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Writing and Illness

This week, I’m writing about something that’s currently very, very close to my heart. And my brain. And my sinuses. To make a five-day-long story short, I finally caught this winter’s obligatory flu virus. And it has knocked. Me. DOWN.

I know that I’m not alone. I also know that a lot of writers struggle with the way that any illness – and the subsequent brain fog, fatigue, and general feeling of yuckiness – can bring a writing project grinding to a halt. Here on what I sincerely hope is the upswing of my own week-long stint in Illness Hell, I’d like to offer a few tips for facing sickness when you’d rather be writing:

1. Recognize When It’s Time to Say Quits

At the onset of a virus, there’s usually that moment when you realize you’re about to go over the edge. Memories of sicknesses past come to mind. The moaning and groaning starts when you realize how much drafting/revising time you’re going to lose while you become intimately familiar with cold meds, tissues, and your bed. If you’re like me, you try to push through this on willpower and denial…but eventually, you’re really just causing yourself more stress (which can make you feel worse in the long run). Always persevere as long as you comfortably can…but also, be honest with yourself about your limits. Don’t be afraid to leave yourself a note on where you left off, shut down your WIP, and go curl up under a heap of blankets. You won’t do yourself or your story a whole lot of favors if you write yourself into crazy, trying to forestall the inevitable.

2. Self Care!

Especially as an author, I am a tremendous advocate of self care. I don’t believe we can be our best selves, as writers or as people, when we’re neglecting our needs. That’s why I highly recommend not pressuring yourself to jump back into your WIP too soon during, or after, your illness. Take the time to read, watch TV, or catch up on that coveted sleep that we writers often lack. Jot down ideas if they come to you, but don’t be too eager to leap back into a rigorous writing schedule. Especially if you’re battling brain fog – that can often lead to a sense of depression or resentment toward your story because, while your heart is eager to write, your brain is just not there yet.

3. Start With the Good Stuff

This suggestion is mostly for those who are able to write in a non-linear fashion. When the time comes to ease back into your story, and especially if you find that the place you left off is not very exciting or inspiring after 5-10 days away from your draft, try working on a scene you’re looking forward to. Invest your attention in a part of the story that reminds you why you were so excited about it in the first place. Sometimes the brain needs something to really latch onto when trying to negotiate its way back into the old routine. If you find you’re unable to write out of sequence, you may be able to revive your enthusiasm by brainstorming, listening to music, or working on notes from those parts of the story you’re most excited to write.

4. Don’t Be Afraid If It’s Slow Going

One of the worst things we can inflict on ourselves is the sense that we’re wrong, “off,” or somehow broken because it takes us a long time to recover from something. Whether it’s a cold or flu virus, depressive episode, breakup, tragedy, or any other life-altering event, things are altered by these experiences…for however short or long a time. Going back to the notion of “self care,” we must learn to be gentle with ourselves as we ease back into routine. It may take days or even weeks for things to feel normal in the world of your writing again…and that’s okay. Be kind to yourself and go at your own brain and body’s pace. To do anything less always runs the risk of prolonging the sense of dysphoria with your project, which will just make it more difficult for you to return to “normal.”


One of my friends in my writing group pointed out to me that when your body is using energy to fight a virus, it has less to spare for creativity, which also requires a lot of energy. Don’t beat yourself up for lack of creativity in times of illness (trust me, your body is already going to feel beat up enough). Give yourself grace, take a deep breath, and let go. You’ll know when it’s time to ease back into the routine. In the meantime, if you listen to your body, take your cues from how you’re feeling overall, and go at your own pace, you’ll find your way back to normal in time. All it takes is patience, healing…and a whole lot of self care.

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