going gets rough due to lack of inspiration, technical problems, or negative responses to our work. I have been meeting one of these friends, Jean, for coffee about once a month for several years, during which time both of us have self-published a number of books.  We met in Auckland, then discovered that we were brought up in the same English town, Gravesend in Kent, a few years apart; one of Jean’s books, Chalk Pits and Cherry Stonesgives a fascinating account of her wartime childhood there.

 

 

How to find time for writing

I haven’t done much writing lately, because of various events – two conferences, family health problems, house guests from overseas – all coming together in the same few weeks. Some of these happenings are predominantly pleasant, others more stressful, but all of them have altered the usual rhythm of domestic life and taken time and energy away from writing. This has prompted me to revisit some principles from my life coaching days – simple basic advice, but so easy to neglect.

Prioritise what is important: Besides writing, there are various activities – for example exercise, social contact, some form of relaxation – which it is good to carry out every day to promote health and well-being. In contrast, anything which is being done out of habit or a sense of duty but is not really pleasurable or worthwhile, could perhaps be set aside.

Set personal boundaries: being able to devote adequate time to the important things may require setting boundaries against those of lesser importance. This means learning to say ‘No’ to unwelcome requests from other people, as discussed in a previous post, and perhaps also being firmer with yourself if you are prone to be distracted by trivia like checking for emails too often or staying too long in coffee shops. Focusing on one activity at once is more efficient than multi-tasking.

Organise your schedule: although some people prefer to write only when they feel inspired, or when conditions happen to be right, many serious writers find it best to set aside a regular time and place for their daily work. If you are disciplined about keeping to this schedule, family and friends will usually respect your commitment and understand that you do not wish to be disturbed.

Accept what cannot be changed: some events, difficulties and distractions are beyond personal control. It is a waste of energy to get frustrated and complain about them, but better to be flexible and accept them with a good grace. In the words of the ‘Serenity prayer’:

Lord, grant me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to deal with the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

After all, a temporary disruption to the writing schedule will probably not matter very much in the long term; and even unwanted experiences form part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ and may provide material for a new piece of writing at some later date.

Incidentally – three of my ebooks are on a Smashwords promotion this week, 2-8 March, for just $1.50 USD each. Here’s the link.


Breaking the rules of creative writing

Regulations, bureaucracy and ‘guidelines’ pervade many aspects of modern life. This is especially true in public sector professions such as healthcare and teaching, but also affects workers in many other spheres including the self-employed. So I found it refreshing to hear from life coach Drew Rozell about a method of practice which he calls uncoaching. In summary, he suggests the best way is to ignore the rules – be yourself – and have fun!

Do these same principles apply for writers? I would say yes – to some extent. Like those in any other profession, writers do need to acquire relevant background knowledge and skills, respect certain ethical and legal standards, and devote sufficient time and effort to practising their craft. They can benefit greatly from attending courses, and seeking guidance and criticism from more experienced colleagues. This is all to the good if done in such a way as to help, and not hinder, development of each individual’s original ‘voice’.

Writers of fiction are often advised that a novel needs to fit a defined genre, conform to a standard structure, or be a certain length – see for example the detailed guidelines on the Mills & Boon websites. I realise there are sound commercial reasons for this, and that it is difficult for publishers to market books or for readers to find them unless they belong to a recognised category. But, if authors become too compliant with mainstream convention, the result may be an over-emphasis on form as opposed to content, and a stifling of creativity.

While writing these comments, I was reminded of the points for and against the ‘disease model’ used in orthodox medicine, which I discussed in my book Persons not Diseases. This model has enabled many advances in prevention and treatment, and it is obviously necessary to use some kind of classification in the healthcare setting. But if applied too rigidly or uncritically it can have drawbacks such as too much separation between medical specialties, unhelpful ‘labelling’ of patients, a poor deal for those whose symptoms do not fit with recognized patterns, and possibly discouraging new ideas and approaches. 

For writers, following a tried-and-tested recipe may well be the most reliable route to success. But, as a typical ‘Woman of Aquarius’ (see my other blog) I rate freedom as one of my top personal values and, for me, fulfilment through writing comes from original self-expression rather than the ability to follow a formula. This attitude has counted against me in the publication stakes and in younger days I wrote several novels which were given serious consideration by many publishers but always rejected in the end. The reason usually given was that they did not fit a recognised genre and were not good enough to flourish ‘outside the box’.  I don’t challenge that verdict, and if I ever look at those faded typescripts again I will probably be glad that they were not accepted.

But recently, after many years of non-fiction writing, I tried my hand at another novel and decided that in the modern era of independent publishing it is not so essential to conform to the guidelines. So I went straight for the indie option with Carmen’s Roses, now available on Amazon as both ebook and paperback. It breaks a number of the rules of creative writing. It is short, at 30,000 words. As ‘a story of mystery, romance and the paranormal’ it doesn’t fit any single category. It may not appeal to readers of my non-fiction books, with its different style and darker themes. But, if you’d like to take a look, here again is the link.

Goal-setting for writers

Is it better to structure the process of writing a book by setting goals, timetables and routines – or to let yourself be spontaneously guided by opportunity and inspiration?

Many successful professional authors approach their work in a highly organised way. For example they might have a system of completing one new book each year, like the late Dick Francis who wrote over 40 best-selling thrillers set in the world of horse-racing. He began writing a new book every January, and finished it in May, ready for publication in September. Then after a summer holiday break he combined promotional events for the new book with planning and researching the next one, to be started the following  January. Some set themselves a rule of writing for a certain number of hours per day, often at the same time in the same place. Some like to produce a consistent daily word count, while others might be content to spend all morning revising a single paragraph.

The structured approach is suitable for those who like a regular lifestyle, who need to maintain a steady output of new material to earn their living, or who tend to procrastinate unless they discipline themselves. But goals, timetables and routines are tools to help with achieving your broader aims, rather than ends in themselves, and allowing yourself to be rigidly controlled by them can produce needless stress. Sometimes it pays to be flexible in response to variations in your own energy levels, or to external events. If circumstances prevent you from meeting a ‘deadline’ this can seem most frustrating, however it may turn out that the delay was all for the best in the long term; perhaps it gives you time to polish your work, or for market conditions to improve, or for better ideas and opportunities to appear. Even if you never achieve the goal, this could be a blessing in disguise; looking back, I am glad that the manuscript of the novel which I once tried so desperately to get published was never accepted. As the Dalai Lama says ‘Sometimes not getting what you wanted can be a wonderful stroke of luck.’ Also, goals need to be reviewed from time to time to see if they are still appropriate. When I started this blog I resolved to write one post each week, but only for so long as I had plenty of ideas for topics, and then to space them out. This time is now coming so I shall be posting less often here, but more often on my other blogs Jennifer Barraclough Bach Flowers and Woman of Aquarius.

If you are passionately involved with your current writing project, there is no need for rules and routines. Intensive bursts of creative inspiration may only come once in a lifetime and it can be worth making the most of them, even if it means going short on sleep, exercise, and time with family and friends for a while. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie describes how she wrote Absent in the Spring, published under the pen-name Mary Westmacott. After an incubation period of several years, the story and characters suddenly fell into place in her mind and she wrote the entire book as a single draft ‘in a white heat’ over three days, determined to get it all down on paper without interruptions to break the flow. After it was finished she was exhausted, went to sleep for 24 hours and then ate an enormous dinner. This book, though not nearly so well known as her crime novels, is the only one which satisfied her completely. 

Values and virtues for writers

Leaving aside any financial motivation, why do you write? And how can your work promote fulfilment and self-development for yourself and your readers? This post is about personal values and virtues  – those abstract qualities which according to your own individual outlook on life are important and worthwhile, and can be expressed through your writing and other activities.

Many of the sites about values and virtues which can be found online name 100 or more different items. Here are some examples of the qualities relevant to writers.

Achievement: The satisfaction of completing a piece of work and having something tangible to show for your efforts.

Adventure and Challenge: Exploring new subject-matter, techniques, publishing avenues; you may be happier travelling to new places to gather material than sitting at your desk.

Beauty: Creating work which is aesthetically pleasing, whether in the elegance of its wording or the appearance of the printed format.

Contribution and Service: Making the world a better place through the spread of knowledge and ideas.

Co-operation: With editors, contributors, formatters, designers, IT consultants and publishers.

Courage: Daring to put your writing out into the world despite being anxious about self-disclosure or criticism; writing about painful or controversial subjects.

Creativity: This is obvious.

Freedom: Writing, especially for self-published authors, offers great independence and flexibility compared with most other occupations.

Humility: Willingness to take advice, and to learn from criticism.

Kindness and Tolerance: To be kept in mind when writing about other people, or when reviewing others’ work.

Learning and Discovery: Both for yourself and your readers.

Patience and Perseverance: It takes months or even years to write a book of good quality, then there can be another long wait before seeing it in print.

Pleasure, Fun, Humour: The enjoyment of writing. You just love doing it, and perhaps do not care very much whether other people want to read your work.

Relationships: Though you may seldom meet your readers face to face, and may never know how most of them have responded to your work, the impact you have on them is vitally important.

Spirituality: Whether or not you cover spiritual topics in your work, you may consider the calling or vocation of writing to be part of your ‘soul’s purpose’.

None of these qualities are ‘better’ than others, but some of them will rate more highly in your personal worldview. Considering which of them seem most important will help you to choose the most appropriate genre and subject-matter, and the best context in which to work, and to decide how much time and effort you want to devote to marketing as opposed to writing itself. Although you may sometimes be willing to compromise in order to meet the requirements of publishers, readers or employers, your work will not feel completely satisfying unless it is well aligned with your personal values.

Writer’s block

Inspiration tends to come in bursts. There are times when writers are full of ideas, and other times when they have none. This is always frustrating, and for those who earn their living from writing or have publishing deadlines to meet it can be a major problem.

There may be an obvious reason for feeling blocked. I always find myself unable to engage with a new book immediately after finishing the last one, even though I am only really satisfied and happy when I have a writing project underway. I am going through one of these ‘fallow periods’ at present, following the challenge and stimulation of publishing my latest book on Amazon, and am making use of the time to organise and de-clutter the paperwork in my office and the files on my computer.

I have discussed some of the other causes for writer’s block in previous blog posts, for example striving too hard for perfection, being upset by having had your writing criticised or rejected or by adverse experiences in another sphere of life, having too much else to do because of never saying no.

Another possibility is depressed mood. Many writers and other creative people are prone to experience mood swings, due to having the normal variant of personality called ‘cyclothymia’ or less often the serious mental illness of bipolar disorder (formerly ‘manic depression’). During ‘high’ phases, new ideas flow faster than they can be written down; during ‘low’ ones the mind feels sluggish and blank and any thoughts are morbid ones.

Besides dealing with any remediable causes, there are various strategies for overcoming writer’s block. If circumstances permit it can be a good idea to take a complete break from writing and do something else for a day or two or maybe longer. Preferably this will involve activities, people and places which are completely different from those encountered in your usual routine and will provide new ideas. Other forms of creativity, such as painting or dancing, can be particularly helpful.

Or, discipline yourself to keep on writing for a set period each day, but again try doing it with a new approach. Clear the clutter from your desk to encourage a fresh start. Write a short and simple piece instead of attempting the major work on which you are ‘blocked’. Some authorities suggest inducing a relaxed state with deep breathing and slow music and then using your non-dominant hand to write something – anything – which even if it turns out to be nonsense may still stimulate the creative flow. Or try writing late at night or early in the morning, when you are half-asleep and more able to access the reservoir of images and memories in the subconscious  mind.

Getting started again often presents the biggest barrier, and if you can get past that it will usually be much easier to continue.

If you never say ‘No’ …

If you never say ‘no’, what is your ‘yes’ worth? I heard this wise saying from one of my first teachers in the art of holistic healing, and have often passed it on to clients who find it hard to protect themselves against unwelcome demands and intrusions. 


Problems which arise from this inability to set personal boundaries can include neglect of personal needs and desires, tiredness from overwork, and feelings of victimhood, martyrdom or resentment often concealed by a polite facade.


Some people who cannot say ‘No’ to the demands of others hold the belief that being ill is the only valid reason to claim care and attention for themselves. There is even a theory that illness can develop primarily for this reason. Whether or not that is true, such a mindset can certainly prolong recovery. This would happen through unconscious mind-body mechanisms and is not deliberate malingering.


Two key Bach flower remedies to be considered for the ‘yes-person’ are Centaury and Walnut. Centaury is for those so eager to please others that they agree to each and every request. Walnut is for those who are unduly sensitive to outside influences and therefore easily distracted from their chosen path in life. Other flowers might be indicated for the secondary consequences, such as Elm for feeling overburdened with responsibilites, Olive for exhaustion, Willow for self-pity, or Holly for hostility towards others.
Practical aids to setting boundaries include such simple steps as shutting your door or turning off your phone when you do not want interruptions, and limiting the period you are willing to spend on certain activities. You may also need to practice techniques for saying ‘No’ without causing offence, or being worried about doing so. This can be done firmly and politely without having to give detailed reasons or apologies. 
 
 

Retirement – road to freedom

I had a long talk with a friend who is reluctantly having to consider early retirement because of a chronic illness. Hoping to bring some encouragement into this difficult situation I reflected on how my own life has developed since retiring from my career in orthodox medicine in my early 50s – the same age my friend is now.

My decision to retire was made by choice, and largely for positive reasons, and therefore a far less traumatic experience than if it had been enforced by sickness or redundancy. All the same it involved significant change and loss, with big drops in both income and status.

It took time to adjust, and to create a new way of life. My husband and I moved to New Zealand, where most people we met had little knowledge or interest in what we might have achieved career-wise back in the UK. Relationships and activities had to be based on personal qualities, rather than position and qualifications and an existing network.

I extended my studies of holistic healing – discovered the challenges and rewards of being self-employed – returned to choral singing and music lessons after a lapse of 40 years – started writing on a wider range of topics – became more involved with animal welfare – made new friends – had more time for leisure and entertainment – and my fitness and energy improved. Some activities were planned, some presented out of the blue.

I do still miss my old job now and then, and occasionally get the feeling that I ‘ought to be doing something useful’ – though I have learned that there are many valuable ways of contributing to the world besides working directly in a caring profession.

But overall my experience has been positive, and I am glad to have been able to retire while still young enough to start afresh. What I value most is the freedom – being able to do what I choose without being accountable to authority or hampered by bureaucracy – and, by no means least, not having to get up so early in the mornings any more.