Creating a healthy writing practice when your health doesn’t want to cooperate.

creating a healthy writing practice when your health doesn't want to cooperate

Listen to me read the below here:


Anytime I express the old singsong of productivity anxiety, I’m usually reminded by friends and family that I’m the same person who had the gumption, drive, and persistence to have written and published The Border of Paradise–to which my immediate response is to say (or at least to think, privately, in my Private Thoughts) that I wrote my debut novel when I was reasonably healthy, and I’m not healthy anymore. It doesn’t take away from my pride in Border, but it does fill me with fear about whether or not I’ll be able to write another book, let alone a better one.

border of paradise in bookstore

I’ve written in this Journal before about what my writing life was like before I got sick–pressured, coffee-and-booze-filled, and unhealthy–and in the last month, once I began to commit myself to beginning a new book, I’ve found myself needing to create my process from scratch. Most days, I can’t write for more than thirty minutes; on a good day, I’ve got an hour at best before my body and brain begin to fade. I had C move my desktop computer, a gift to myself and a former point of pride in my office, to a nook in the living room because it’s been too hard to sit upright at a desk. I’m happy that he’s able to take over use of what was formerly “my” computer, but these limits and boundaries are frustrating, and I resent them. On my worst days, I want to give up altogether.

In the end, though, that’s not who I am. While fighting despair is an ongoing struggle, I’m also a highly stubborn individual, and so I’ve been experimenting with workarounds. To do so, I’ve been looking at my challenges and needs element by element, figuring out alternatives, and practicing in order to become more adroit with whatever strategy I’ve devised.

books and journals in bed

An example: I often can’t sit upright, which makes using a desktop or laptop exhausting and unsustainable, if not impossible. What I do have is an iPhone, though, and the Drafts 4 app. I’m currently writing this while lying on my side in bed, tapping the words out with my index finger, because the iPhone 6 is light enough to hold with my other hand. All of this is still draining, but the drain on my resources is a slow drip rather than a tap turned on high. I can’t write for hours, either, so I write until I sense my body’s weakness encroaching on my edges, and then I stop.

I’ve also become more accustomed to breaking up my work. Instead of writing a 1500-word essay draft in one or two big sessions, I end up writing a paragraph per day, or a few paragraphs with time in between; if I’m feeling especially tops on any particular day, I’m still happy to write as much as I can. The other day, I wrote 1000 words in one setting and almost threw a party for myself. It would have been a very small, sedate party, but I’m happy to take what I can. If developing a chronic illness has taught me anything, it’s been the sandwich board of TERRORIZE THE PLANET WITH MY GENIUS* and I’LL TAKE WHAT I CAN.





*A paraphrase of something my friend Mensah Demary once tweeted.

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  • I’m in awe of all you’re able to do, and I’m telling myself that I need to do more and better, but the truth in your writing is that some – many – days, I’m subservient to my body’s needs, and I can’t get around that. Being gentle to myself, not being hard on myself for not being able to do what I want, those are the important things. Thank you for continuing to write. I’m going to keep looking back at what you write and take it to heart, and give myself a break.

  • Hey Esme

    I have been reading your work for ages, but not actually commented before.

    Access to Work (I can’t remember if you are British or American – it’s British) have just paid for me to get Dragon speaking software, so it is a proper voice recognition thing.

    If you are british it is worth contacting Access to Work to see if they can help. I’m happy to chat to you about it. They are totally free to get their help!

    I’m hoping this means I will be able to do my creative writing even when I’m flat out in bed!

  • It is always difficult to find a balance between what we “want” to do/accomplish and what our bodies will reasonably permit us to do. I have struggled this year to maintain my writing time while recuperating from an injury. In addition, my writing time evaporated when my personal care needs increased. I’m still trying to find a balance. I am glad you have found a technique which helps. Have you tried dictation software? I use voice to text programs occasionally but it’s not the same.

    • I have used dictation software, but as you said, it’s not the same. I hope you find a way that works for you—recovering from an injury is hard work, and it’s frustrating to not be able to do everything we’d like. x

  • This resonated so much for me, Esmé. I came down with M.E./CFS when I was 28, and even now, 12 years and 6 published novels later, I still get overwhelmed sometimes with frustration at the fact that I *can’t* just push myself through drafts in the way I could before – both physically and mentally, I *can’t* burn through whole days with writing anymore no matter how much I want to.

    FWIW, though, the books I *have* written and had published have made me happy, even if they aren’t coming at exactly the speed I would prefer. I absolutely know that yours will too. Workarounds are awesome! And I love your sandwich board.

    This is also a very belated thank you for your wonderful essay about productivity and chronic illness in Elle, which I’ve re-read many times, and which has helped me every time. *Thank you!*