Self Care During Hurry-Up-and-Wait

The boom and bust emotional roller coaster of the writing life

Today’s question: Talk to me about author self care! It’s such a weird industry we’re in. It’s all about months and months of waiting while our books are being passed around NYC and are being judged and ripped apart by strangers...and then it could all end in heartache or there may be good news, and then it’s a sudden whirlwind of calls and excitement! And then...then it dies down again. You write the next book and wait and wait and wait and honestly, it’s not the best thing for your sanity! *twitches* I can’t even begin to tell you how much sleep I’ve lost over it. How do you deal? Tell me your techniques for calming yourself down enough to get some effing rest!

Uff, you’re right. Not the best thing for our sanity, indeed.

I’m a bit luckier in the sense that I came from movie work, where if you don’t figure out how to leave an audition “in the room” — as in, stop obsessing about it the moment you walk out the door — it’s hard to survive. But that still only prepared me partway for the idiosyncrasies of writing life.

Here are some of the things I do to help what you’re talking about:

Have things in your life that aren’t writing.

I’ve talked about this before, and I’m sure I will again. Life is so, so much better for me when I have other things in my life, other things that are important to me and that can help ground me. Whether your additional emotional investment is in hobbies, family, day job, volunteer work, or something else, I recommend it — it can really help even out the roller coaster of writing.

It also helps me see book deals and career disappointments as not being a be-all end-all, making otherwise large blows into smaller bumps in a long road.

Have other projects in your writing life that aren’t the current one.

Similar to the above, when one project is sucking up all the oxygen for me, it really helps to have something completely unrelated I’m working on — even if it’s just a short story. Now, this needs adaptability, because if I’m working on another long-form project I have to drop it as soon as, say, new copyedits come in. But it smooths things for me emotionally, and even if I draft through manuscripts more slowly when I’ve got other books going, they do eventually get done.

This doesn’t work for everyone; everyone has different ways of focusing. But it’s something that helps me!

Share the highs and lows.

I find this gets harder as my career progresses. But sharing the ups and downs with your writing communities — or even just one other writer friend — can really help. Nobody understands the emotional swings of this career like another writer.

Temper expectations — at least to the degree that it helps you — and leave it “in the room” when you can.

Some people actually do want to stake out the right to enjoy high expectations when that’s possible — they don’t like being cheated of that. And if that’s okay for you, go for it! Me, I find it easier if I stay on a more even keel.

In movies, we sort of gained an understanding that until a job actually happened, it could disappear. It’s a bit jaded, but I find it works for me not to get worked up even when things look exciting. I let my friends and family do that for me.

And it really helps with the hurry-up-and-wait cycle, because I stay pretty staid whether the emails are flying or whether I’m in between rush points.

On the other hand, that can purposely suck some of the joy out of what is a very difficult career. Choose what’s right for you.

Find ways to celebrate the highs — or the lows.

On the flip side, I know some people who really like finding a way to celebrate when solidly good news comes down the pipe. Letting yourself buy something special, or treating yourself in a way you wouldn’t usually, can help highlight the highs. And there’s a twist to this that can help in the other direction, which is celebrating the lows — giving yourself some amount of reward for a rejection or a loss, either instead of or in addition to doing it on the wins. Rewards for losses can be a way of celebrating that you’re still moving forward, still in the game.

Of course, this doesn’t help with the times that are dead silent, as you asked about. And for me, it makes the roller coaster a bit worse, so I tend to follow the section before this instead. But it’s a thing you can try and see if it helps.

Try to stay ahead of your deadlines enough for a sudden rush.

The sudden rushes in a writing career are all too true. Drop everything to meet this deadline! There’s a sudden opportunity to pitch a thing for film! We need a response on this question yesterday! Sometimes we can negotiate on these, but either way it can be a lot of pressure.

This is more of a logistical thing, but I find it helps overall if I can stay ahead on my deadlines as much as possible. That way, when something sudden drops and I have to juggle both time and emotions, I have both available.

Finally, take a breath and remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Saying that is a cliche, maybe, but it helps me to keep the perspective that no single phone call, no single request, likely no single book deal is going to make or break the whole of my career. Most creative careers are less of a “break in” moment and more of a small series of victories that slowly claw up the hill, each building on the last. Conversely, each setback is usually a much smaller slide than it feels like at the time.

I’m totally sympathetic to the feeling that this moment, this potential leap forward, is possibly enormous and I don’t want to screw it up. But each time, win or lose, once I’ve moved a little bit past that point, my perspective is usually a lot closer to seeing it as a single additional step in the road. For both good and ill: it’s a bit daunting to realize that even the first book deal is only the first step, but I also find it reassuring that when I lose out on a thing, I can still keep building up smaller bricks and moving forward.

Try to find both the system of emotional investment and the level of perspective that works for you to navigate this boom and bust. You might like riding the highs enough to keep some of them… or you might decide, like me, to forcibly step back a little. Either way, there’s probably still going to be some roughness to the ride, unfortunately. I hope it’s at least comforting that you’ve got lots of company, and we can all support each other through it.