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Above the waterline

writer stressI get up at six. It usually takes me about half an hour to come back to earth, from wherever I’ve been wandering at night, so in that time I make myself a cup of coffee and take a stroll through social media.  If this was a writing day, I would then get into work: opening up the document on my laptop, settling myself in for the long haul.  But today is not a real writing day, there are too many chores, so instead I make a list of things to do.

I try to keep my list achievable – there are always many things to do.  I want to write as much as I can, send three emails, print up a document, mail something, get groceries, write a blog post.  I have not added ‘housework’ or ‘garden before everything dies’ or ‘exercise’ or anything like that to the list, of course.  But groceries are essential.  Of the things on my list, only two of them will ultimately get done – the groceries and the mailing.  And I guess I’m writing the blog post now.

After list-making, breakfast.  Scrambled eggs and bacon on toast for four, hurry hurry, please brush teeth before getting in the car.  Someone always forgets to brush their teeth.  Sometimes the someone is me.  School drop off, including whole school assembly, which I attend today because my smallest son told me last week it’s been ages since I’ve come to assembly and he feels like the only kid in his class whose parents never come.  Oh dear.

Home again.  The plasterer is unexpectedly here, to do the tiny bedroom we’ve recently attached to our tiny house for our oldest boy, who’s now fifteen and has shared a bedroom with at least one other brother for almost his entire life.  I make the plasterer a cup of tea, then try to sit and write.  I am on deadline this month.  I do a lot of writing in marginal space – between other tasks and responsibilities.  Sometimes I read back through the stories that’ve emerged from this process with a sense of wonder, as if I’m discovering it all myself for the first time.  I often find it incredible that a cohesive narrative has formed.  It’s like planting a garden with random seeds from unlabelled packets – you watch in Spring as all the flowers come up, like magic.  You’re surprised and delighted to find beauty, and occasionally, order.

But back to the writing: I receive four phone calls, one from a scam trader.  Every time the phone rings, I tense.  It could be the school, asking me to come collect a sick child.  It could be work, calling me in to do an extra shift.  I manage to get some words down.  Not enough.  Lunch – I put on a load of washing.  The plasterer needs more tea.  I should have offered him lunch – I’m neglectful of him.

It’s two p.m.  This day is disappearing fast.  I do two urgent chores that I forgot to put on my list.  I can’t print up anything, because my printer is in stubborn denial of its function – add ‘take printer for repair’ to my next day’s list.  School pick up time, hurry hurry.  I make sure one of my sons gets to his tennis lesson, another to orchestra practise.  I’ve forgotten my youngest son’s bathers for swimming – oh crap.  I turn around and drive home, get the bathers, drive back.  Go to the chemist, the green grocer, drop my son at swimming.  Get chook food.  Pick up from swimming and orchestra, drop off at futsal.  My partner has a physio appointment and can’t make futsal pick up.  I drop two of the boys at home, sit down for a moment.  Breathe.  Then get back in the car, drive back for futsal pick up.  Get groceries.  Come home.

It’s 8 p.m. and I’m moderating an online event to help promote #LoveOzYAbookclub and a friend’s book.  My partner cooks dinner, makes lunches, while I moderate.  I come in just in time to help get everyone off to bed.  The morning in reverse – change into pyjamas, brush teeth, get into bed.  My son wants to talk about his birthday party, which is a week away.  It’s 9 p.m. and I make a coffee, sit down, talk to my partner about plans for tomorrow.  All plans suddenly change at quarter to ten, when I get a call to teach relief at the local high school tomorrow.  I was planning to write all day – alas.

At 10 p.m. I change into track pants and go to work.  I am one of a team of support carers for a local man who is an elderly non-verbal quadriplegic.*  He’s been admitted to hospital with gastro – I go to the hospital, where I find him exhausted, covered in vomit, unable to properly communicate with nursing staff.  With the help of a sympathetic nurse, I get him out of bed, into the shower chair, give him a shower, change him into clean clothes, back into bed, sort out communication issues.  No, he doesn’t want to be woken in the night to be bladder scanned, BP tested.  He just wants to get some rest.  My shift usually finishes at 11.30 p.m., but tonight I don’t leave the hospital until half past twelve.

This is the fourth round trip into town and back for the day – each trip is a distance of forty kilometres, so including extra detours for groceries and what have you, I’ve driven more than one hundred and sixty kilometres today.  This is brought home to me when I nearly hit a kangaroo on the drive back.  All the way home in the car, I’ve wrinkled my nose at the scent of hospital soap on my hands.  It smells like musk sticks.

Now I am here, writing this.

I’m not telling you about all these details of my day to bore you, or invoke pity.  I’m not actually relating anything unusual or out of the ordinary – other writers work demanding day jobs, parent, try to maintain relationships, have responsibilities, extra-curricular activities, aged parents, friends who need support.  They cope with disability, or mental or physical health problems, or they juggle additional commitments.  I know two writers with twins – twins!  Some writer friends have new babies.  I’m in awe of people who keep writing with twins, or a new baby.

People are busy.  I should also say that it’s not just writers – in the world of books, every editor and agent and publishing industry professional I’ve ever met has worked their arse off.  We’re all in this industry because we love literature and words – basically we’re all crazy book people.  And we work hard to bring words onto the page, and books onto shelves, and into readers’ hands.

I recently wrote here about strategies I use to keep myself on an even keel when I’m splitting my focus between the part of me that writes and the part of me that copes in the day to day.  This post is similar – it’s about how to keep writing when you’re under stress.

The topic of stress is a timely one: many arts organisation were devastated recently by funding cuts.  Livelihoods have been lost, artists of all stripes are in pain with this.  The Federal government seems hell-bent on destroying the local literary industry through legislative change on parallel importation and copyright.  How can we stay sane, keep our chins above the waterline, when everything around us is crumbling?  Each blow to the creative industries in this country is a personal blow.  But you have to keep soldiering on – in your own mind you have to remember what you are doing, remind yourself that what you are creating has worth.  You also have to function on a daily basis, and cope with the twenty-four-seven complexities of personal life.

So here are a few things I do when I’m juggling writing and a great deal of extra ‘stuff’.

Sleep.  It’s easier said than done, if you have small children.  But really, if your kids are little, getting rest whenever you can is the most important thing.  If you don’t have children, and you’re under stress, you still need sleep.  I’m bad with this, and I know other people who are too, but I try to discipline myself not to skimp on sleep.  Your creative brain can’t function without it.

Self-care.  Everybody is different with this.  My idea of self-care involves time to myself, some peace and quiet.  Sometimes I like to get a hair-cut.  I try to eat well, and I take vitamins.  I’m sure you know the things you can do for yourself that make you feel nurtured.  It’s actually really important that you carve out time and do them.

writer stress 2Organisation, scheduling and small goals. Get a diary, get a year calendar, make lists.  It may seem an anathema to creative work, but as with any small business, it helps a lot to be organised – even if that organisation is as simple as making a List of Things To Do.  And remember that you don’t have to get everything done today – I split up my list at the start of each week and schedule the jobs on it over the course of Monday-to-Friday.

Scheduling spreads the load and takes a weight off your mind.  It makes you feel as if there are a number of small steps, so not everything is falling on top of you right now.  Each small goal accomplished is a win.  Scheduling blog posts and social media to go up at set times is also incredibly useful. Explore the options by Googling, or if you’re not a tech-savvy person, bribe a friend who is savvy to help you.

Take a break from social media.  It’s not a terrible thing, and no one will hate you for it.  Just post a brief ‘I’m taking a short break until after my deadline (until after this month, until I’m feeling better, until things have settled down…whatever), but I’ll be back soon!’.  And then relax.  The all-go-all-the-time nature of social media can be enough to make you feel overburdened.  It’s okay to give yourself a break from that sometimes.  Nothing will catch on fire, and it will all be there when you come back.

Find a release valve.  Exercising.  Venting to friends/partner/the dog.  Watching TV.  Re-reading books that you love.  Meditating.  I’ve used all these methods before, except meditating.  I find exercising really helpful, but you may find something else helpful.  Find that thing that immediately takes a load off, and do it.

Say no, go slow.  You can do that, y’know – apologise and say you are too busy.  Maybe you’ll feel guilty about it for a whole minute.  But you can’t do everything.  Delegate, if you can, or pass on an opportunity to a colleague or friend.  Repeat the theme-song again: you can’t do everything.  The things that you agree to do – slow down and do them well.

Go outside.  Have you been sitting at your desk all this time?  How many hours is that now?  Okay, I want you to do something after you read this.  Look up from your screen.  Walk outside.  Go for a walk on the street or in the park or in your backyard.  Breathe.  (That’s right – do it right now.  You can come back and read the rest of this later…or not at all.  I don’t mind.)

Art.  I find sometimes that I need pictures, not words.  Sometimes it’s okay to just feel, without worrying about the verbal expression of that feeling.  Music can be good for that, too.

Stop multi-tasking.  We have trained ourselves to think that multi-tasking is the best way, but actually it’s not.  I read something recently that explained how constantly switching between tasks makes your brain slow down, because each switch requires a total recalibration that ultimately makes your brain tired.  So while you feel more efficient, you are actually thirty percent less efficient.  I’m trying (trying) to train myself to multi-task less.

Essential housework only.  Another thing that will still be there when you’re feeling better.  I cook, I do dishes, I sweep, do groceries.  But the last time I mopped or washed windows or scrubbed the bathroom was…a long time ago.  My family copes okay with a bit of mess when I’m stressed/under deadline.  And I live way out in the country – visitors?  What visitors?  To hell with visitors.  I always enjoy that quote, ‘Nobody ever wrote on their tombstone, ‘She always got the housework done’.’

Acknowledge you’re stressed.  Don’t ignore it, or brush it off.  It’s hard, staying the course when you’re incredibly busy or under duress.  Give yourself props for that.  Give yourself a pat on the back.  Acknowledge the hard work you’ve done, are continuing to do.  Have a quiet celebration when you make it through.

Get support.  This isn’t always easy.  It might be that you aren’t in a position to ask family or friends for help.  You might not be able to afford childcare, or house maintenance – I’ve never been able to.  You might not be able to access professional care.  But if you can, do it.  If you are in a position to ask, pluck up your courage and ask.  It might not be a permanent solution, but it might be enough to give you some breathing room.

And your moral support also comes from your community.  Writers and artists exist all around you – we all feel the same fears, face the same challenges.  Don’t be nervous about reaching out to talk, to share coping mechanisms, to ask advice, to vent, to applaud each other, to sympathise.  It’s important that we support each other.  It’s vital.

That’s it, that’s all I’ve got.  I should go – I’m supposed to be writing a book right now J  Have you got more suggestions?  Add them in the comments, please – we should share resources and strategies.


*Postscript: I wrote this blog post in February.  My elderly support client, Danny, who went into hospital, passed away within a week of writing.  Danny was in his seventies, and lived independently as a non-verbal quad for forty years.  A gifted runner before being confined to a wheelchair, his life didn’t come to a standstill after his stroke – he married twice, had three daughters, travelled in a retro-fitted Combi van, went bungee-jumping, had numerous adventures and became a published author.  He was an outspoken old hippie, and an ornery old bugger – and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the privilege to know.  He would be furious about these cuts to the arts community in this country – he would be raging.  I can almost see him now, spelling it out on the Etrans board: ‘Fuck those bastards!  Don’t let them grind you down!  Keep writing!

Vale, Dan.


8 thoughts on “Above the waterline”

  1. Wow! Put like that, what an anazing effort you put in daily. We don’t recognise enough what we do (not that I do as much as you you, but still, it can feel overwhelming but actually, it’s all good). As Danny would have typed, keep writing!

  2. Such a fantastic post, on a day I really needed to read it. Sorry about the loss of your client and friend, but geez I enjoyed reading about his independent and full life too. Thank you.

  3. Louiseann King

    Well said Ellie! Words of wisdom that I’m taking on board right now. Yes – I’m going to bed. X

  4. Thank you, Ellie – so glad Vanessa Carnevale mentioned your post on her podcast! Thanks for all the helpful suggestions and for telling it how it is.

  5. Someone suggested the Vanessa Carnevale podcast to me which lead me to this post and it’s a ripper. Stay at home dad to four boys under 11 speaking. Can relate to the unrelenting daily slog that comes with caring for your family and the desire to still create and pursue a passion. All your tips are great but I fail at most of them. I’m better now at ignoring housework in favour of getting words down and I exercise regularly. But to get my work done each day I follow this plan – late night coffee, fuck sleep.I’m sure it’ll catch up with me one day. Or maybe there’ll be more opportunity for sleep when all the boys are at school. Either way, I’m a much happier person sleep deprived and engaged in a developing story than I am if I’m sleep satiated and aware of a cursor on a blank page winking at me somewhere in the house saying, ‘Still got nothing to say, loser?’

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