Thursday, June 20, 2019

Stress and the Writer: To All Things a Season

By Jana Oliver, @crazyauthorgirl

Part of The Writer's Life Series

JH: Stress is a part of life, but it can be particularly hard on writers, sapping our creativity and making it impossible to do our jobs. Jana Oliver returns to the lecture hall today to share her story and offer tips on what to do when stress keeps you from writing.

Jana Oliver is an international bestseller and a multi award-winning author who’s chronicled Atlanta’s demon invasion and Victorian London’s meddling time travelers. When writing as Chandler Steele, she’s penned gritty stories about domestic terrorism, white collar crime and the Russian mafia.

Jana now lives in Portugal, savoring the slow life, where there is always a small cafĂ© and a bottle of wine at hand. 

Take it away Jana...

Jana Oliver
There have been many articles written about stress and how it affects your ability to put words to page. In fact, I wrote a post about that topic for this blog back in April 2017 before our Big Move. Now it’s time to report what happened after that move, and how it affected my writing career.

Stress can come from many directions

Family issues, work issues, even those related to your publishing career, a major pressure point no matter if you’re traditionally or indie published. Reaction to stress is as unique as each of us. Some of us seem to sail along no matter what only to hit the wall over something that appears quite minor. Or in more colloquial terms, “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Some of us get hit hard and fall apart.

Major life events affect our creativity in ways we authors can’t always understand. A death of a close family member, a dear friend, loss of job, home, catastrophic illness, finances, all take up space in our minds. Add in social media’s minute-by-minute reporting of international and national events, plus the toxic political climate and even a casual trip to Facebook or Twitter can ratchet up your stress hormones.

No one should be surprised that something as common as selling your house and moving to somewhere new might peg the stress meter. Except, in my case, there was not only a house sale that involved liquidating 99.9% of our earthly possessions, but we moved to a different country. What began as a ten-month ordeal to prepare ourselves for the relocation to Portugal ended up tearing a planet-sized hole out of my creativity. By the time I landed in Porto, our new home, I was exhausted both mentally and physically.

At this point you might be saying “But I’m not crazy enough to do anything like that.” Maybe not, but you may be caring for a parent with dementia or trying to raise a child who is autistic or acts out in dangerous ways. Perhaps someone at work has decided to make your life miserable, or a reader has attacked your latest book online. Maybe your book sales have suddenly tanked for no reason you can identify. All of these are major life stressors.

Clues that something isn't right

For me, the first clue that something wasn’t right was when the VIMH (voices in my head) had taken vows of silence. There was nary a peep. For someone who has always had that endless chatter in the background, the silence was truly unnerving. I figured that once I recovered from the culture shock of a new country, a new language, the stories would flow again.

I was wrong. I was able to finish Valiant Light, the final book in my Demon Trappers series, because it’d been written before the move so it was just down to editing and publication. But new stories were not forthcoming. Occasionally there’d be a whisper of those voices, but they’d either close right down or circle over the same story, over and over, like a broken record.

Sigh ...

Did those voices come back to life? Eventually, but never at the full intensity that they had in the past. In short, something has fundamentally changed. Where I like telling stories, I’m not driven to do so anymore. Now I write because I’d like to, not because I’m compelled to. To be honest, if I never wrote another book I’d be fine, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago when a considerable portion of my self-worth was deeply entwined with my writing career. After twenty books, that’s not the case any longer.

(Here's more on The Hidden Risks of Emotional Burnouts in Writing)

Stress can change everything

This laissez faire change immediately sparked a ton of writer guilt, followed by a lengthy examination as to what I owe my readers. Let’s be honest, I owe my readers so much—they're part of the reason we were able to move to Europe and live in this wonderful country—but I do not owe them my mental health.

This candid admission might seem like heresy, but I have accepted my new reality. I spent nineteen years writing like a person possessed, working very long hours that required twice monthly visits to a sports massage therapist to unknot my muscles so I wasn’t crippled, plus regular visits to a chiropractor. I attended countless conventions and conferences, traveling all over the globe. My life was my writing career and there wasn’t a moment of the day when I wasn’t immersed in it. I missed a lot of life because I HAD to write.

Now I write when I’m eager to do so. As I’m indie published, I sent my own schedule, and I’m fine with that. My readers would love me to continue to publish two or three books a year, but that’s not where my heart is at the moment. Curiously, though my word count is much, much lower, the results are considerably better. Each scene has been thought out and the words. Those sentences require considerably less editing than before and I honestly believe my writing is of a better quality than before. There is a definite upside to not writing fast and furious.

Learning from the stress of others

Why should you care about my change of heart? Because none of us are automatons. We are driven to write our stories for a myriad of personal reasons and sometime during our careers we’ll find our focus is elsewhere. Or nowhere. This shift in attention is just a side trip on the long writing road. Sometimes you have to exit down the off-ramp and do something else to regain your mojo.

Authors apply the most intense pressure to ourselves, driving hard to create the best stories possible (as one should), while often forgetting that the mind could do with a bit of a breather. This idea of taking time off and re-charging is the antithesis of modern publishing’s push for more, more, faster, faster, faster. Remember “back in the day” where writing only one book a year was exactly what the publishers wanted? In fact, they strongly discouraged a quicker publishing schedule. Now, the pressure can be insane.

Deep down, we’re not publishing machines, only people with truly ingenious minds. Sometimes our minds need a time-out.

(Here's more on Can You Be a Writeaholic?)

Getting back to writing after a stressful period in your life

I finally began writing again on a truly fun project, a Demon Trappers’ short story for a charity anthology, and I enjoyed every minute of it. After a move to a new apartment, this one quite bright and airy, the words began to ping into my brain with more regularity. I write when I feel the need, sometimes going days without a word appearing on the screen. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you find yourself with those silent voices, or too stressed to even think, here’s a few suggestions:

1. Give yourself permission to heal because stress wears on you just like a chronic illness. Your physical and mental health is vitally important.

2. Find what “sparks joy” as life organization guru Marie Kondo would say. One writer I know volunteers at an animal shelter as her way of refreshing her soul while helping others. Find your joy and do it.

3. Attend a writer’s conference, go on a writer’s retreat. Don’t want to hang with people? How about a one-person writing retreat? There’s no harm in being a creative hermit in some charming cabin where your only company are chattering squirrels and nosy deer.

4. Change up your daily routine. No one likes being in a rut. In fact, you might not even notice you’re in one until someone points it out.

5. Join a book club and talk about other peoples’ books for a change. Socializing over your favorite topic is a great way to gain some recharging time.

In short, Do Something DIFFERENT.

Once your brain has had time to power down and recharge, the words will return. They might not be at the same speed as before, but that’s okay because you’re still writing. Nothing in this life remains the same, and that’s no different when it comes to your ability to craft stories. Most of all, you should be enjoying the writing process, because that’s what makes this gift so incredibly special.

About Cat's Paw

After five years in a Louisiana prison, Alex Parkin desperately wants to start over. Even more, he craves revenge against Vladimir Buryshkin, the New Orleans drug lord who framed him for cocaine possession. The second he walks out of prison, Alex is a wanted man, both by the Russian mob, and by Veritas, a private security firm that claims to be "on his side." When his sister is brutally beaten, he has to choose: Join forces with Veritas, or let Buryshkin destroy his family.

Because of the Russian mobster, Morgan Blake lost both her husband, and her career at the FBI. Now working with Veritas, she's eager to take Buryshkin down. So eager, she's willing to do anything to make that happen, even sacrificing a certain ex-con, if needed.

As a load of tainted cocaine hits New Orleans' streets, the body count quickly rises. To prevent more deaths, and a potential drug war, Morgan and Alex must learn that revenge comes at too high a price, and that love always has its own agenda.

Amazon Barnes & Noble | iTunes Indie Bound | Kobo | GooglePlay

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