“Wellbeing for Writers” revisited

Five years ago I wrote a short ebook called Wellbeing for Writers, based on my experience of having writers as clients in my life coaching and Bach flower practice, and on the rewards and challenges of my own writing career. It contains practical tips about technical and commercial aspects for those new to the field, but is mainly focused on psychological ones that may also be relevant for experienced authors. Why do you write, and is it primarily for yourself or for your readers? How to protect time for writing when working from home with family responsibilities? How to respond to rejection and criticism? How to overcome a phobia of marketing? How to avoid the physical and mental health problems that particularly affect writers? What personal qualities and values are relevant to fulfilment and success?

Wellbeing for Writers had sales and positive reviews to begin with, but then lapsed into obscurity like so many of the other books on Amazon (according to one unofficial estimate, there are over 48 million of them now). I had more or less forgotten about it myself until an email inquiry prompted me to read it again and make a few updates.

Revising an older book can be a rather tedious task and is often neglected, though with non-fiction topics for which new knowledge and information frequently become available, it really ought to be done every few years. The content of Wellbeing for Writers required little change apart from a few corrections. Some of the website links had become invalid and, to my embarrassment, I found that Virginia Woolf’s name had been wrongly spelled in the original version.

Wellbeing for Writers by Jennifer Barraclough, ASIN B00YWEK97Y, is available from your local Amazon store in Kindle format (if you don’t have a Kindle you can read it with the Kindle App on another device).

Stoicism for writers and healers

I’ve been reading some basic books about Stoic philosophy, which originated in Ancient Greece and Rome, and describes a path to a good and happy life lived in harmony with others and with nature. It has much in common with other systems and many of the ideas were already familiar to me from Buddhism, Christianity and modern psychological therapies, but it is refreshing to have them presented in clear practical terms. Here are a few thoughts from a novice student of Stoicism.

One of the principles stated by Epictetus (50-135 AD) resonates strongly with me. He wrote that “some things are up to us and some things are not up to us”, so it follows that we are well advised to focus only on what is within our control – which includes very little except our own judgements and behaviours. This may sound simple and obvious (and the “serenity prayer” of St Francis, which I have heard so many times, says something similar) and yet I am certainly not alone in having wasted much futile effort and distress over things which I have no power to change. Applying this principle would avoid many of the hassles of daily life, such as frustration in a traffic jam or irritation with an untidy workmate. It is also relevant to both the two fields – writing and medicine – in which I have spent my career.

As a writer it is up to me to make my books “the best they can be”, to choose whether to submit them to traditional publishers or to publish independently, and decide how much time and money to spend on marketing. But whether people want to buy my books, and whether readers like them, is not up to me. So there is no point in getting upset over rejection letters, lack of sales or negative reviews – in theory. In practice, overcoming the desire for external validation and becoming more tolerant of criticism requires mental discipline and training.

Turning to the medical field, again there is a dichotomy between what is “up to us” and what is not in relation to physical health. We can make choices about many aspects of our lifestyle and behaviour, such as diet and exercise, in the hope of preventing or recovering from disease. But there is no guarantee that our efforts will be successful, and nor can we change some of the other factors such as our genetic susceptibilities, exposure to pathogens in the environment, the inevitable deterioration of our bodies as they age. The dichotomy between what we can or cannot control is not always acknowledged. Some put all their faith in external treatments with drugs and surgery, and ignore what patients can do to help themselves. Others advocate total personal responsibility for health, and risk making patients feel guilty for being ill. Both extremes are potentially dangerous.

There is of course much more to Stoic philosophy than this and, having enrolled in the annual online event Stoic Week which is about to start, perhaps I will write more blog post(s) on this subject.

Beating post-publication blues

One of the sections in my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers draws some fanciful parallels between writing a book and having a baby. There may be feelings of depression following publication (“birth”), and a time interval before being able to conceive another book (“child”).

Some writers manage to avoid such problems by keeping two or more books in different stages of completion on the go at any one time. I have never managed this myself, preferring to focus all my energies on a single project. I felt quite euphoric after my latest novel You Yet Shall Die had been published and received positive reviews. But my mood slumped after the initial peak of sales had subsided, because I did not have another novel in mind.

However, knowing that the best remedy for post-publication blues is to keep writing, I asked my husband Brian if I could edit some of his autobiographical essays and collate them into a memoir. So that is what I am working on now. Brian grew up during the 1930s in what was then a downmarket seaside settlement on Auckland’s North Shore. His ambition to become a doctor was inspired by an inpatient stay in a tuberculosis unit when he was 18. He graduated from the University of Otago, and having decided to specialise in mental disorders, obtained a training post at the Maudsley Hospital in London. During his three years there he worked for some of the most eminent psychiatrists of the day, and had experiences ranging from daily psychoanalysis to taking LSD. After leaving the Maudsley, Brian joined the Medical Research Council’s unit in Chichester, to study the clinical and epidemiological aspects of suicide.

Another remedy for the post-publication blues is to take a break from writing and do something completely different. Outdoor activities here in Auckland are a pleasure now that spring has arrived; the flowers are in bloom, and it is (just) warm enough to swim.

marigolds

Writing as therapy

Anyone who ever kept a secret diary as a teenager, or indeed in later life, can attest to the cathartic and healing effects of putting distress into words. Research studies have shown that “expressive writing”, as described below, can be of benefit to patients with a wide range of medical and psychiatric conditions.

Most published autobiographies include some account of the more upsetting aspects of their subjects’ lives. The authors of so-called “misery memoirs” carry this to an extreme, taking the adversity they have suffered – for example being abused by parents or partners, suffering illness or injury, or born into a disadvantaged minority group – as their main theme. Some books in this class are authentic and moving, have an educational function and even help to bring about social change. Some are so full of self-pity as to make their readers cringe, and might have been better left unpublished. Some distort the truth for dramatic effect, and a few have been exposed as entirely fraudulent.

Many writers of fiction draw on the more challenging aspects of their own life experience for their plots and themes – whether directly or indirectly, and whether consciously or not. This is certainly true of myself though I hope that readers of my latest novel Overdose – a tragicomedy about the misadventures of a lovesick psychiatrist – will not take it as literally autobiographical.

Besides including fictionalised versions of real events, novelists may use writing as a means of expressing their “shadow side” – perhaps this would explain why so many highly respectable middle-aged women are good at writing murder mysteries.

For the record, here is a brief description of the usual methodology for the expressive writing research. Patients in the study group are asked to write either by hand or on a computer every day for 3 – 5 days, for 15-20 minutes per session, about the most traumatic experience or emotional issue that has affected their lives. This does not have to be directly related to the medical or psychiatric condition they are suffering from. They are advised to write as freely as possible, without regard for spelling or grammar. Patients in the control group are asked to write for the same amount of time, but about some factual objective topic. The material is confidential and need not be shown to the researchers. Some subjects choose to destroy what they have written.

Like any other therapy, this technique does not suit everyone, and responses vary widely. In the main, studies report that those who did the expressive writing, compared to the controls, became more distressed immediately afterwards and that their physical symptoms sometimes temporarily worsened. But in the longer term they reported improved health, mood, and social function. Many of them said that the expressive writing, though upsetting at the time, had been valuable and meaningful.

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.

cover-w4w

 

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.

 

 

Marinading a manuscript

When writing a new book I often feel impatient to finish it. There is really no need for this, considering that I enjoy the actual process of writing so much, and know that I am likely to feel a depressing sense of anticlimax when it is done. Melodramatic though it sounds, perhaps I am afraid I might die before the book is complete.

Modern self-publishing technology makes it easy to rush into print too soon. The front page of the Amazon kdp website says Get to market fast … Publishing takes less than 5 minutes. What a contrast to the old days when writers usually had to wait several months for agents and publishers to respond to a proposal, implement any changes requested during the assessment process, and then wait several more months between acceptance and publication.

I try not to be impatient because I know most books turn out better if they are written slowly, going through several revisions with gaps in between. When re-reading a draft manuscript after several weeks or months, I often have new ideas about how to improve it, and discover mistakes or inconsistencies which I did not notice before.

Though this slow staged method works best in most cases, it does not suit everyone. Some of the most brilliant writers – and artists, and composers – have produced their best work through a single burst of creative inspiration, not needing to revise it at all.

This is all a bit like cooking. A skilled chef using top quality fresh ingredients can produce delicious meals in a few minutes, but for the average cook most dishes are improved by being marinaded in the raw state and then being cooked slowly, and taste even better if reheated a day or two later.

I’ve just finished the first draft of my third novella, which will form a trilogy with Carmen’s Roses and Blue Moon for Bombers. I intend to discipline myself to put the new manuscript aside for a few weeks before doing any more work on it, and in the meantime start writing something different, step up my marketing activities, or even clean out some cupboards at home.

“Letting go of the outcome” for writers

My earlier books were published in the traditional way. My own role was limited to writing the text and checking the proofs. I knew nothing about marketing, and was content to wait for the royalty cheques to arrive once or twice a year. Those early books sold well anyway, because they had a ready-made market in medical circles.

How different things are today, when the ease of independent publishing has resulted in a vast number of new books. Even traditional publishing firms now expect authors to promote their own work. While some books still achieve high sales, the majority sell only a few copies. Self-published writers are bombarded with advice on marketing and many spend huge time and effort, and sometimes a great deal of money, practising the recommended strategies with only modest success. They often become frustrated; feeling uncomfortable with the concept of self-promotion, resenting the time and energy spent on marketing instead of actual writing, unable to resist obsessionally checking their sales figures online.

Maybe it would be better to follow the advice of the spiritual gurus and self-help experts who teach about the Law of Attraction. These principles, of course, apply in all aspects of life besides writing. In summary: Do what you love, focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want, visualise the desired results, and cultivate the positive emotions you would feel if they had already materialised. Take practical steps when required, but don’t struggle to achieve your goals. If you intuitively feel you are on the right path don’t be diverted by outside criticism, by your need for approval, or by your hope of financial reward. Instead of trying to control the exact nature and timing of the outcome by conscious effort, do your own part as best you can, and then hand the process over to the wisdom of the unseen forces which you may choose to call Spirit, the Universe, Fate, or God.

These powers work in mysterious ways. Many times in my own life, I have found that the result of actions I have taken is different from what I had expected or hoped for – and even if disappointing in the short term, it has often turned out for the best later on. Having the publishing contract for Persons not Diseases fall through at the last minute was the temporary setback which gave me the stimulus to explore the new world of  indie publishing. Conversely, sometimes the desired outcome does materialise but in unexpected ways. Last week I sold several books not as a result of deliberate marketing, but through chatting to some people at a party, and through writing a blog post about cats.

As regards timing, we may want and expect quick results, but with modern publishing technology – ebooks, and print on demand paperbacks – books can easily be updated and need never go out of print. Some of those which did not do well after their first release will go on to become late bloomers. But even those which never sell many copies will have been worthwhile if their authors benefited from the process of writing them, and just a few people benefited from reading them. After all, with rare exceptions, authors never hear from the readers whose lives have been touched by their books.

Trust in the Law of Attraction needs to be balanced with practical action. I have recently set up a Mailchimp newsletter which will come out just two or three times a year with details of any new books I have written, or any special offers. If you would like to sign up to receive it, please click on the link http://eepurl.com/325yj or paste it into your browser.

 

Writing a book is like having a baby

Although I am childless myself, I do realise that having a baby is a vastly more significant experience than writing a book. But it seems to me there are many parallels between the two processes, so I hope nobody will be offended by this light-hearted comparison between them.

The time it takes to write a book can vary from weeks to years, but I have heard that the average is about nine months – the same as a full-term pregnancy – though it is usually impossible to tell exactly when it began.

Just as many pregnancies never reach full term, many manuscripts are abandoned for various reasons before they are finished. Some come to a premature end, their writers so impatient to see them in print that they submit them for publication before they are fully formed, and usually have them rejected. Others become overdue because they are continually being revised in the quest for perfection.

Publication day, though hopefully less painful than labour, is  almost as exciting as giving birth!

Good care for mothers and babies both before and after the birth is important, and the same is true for writers and their books. Writers need to avoid the physical and mental health hazards associated with their occupation. And even if they do not enjoy marketing, they need to look after their published book if they want it to flourish.

Post-natal depression, linked to both hormonal and social changes, is fairly common among mothers who have recently given birth. And some writers feel low after finishing a book, though for different reasons. There is a sense of anticlimax and, in my own experience, the best treatment is starting to write another one.

However, inspiration does not come to order, and the equivalent of infertility is writer’s block.

Some people can cope perfectly well with having large families, but others produce more children than they can look after properly. Similarly, while some authors have enough talent and energy to be able to write a whole series of good quality books, others keep churning out new ones even though they have run out of original plots, settings and characters and become careless about composing their prose.

Lastly, just as the child eventually develops its own personality, becomes independent and in the natural course of events will survive longer than its parents, there comes a point when a book takes on a life of its own. You cannot predict or control the outcome but, just as your children will perpetuate some of your genes, your books will form part of your legacy.

 

 

 

Bach flower remedies for writers

The Bach flower remedies are intended for self-help at times of emotional imbalance or life stress. Although their mode of action is not understood, and sceptics claim that they are ‘only’ placebos, they have gained world-wide popularity since being discovered in the 1930s by a British doctor, Edward Bach. There are 38 individual flower essences in the system, five of which are included in the well-known Rescue Remedy for use in crisis.

Having trained as a Bach flower practitioner myself, and run a client practice for several years, I have been impressed with how well most people respond to this safe and pleasant form of therapy. I have written a number of posts about them on my other WordPress blog, and a short ebook on Smashwords. Fuller information can be found on the Bach Centre website.

Four (fictional) case vignettes illustrating how these remedies might be helpful for writers are presented below. These are of course just simplistic examples; each writer has a unique personality and circumstances and is subject to the same challenges in life as anyone else. Remedies should always be selected on an individual basis according to the person’s current state of mind.

‘Lyn’ is a housewife and mother and freelance journalist who works from home. She is very efficient, but has difficulty in finding time and space for writing amid the demands and distractions of domestic life. Walnut to help her focus on her work despite what is happening around her; Centaury to be able to say ‘no’ when family members make unreasonable requests; and Elm to relieve her sense of being overburdened with responsibility.

‘Peter’ is determined to publish an influential book about improving healthcare for disadvantaged groups. After getting home from his full-time job he spends several hours writing and gets to bed very late, but his mind is so active that he cannot get to sleep. He is also feeling despondent and frustrated after having early drafts rejected by several agents. Vervain to help him relax and to moderate his over-enthusiasm for good causes; White Chestnut to calm his repetitive thoughts; Impatiens to curb his hastiness in submitting manuscripts before they are finished; and Gentian for his disappointment.

‘Sandra’ dreams of becoming a famous author, and has lots of different ideas for novels, but has not actually done much writing and often feels tired and unmotivated when she sits down at her desk to make a start. Clematis for becoming more grounded and putting ideas into practice; Hornbeam for the ‘Monday morning feeling’.

‘Matt’ has spent ten years on his first novel, making continually revisions but never quite feeling satisfied that it is good enough. Besides having doubts about the quality of his writing, he feels anxious about having his work read by other people, and about various aspects of publication and marketing. Larch to boost his confidence in his abilities; Mimulus for his shyness and understandable fears; and Rock Water for his perfectionist nature.

I would be interested in comments from anyone who has used the Bach flower remedies to assist with their writing, or any other creative process.