My friend arrived for dinner. Setting her bag on the table, she asked, “Have you been mad at me?”
The question confused me. “Mad?”
“I haven’t seen or heard from you for months. I thought maybe I said or did something that upset you.”
Frowning, I shook my head. “No, it’s not you. It’s—well, this book…”
She was one of a few friends to ask me this question. When the first snowstorm passed through town the week of Halloween, ending the climbing season, writing season officially began. I cleaned the office, sharpened my proverbial pencils, and got. to. work.
No more pussyfootin around, I told myself. It’s time to finish this project five-years in the making. I all but turned off my phone for the following months. Social engagements spanned further and further apart. Time outside became limited to walks with the dogs.
I was in the tunnel with my rusty spoon. And it felt maddening.
Mid-December grew dark. Literally, yes. But those long nights lingered in the day, and I questioned if I was capable of finishing my book. I wondered if it was shit writing and I was spending all this time on a doomed project. I grew anxious and depressed, and I had never felt so alone.
And yet I tunneled in deeper. The work required I focus; but what did focus really mean? What was the extent of my work ethic? What was the outer-limit of my dedication?
I inched to the edge and peeked out over. The abyss held the lives of writers gone crazy—of writers gone altogether. The Hemingways of the world.
I stepped back from the edge and have been walking away ever since.
The thing is, dear writer friends: no project deserves to fully claim our happiness or health. Partially? Maybe. But fully? No. Never.
So how do we write, and write as well as possible, without compromising our relationships and the things we love apart from the craft? How do we finish large projects on a deadline without losing sight of that edge marking the end of our happiness?
I can look back on the last three months and somewhat appreciate how I was exploring my limits. Sure, I was flirting with crazy, but sometimes we have to venture out to the boundary in order to know where it exists.
Here are nine ways I’ve learned to respect my boundaries with writing:
1. Establish daily and weekly time limits. Years ago an author told me the 3-3 Rule: stop writing when you either hit the three-hour mark or write three-pages (about 750 words) of material. I tried these guidelines out in my practice and find them to be about perfect. For me, 4-5 days a week of 3-4 hours of writing designates the merging point of productivity and sanity.
2. Exercise daily. If I don’t get out of my head and into my body, my mind fatigues and I become susceptible to self-doubt.
3. Set firm boundaries with social media time. We all know how social media can exasperate loneliness and anxiety, and I think it’s twice as true for those of us who work alone.
4. Get outside as much as possible. For me, this not only means the literal outdoors, but outside my office. I can go entire weekends without leaving the home. This is great on occasion, but when it became my norm this winter, I recognized the extent of my isolation from community.
5. Make plans with friends and family at least a few times a week. This required that I became more flexible with my writing schedule so I could say yes to social engagements. It also required reaching out to people.
6. Diversify side jobs. I teach writing and work at the climbing gym; both get me out of my house (and sweat pants) and in contact with people. These hours away from my desk help me physically disconnect with the project, allowing both the writing and my mind to rest.
7. Pace extended stints in the tunnel with vacations away entirely. We have a trip coming up. Having a set date for when I’d be done working in the tunnel helped me push through the days when the writing felt like wading through molasses.
8. Celebrate mini-successes. If I have a flowy morning of writing, or if I finish a chapter, I try to acknowledge the hard work that went into these achievements with either a day out in the mountains or a soak at the hot springs.
9. Communicate with family and friends about your process—but be careful who you share with and how. Some people in my life are excited about my project and want to hear about it. Some people don’t understand and don’t care to. Initially I felt hurt by the loved ones who seemed disconnected from my work. It felt personal. Now, though, I understand our careers aren’t always interesting to others. Since writing and self-identity often wrap into one another, I found it vital in some of my relationships to recognize the difference between who I am as a writer and who I am as a wife/daughter/sister/friend.
Since recognizing my limits, I’ve felt happier. I’ve socialized more in the last week than I had the entire month of December. While I feared my writing flow would falter if I didn’t maintain my monkish status, I realized the real risk in writing isn’t whether or not it flows, or even if it reads well, but whether or not the process itself is mentally sustainable.
I recognize this article reflecting my experience will not resonate with everyone. Some writers carve out little niches of craft time in their weeks. The writing serves as a sanctuary, a reserved pleasure. I once counted myself among this camp.
Last May, I decided to prioritize finishing my book. When I decided to make writing the driving-force of my career, rather one of four wheels, my relationship to the process shifted. For the better, overall. Honestly.
Yet the loneliness inherent in writing is real. The self-doubt is real. The edge is there, and it’s part of our job, I believe, to recognize when we’ve reached it and make sure to find our way back to a healthy balance of working alone and spending time in community.