Two weeks ago life came to a full stop. For two days during the weekend, I was by myself with no means of transportation. I hadn’t planned to take that kind of break from life. I was going to distract myself with movies at the theater and family, but my family was busy, bad weather shortened our time together, and I wasn’t able to drive to the movie theater. I was stuck with myself and my two cats and an empty-feeling apartment.
You know in cartoons when someone is running really fast and they don’t realize they’re headed for the edge of a ravine until they’re right up on it? Then when they put on the breaks they keep skidding a little until their toes are curling over the edge? That’s what that weekend and the week after felt like.
In the middle of the weekend, I started reading a book that my boyfriend had checked out of the library, Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane. Kismet, maybe. It was the book I needed during that long weekend.
It’s a slim, easy to read book that feels much more like a gentle conversation than a condescending how-to book.
There were two exercises that I’ve heard before, but Perry convinced me to try again. I think they’ve been really helpful for me as I try to strike a new balance between my writing life, my work life, and my personal life.
1. Keeping a Diary
Sometimes I feel like all writing has to be productive writing. If I’m going to spend half an hour writing, shouldn’t I spend that time revising a short story or working on a novel? But Perry makes an excellent case for the benefits of keeping a daily journal, including a longer life. I’ve been writing in a journal for the last two weeks. Not every day, but most days. And I cannot tell you how much it helps to rearrange my brain so that there’s nothing left on my shoulders for the next day.
I have to make sure I don’t leave the journal writing to the last minute, however. Journal writing in bed right before going to sleep leaves me with half-hearted scrawls on paper and waking up ten minutes later with a pen still in my hand. Journal writing fits, for me, into that awkward night space where I start to worry about the next day. Filling this time with journal writing helps me focus, keep positive, and use the rest of my evening time well.
2. Circles of Increasing Challenges
The other exercise I found most helpful in this book is to draw a diagram of your personal boundaries and work on pushing through them one level at a time. An easy example of this is social interaction. In the center circle, you would write what kinds of social interaction are 100% ok with you. Like, staying at home watching Star Trek with your SO. Around that circle, you would draw a larger one, with interactions that are still doable, but maybe a little bit less comfortable, like going to a group event for a few hours. The idea of this exercise is to keep drawing larger rings around the original circle, filling each level with boundaries you would like to push past. Perry urges you to keep checking on your progress, pushing yourself bit by bit past your comfort zone, so that the leap to the person you want to be is instead a series of small steps.
Perry also states that being mindful of pushing your boundaries is important to avoid slipping back into your shell of comfortable habits. Last year I made interacting with fellow writers and geeks regularly part of my writing goals, and I attended more events than I normally would have. I strengthened friendships, met new people, and was more productive as a writer. This year I didn’t include those interactions in my goals, thinking that I’d naturally keep up those habits. But they’ve fallen by the wayside, and I’m revising my goals to include conventions and crit groups both local and out of state this year.
There are many more exercises and great examples in this book, and I would highly recommend reading it, especially to writers. Not only for developing needs and obstacles for characters, but for working through your own as well.
Do you have favorite resources or personal exercises for staying sane as a writer? How do you balance writerly needs and ambitions with everyday life?