As writers, we’re faced with lots of different types of stresses. It’s not always just searching for the right word in a description or trying to meet a story deadline.
While working on novels, I’ve had to deal with just about everything. For example, I was once deep in writing a great scene when my house caught on fire once. I had to totally neglect my work while I went to call the fire department and try to figure out where my five-year-old arsonist son was hiding (in his bedroom closet).
I’ve been working when I discovered that a business partner had stolen my life savings, when a Russian mobster called and tried to muscle in on a movie deal, and when a doctor phoned to tell me that my mother was terminally ill.
Most writers, when they get stressed, will freeze up. They’ll focus on their stress rather than their work because that’s what millions of years of evolution has demanded we do. When a bear charges, you have to respond.
Most of us cope with stress by looking for ways to lessen or remove the stress. For example, when the fire struck, I dealt with the problem and completely removed the stress. It took a couple of days, but we got past it.
Very often, there are exercises that you can do to reduce your stress. For example, sometimes I find that putting on a little mood music or listening to the sounds of a forest can help get me in a writing mood. Just sitting in my writing chair is part of my routine. Pre-imagining a scene also helps.
In fact, very often the proper response to stress is to work harder. This is almost always true with economic stress. Do you have bills to pay? Covid got you worried? Then apply your butt to your chair and get to work.
Ideally, as a writer, you’d be able to compartmentalize your problems and keep working under duress, just about any duress. If I’m working on a scene and my wife says, “There’s a leak in the roof!” I probably don’t need to jump up and fix it. It hardly ever rains where I live, so I’ll call our roofer and get it handled when I’m ready.
But some stresses can’t be lessened or removed or acted on later. I never was able to save my mother. I imagine that it’s like being a boxer in a fight. Sometimes life throws something at you, and you just have to take a blow.
Perhaps I admire commandoes—those guys who jump out of airplanes, land in enemy territory with a specific mission. Their job is to get things done.
As a writer, I find myself wondering what it would take to develop that kind of mental toughness. In fact, I was talking to Forrest Wolverton recently about an Army Ranger who trained other rangers. He taught them classes in mental toughness, in confronting problems before they appear. I realized that writers often need that kind of training, too, and asked him to beging developing a class on mental toughness for writers.
We need to prepare ourselves to write on the bad days as well as the good—to stay up and be exhausted when we need to hit a deadline, or to deal with a tragic loss and still balance our workload.
Part of that, I’m sure, is nurturing the right kind of attitude. It’s conditioning. As a young man, I used to work as a prison guard. After just a few weeks on the job, we had a situation where I was working in the kitchen, supervising the inmates on the chow line, when one inmate began stabbing another in front of perhaps a hundred witnesses. For a moment, I froze in surprise, wondering what to do. The killer in this case had a very big knife and he was stabbing his victim quickly, plunging it down over and over as fast as he could.
While I stood wondering how to respond, the guard next to me leapt over a steam table that was perhaps four-feet high and six-feet wide, rushed across the room, and tackled the killer.
Afterward, I wondered, “How can I become the one who runs into trouble instead of hesitates?” The answer was simple: you just make it a life choice. You remember who it is you want to be. Since then, I’ve come across auto accidents and similar situations a couple of times, and my response has been to confront the problem, to run toward danger rather than from it.
I think that as authors, we need to do the same. We need to decide now that when we’re faced with some major obstacle, we won’t whine about it, won’t apologize, won’t cower away from it. We’ll just calmly face it. I think we can calmly let the stress wash over us, pass through it, and accomplish our mission.
For our Apex Writers’ Group, A week from Saturday, we’ll have a live workshop from motivational guru Forrest Wolverton on “Taking Charge”. For information on how to join Apex, email the word “Apex” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dave will be teaching on “Clark Kent to Superman” in an online workshop to be taught July 18. Register here: https://www.fyrecon.com/
Writers of the future 3rd quarter stories are due tonight! Make sure you get them in! writersofthefuture.com
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