Lessons and Good Habits for Writing (and Living) Well

Recently my DIY MFA colleague and writing friend Leanne Sowul launched a “Be Well, Write Well” interview series at her DIY MFA column. Each interview explores a writer’s process, habits, routine, and management of their overall well-being. She also tested the questions on herself and shared her answers at her own blog. I liked the overall idea of opening up about how our work and living habits intersect so much that I decided to try it out. (Hope you don’t mind, Leanne!)

So what good wellness habits do I try not to skimp on? What “tools” are essential to my writing process? Does my process change depending on the stage of writing I’m in and/or the time of year? I share these and other answers below, plus a few writerly well-being tips and recommendations for favorite resources on writing and wellness.

Question #1: What is your keystone habit (the habit that makes all other habits possible)?

Sleep! I need about 7 hours each night to have the concentration, energy, and overall good mood for being creative and getting through the day. I’ve also learned that I need about an hour to wind down before going to bed; and I use that time to read, listen to relaxing music, and find one thing I’m grateful for that day.

Question #2: Is there one wellness priority you never skimp on?

Hydration. Whether it’s cold water or hot tea, I drink around 50 ounces every day. If I don’t drink enough, my throat gets dry and I become thirsty and tired later on.

Question #3: What’s your daily writing routine?

I don’t have a daily writing routine because of a full-time job, trips to Cape Cod every other to visit my parents, and other responsibilities. But for at least three weeknights each week, I write for 60 to 90 minutes after dinner. And on the weekends when I’m home, I write for about 2 to 4 hours apiece on Saturday and Sunday, scheduled around plans or around-the-condo chores.

Question #4: What are your essential writing “tools”?

Microsoft Word, for character profiles, world-building, and all phases of the story-writing process. (Yes, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to computer programs. *wink*) Pen and paper for drafting poems and jotting down notes for research, interviews, and ideas that surface between writing sessions. For revisions and edits (either for stories or poetry), I turn to Merriam-Webster, Thesaurus.com, and The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman. I also use Becca and Angela’s Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus for my character profiles, to ensure I know my characters as deeply as possible.

Question #5: Where do you write?

If I’m working on my fiction manuscript or typing / revising a poem, I use my laptop at my dining room table. This gives me plenty of room for reference books, a cup of tea, and a lit candle. If I’m drafting a poem, I prefer to be in my bedroom “comfy” chair, with a journal and usually with a song playing on repeat via my iPod docking station.

Question #6: What’s one aspect of your process that you learned the hard way?

Short version: To be patient with my writing, especially during the first draft – and to not compare myself to other writers.

Long version: I’m not a fast-drafter, no matter how I focused I am or how detailed my notes are for the next writing session. That’s also on top of having a limited writing schedule. And when I used to spend more time on social media, I’d get discouraged when I saw other writers post about hitting 1,000+ words in an hour, or writing a first draft in a matter of weeks or months. It’s taken me a long time to learn that every writer’s process is as unique as their personality, and finding fault in my writing process by comparing it to others doesn’t help me. So now I concentrate as best as I can on my own progress and celebrate the milestones that make sense to me.

Question #7: Do you have different routines for different parts of the writing process (drafting versus editing, for example)? Do you have a “crop rotation” schedule, or work differently during different seasons of the year?

No. The routine itself doesn’t change, since it has to be structured around my other commitments regardless of what stage of the process I’m in. But the way I approach my first drafts is different from how I approach later drafts. My first drafts are typically born out of an intuitive blend of plotting and pantsing. With later drafts, I follow a detailed outline of changes based on notes I took during the previous draft. I’ve also noticed that my revisions and edits go much faster than my first drafts, and my most productive months are winter and (oddly enough) summer, since I spend less time outside when it’s too hot / humid or too cold for my liking.

Question #8: What’s the biggest thing that gets in the way of your writing?

A general restriction of my writing time. I’m aware I don’t have as many responsibilities as other writers do (I’m not married, and I don’t have children). But I do have a full-time job and own a condo. I also travel two weekends each month to visit my parents and need extra self-care when my anxiety acts up. This means I have to be conscious with managing my time and using it as productively as possible.

It’s not a perfect balance. Sometimes I need to shift my priorities temporarily. Other times, I don’t manage my time or energy as well as I should. So I’d like to think I’m doing the best I can. Yet it never quells the wish to someday have a more flexible schedule that allows for more time to write.

Question #9: Which would you give up first – writing, sleep, or breakfast?

Oh… man… If I don’t get enough sleep, I struggle with not only writing, but feeling alert enough to function, period. If I skip breakfast, it also throws off my entire day and makes it difficult to focus on writing. So, by process of elimination, that means I’d give up writing first. And while I’m OK if I don’t write for a day or two, I can get moody or depressed and generally feel lost or purposeless if I go longer without it.

So you know what? I refuse to give a definitive answer here. :p

Question #10: How do you maintain mental health during tough times?

I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression in the past (and still do sometimes). So I’ve learned to have these “tools” at my disposal:

  • Essential oils like lavender, frankincense, and wild orange, depending on my mood
  • Relaxing music
  • Guided meditations
  • Yoga class, which I attend weekly
  • Walking outdoors, or simply being in nature
  • A daily gratitude practice
  • Reciting positive affirmations

Writing has also been instrumental in maintaining (or rescuing) my mental health. Journaling has never failed to help me regain clarity when I’m stressed or worried, and sometimes my creative writing projects can be therapeutic outlets for my feelings.

Question #11: How do you get into a creative mental space that fosters new ideas?

I remain open to anything and everything. Whether I’m out for my daily walk, visiting a place for the first time, or researching a topic that sparks my curiosity or is rooted in my passions, I have no trouble finding new ideas for stories, poems, or blog posts. In fact, sometimes I have too many ideas! Of course, my best ideas come to me when I least expect them to, like when I’m driving or (*blushes*) showering. How am I supposed to take notes in those situations? *lol*

Question #12: Since NaNoWriMo is happening right now, have you ever done a marathon writing session? What did you learn from that process?

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, so I can’t speak to that specifically. But I used to do longer writing sessions 3 or 4 years ago, when I only wrote on the weekends. Sometimes I’d spend 5 or 6 hours a day writing! And the most valuable lesson I learned from those sessions? Remember to take breaks. Sitting for several hours is bad enough for your body and your overall health. So I’d write for an hour at a time, then get away from the computer for a meal, laundry, or other things for the sake of moving around. That way, I maximized my writing time while nourishing myself throughout the day (I can’t write when I’m hungry!), ticking items off my to-do list, and avoiding stiff muscles later on.

Of course, remembering to take breaks was sometimes easier said than done. 😉

Question #13: What books, blogs, or podcasts would you recommend to writers who want to develop strong writing and wellness habits?

Fierce on the Page by Sage Cohen. The entire book is a gold mine of advice on all aspects of a writing career, but some of the essays that resonated most with me touched on wellness and well-being. I’d recommend that as well as This Incandescent Life, an inspiring, uplifting blog run by Emily Morgan. This Incandescent Life explores all manner of topics (including writing and wellness habits) that can help writers and other creatives embrace their authentic selves, cultivate strong relationships with themselves and with others, and create their personal definition of success.

How would you answer these questions for your own writing or creative process? What do you consider your keystone habit(s)? Where do you prefer to write? What other wellness or well-being tips have made a positive difference in your life?

17 thoughts on “Lessons and Good Habits for Writing (and Living) Well

  1. Ahh I’m so excited right now! My blog post inspired a blog post… that’s the big leagues right there 🙂
    I love your list. Not too many surprises, as you’re open about your process and wellness needs on the blog, but it’s lovely to have it all in one place as a reference. I think the routines of creative people are fascinating.
    So far, all of my interviewees have been frustrated by the “writing, sleep or breakfast” question, but I like it because everyone has interpreted it differently. I think it reveals something about the price we pay to make time for writing, and whether it’s possible to bend the routine occasionally.
    Thank you SO much for running with this– I only regret that I didn’t tap you sooner for the DIY MFA column!

    Liked by 2 people

    • *lol* It’s not the first time, though! Remember your What’s Making Me Happy series? I know you borrowed the idea from another blogger, but I probably wouldn’t have thought of doing my own Happiness posts if you hadn’t done them first.

      And you’re right, Leanne. I have talked about my own process and wellness habits here before. But your interview had good questions about other topics I hadn’t talked about before. As for That Question… *lol* But it’s still a good one, since it helps us realize how our wellness needs impact our priorities. At least that’s what I learned as I was grappling with my answer.

      Don’t worry about the DIY MFA column, btw. Once I realized that you’d be doing a whole series of interviews, I figured it might be better to post my answers here, so you can focus on bringing in names and faces that our readers at DIY MFA aren’t as familiar with. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great answers, Sara. I particularly liked your answer to question No. 6, probably because it’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about for the last several months. I’ve found myself frustrated by authors who say things like “all authors do this” or “all writers feel this.” I think there are large groups of authors who feel the same way about certain things, but it’s not all authors, and when someone says that, it alienates someone who doesn’t have that same process.
    I think we share our processes with other authors and provide tips and tricks that work for us, in hopes of it working for someone else. That doesn’t mean it’s the right way, let alone the only way to do something. So your answer is a great reminder to all of us, to feel good about what works for us, and be okay with knowing that it will take however long it takes to get it done.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your comments, Mandie. 🙂

      There’s so much truth in that first paragraph you wrote. Every author is going to have their own opinions about each aspect or challenge of the writing process. And not every bit of advice will work for everyone, either. But if we share something that other writers / readers find appealing or helpful,
      or if we’re in the position of finding advice that we think might work for us, then that’s what counts most.

      One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Therese Walsh: “‘Black or white’ advice – do this, or don’t do that – isn’t good advice. Trust your voice. Learn what’s best for you.” It’s something I try to remember when reading articles about writing, and also when I write my own posts. It’s important to acknowledge that your own advice may not work for everyone, and to find the right tone and phrasing when sharing that advice.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is an interesting post. I like getting insight into people’s routines. Some of your anxiety strategies are things I’ve let lapse and it’s been showing in my mental health. Thanks for the reminder that I need to make time for them again!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. 1 Sleep, check! Though more like 9 hours than 7. I’ve always slept more than most people I know.

    2 I drink a lot of water and coffee and diet drinks.

    3 I don’t have enough regular routines and could really do with some, not least for writing. I’m my own boss, which does not always work well!

    4 I use Open Office Writer and hundreds of computer files and books, the files fairly well organized on my computer etc., the books everywhere in my home, the floor, tables, chairs, counters etc. Some are actually on bookshelves!

    5 I write mostly in my bedroom, out of old habit rather than necessity.

    6 Patience and comparing? Yikes! I sometimes fear I’m the least patient and most comparing writer there is! Though that statement is yet more negative comparing in itself!

    7 I’m more planner than pantser, but try to stay open to the serendipity of the moment.

    8 Perfectionism! Fear of failure. My Inner Critic. Some ill health.

    9 I could give up breakfast, but only because my variable schedule means I don’t eat much early in the day anyway. I’m very much an evening person.

    10 Essential oils, music (particularly Lyric FM, Ireland’s main classical music station), SOME meditation, though not enough, walking, gratitude and affirmation, though not enough of them either. No Yoga for many years, but I might try it again. Reading, of course, I called it Bibliotherapy before I discovered that was a recognized name! TV and DVDs. Talking with family and friends in person, or more often by phone. The Internet, a double-edged sword of course, but sites like this are helpful if I avoid negative comparing. My diary, which includes all the many comments I make online, though I’ve not yet started a blog.

    11 I brainstorm story ideas while walking too.

    12 November is NaNoWriNoMo for me. National NOT Writing Novel Month! I’ve never written 50,000 words in a month or anything like it.

    13 I feel uninspired about question 13 at the moment. All those things have helped me but I can’t think of good examples offhand. I recently bought ‘FIERCE ON THE PAGE’ but have only browsed it so far.

    Thanks, Sara and all commenters!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your answers, John! 🙂

      I think the amount of sleep needed varies from person to person. Some people need more; others, less. One of my co-workers told me once that she functions just fine on 5 hours of sleep. I’m not quite sure how she manages that!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I may steal this from you! This is a really neat set of questions. I really want to try taking yoga classes and see if that helps with mental health. I feel like I’ve gotten to a manageable state, but I also want to improve my physical health with yoga as well! Have you felt any good physical effects from yoga?


    Liked by 2 people

    • Go right ahead! I’m sure Leanne would be pleased to see other writers thinking consciously about their habits and well-being thanks to her questions. 🙂

      I’ve only been doing yoga consistently for a year (I’d attended yoga classes off and on for 2 or 3 years before then), but in that year I’ve noticed that I’ve become more flexible. So I’ll be curious to see what else it does as I keep at it!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. It’s a very nice post, Sara.
    Some of the things I knew about you before, but some are new. They also show how much you discovered about yourself through writing – what works and what doesn’t. I’m glad you aren’t jealous of other writers’ progress anymore – I can translate 1000 words per hour, but when I’m to write, I’m happy hitting 500 in the same time. I still do sprints with my writer friends, but I never aim to win, just to keep going.
    I agree on the sleep. After years of sleeping only 4.5-5h a day (and sometimes less), I really appreciate the positive effect the 6-8h has on me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think spending less time – or, rather, almost no time at all now – on Twitter has helped prevent me from comparing my writing progress to those of other writers. If I’m not on there, I won’t see those kinds of posts, so they won’t get to me. And then the focus I’ll cultivate for my own work will be based on motivation and passion, rather than worry and discouragement. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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