The problem with working by yourself, for yourself, all alone with yourself—and in a job that amounts to siphoning off measured and calibrated doses of your most inner being and most complicated feelings and distilling them to make delicious cocktails for people—is that you can start to get a little weird up in there. It is so profoundly easy for creative freelancers to develop weird, self-destructive habits that it’s kind of a running joke among us how bad we all are at self-care*.
By bad habits, I don’t just mean picking one’s nose, or eating too many Cheetos (R), or day drinking in one’s pajamas. I mean bad professional habits.
Such as overscheduling yourself, not taking breaks, procrastinating, and doing other things that are destructive to one’s health, productivity, and creativity.
I've realized that it really bothers me when fellow writers say things like "I only wrote a thousand words today." Because it makes me feel bad about my own productivity, no matter what that productivity is. Either I wrote more, and I feel guilty—or I wrote less, and I feel like I really blew it.
Measuring one’s self against the internet rarely turns out well. Unless you’re reading dub one-star reviews of your favorite book to make yourself feel better about the dumb one-star reviews of your own book, because obviously some people failed reading comprehension and don’t know it. (This works until you start getting angry on behalf of Watership Down, because it deserves so much better than “There are no boating accidents in this novel, if I could give it zero stars I would.**)
The thing is, a thousand good words a day is a pretty good rate. But it’s hard to remember that when everybody around you is engaged in wordcount escalation, or the deadlines and the sewer bill are looming. And the worse we feel about our work, the more likely we are to avoid it. Or to throw ourselves into it in long, compulsive bursts that don’t actually increase your productivity: they just exhaust us and don’t leave room for recovery.
Writing is a self-exhaustive act. Creation comes from somewhere, and one of the places it comes from is getting the hell away from the screen. Having a life experience or two. Going for a walk and seeing a bird. Getting away from narrative.
And cod knows I am as guilty as anybody--or I used to be, anyway--but I am trying to be kinder to myself and my friends and do better. To set a good example and also to take better care of myself.
One thing I’ve had to shift was the idea that I should use all my downtime productively. I used to listen to audiobooks while running and on all my drives, and then I realized that I was filling up my downtime with other people’s stories and not giving my brain time to find its own stories. Now I try to listen to music more often, and make space for free associating to happen and my subconscious to work its magic in constructing narratives and having epiphanies.
We also sometimes link our work to destructive habits: smoking, drinking, avoidance behavior such as playing a few hands of solitaire before we work. One thing that’s been super helpful for me is to reward myself after I work, not before.
If I go for a run, I get a glass of chocolate milk when I get back. If I write a page, I get to click a button in Habitica. If I write at all, I get a sticker in my planner. (It’s amazing how much work human beings are willing to do for cheery stickers. Your kindergarten teacher was not wrong.)
We’re all lousy at self-discipline, and executive function seems to be ablative, so it’s a good idea to set yourself up to win. Go ahead and use that blocker to keep you off twitter for a couple of hours. Hell, block your email, too.
I do it.
Some days, it’s the only way I manage to get any writing done.
*and I don’t mean the kind of self-care that involves binging netflix from under a pint of ice cream with Fritos crumbled on top. That, we excel at.
**actually, there is at least one boating accident in Watership Down. Nothing sinks, though.