A week or so ago, I heard about this post from a member of a listserv I’m on: Twelve Habits of Happy, Healthy People Who Don’t Give a Sh*t about Your Inner Peace (warning: the post contains lots of profanity, so read at your own risk). In it, the author rants about posts like this that tout the behaviors of happy people with long lists of actions and beliefs (and promise that if you do all this stuff, you will be happier, too!).
Full disclosure: I read all those “how-to-be-happier” books from the world of positive psychology. I believe that certain practices lead toward our wellbeing while others don’t. But a few weeks ago, as I was rearranging my office, I stacked all of those books in my closet. I’d gotten tired of having rows and rows of cheerful covers promising me that my life could be richer if I’d only commit to a few dozen practices and beliefs. (In that way, they didn’t feel much different than the ads in stacks of women’s magazines promising me that if only I consumed, wore, or used a specific product, I’d be thinner, prettier, and look much younger!)
Here’s the thing: my life is complicated. I’m guessing yours is, too. At the beginning of the day, these stacks of books and magazines packed with promises of happiness and riches feel like tons of pressure. When things don’t go well—and people, I’m telling you, sometimes they don’t—I have to wonder, what is wrong with me? How come when I do all the right things—meditate, practice gratitude, find flow, be curious, be present—I’m still no closer to selling millions of books or getting my daughter to pick up her dirty socks from the floor? That’s why I put the books in the closet.
So I decided to create my own list—about writing and staying sane. Here they are, the five habits of sane writers:
1. They lower their expectations. I’m trained as a life coach, so I learned all about those big hairy audacious goals in coaching school. When I write my life vision, I repeatedly imagine myself penning a bestselling, award-winning novel for kids in addition to running a thriving business, enjoying a perfect family life, and having the time and energy to run a marathon. My life hasn’t quite turned out that way. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t rich and delightful. Stop confusing good enough and perfect. When it comes to both life and writing, good enough is pretty sweet. Lower your expectations and keep moving forward.
2. They write what they love to write. We all have that writing we are passionate about—and chances are, it does not pay the bills. That’s okay. It pays you. It feeds you at a deep level, in a way that nothing else you do in life does. Stop fretting about what you should be writing to make money and spend a little bit of time each day writing what makes you feel like you are alive.
3. They love what they have to write. And then there’s the writing that pays the bills. (If you don’t write to earn money, think about what you do to make money: edit, babysit, teach, practice law, coach, do therapy, sell, and so forth.) Love it. If you can’t love it, at least lean into it (to borrow Sheryl Sandberg’s term). Be present to the work. Learn from it. It will inform the rest of your writing in ways you cannot yet imagine. (Jeanette Winterson used her difficult childhood experiences as a basis for her novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit long before she penned a memoir about her life.)
4. They don’t compare themselves to other writers. Lately I’ve noticed that I feel pretty good about myself and my work until I hop on Facebook and read the status updates of other writers:
+“Got another contract from my publisher! I rock!”
+“Just wrote 2000 words—my best work ever!”
+“OMG. Famous writer X mentioned me and my book in their blog!”
Then my stomach sinks to the floor, and those inner editor/English teacher/parent voices emerge:
+“What are they doing that you’re not doing?”
+“How come they got a book contract, and you didn’t? You’d better work faster.”
Honestly, comparison just leads to drinking before noon (I’m not even going to talk about the ice cream and chocolate.) Stop it. Stop comparing yourself to anyone. When the people you love share their good news, be happy for them, congratulate them on their blessings, and don’t beat up on yourself. We are each on our own journey, and comparisons are odious (to borrow a line from Shakespeare and others). If the people you know but don’t love promote themselves like this, and you cannot stop comparing yourself—then just hide them from your Facebook and Twitter Feeds or unfriend them. No comparisons, got it?
5. They get out of their heads and into their life. For the most part, writers work alone. We sit all day, head in the clouds or the computer, composing. When we’re not sitting at the computer, we’re thinking about it. How can you take a break or even a vacation when you’re always paying attention? What if we miss the muse when she stops by with that bestselling idea? Then Anne Lamott or Stephen King will get that great idea and we’ll be stuck in writing obscurity forever! Writers, if you’re going to stay sane, you need to leave your desk and interact with real people and things. Go cut vegetables. Weed the garden. (Better yet, weed my garden!) Have coffee with friends. Play with a two year old. Clean the toilet. Just step away from the desk and jump into something physical! (Don’t worry, the muse will find you there.)
That’s it. My advice on staying sane as a writer. Now it’s your turn. How do you remain sane as a writer?