Writing with a Chronic Illness: Creating a Writing Habit

Writing is a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

So, how do you exercise this particular muscle when you have a chronic illness? You start with creating a writing habit, and a writing trigger.

Lucy tries out for the position of Muse
The Writing Habit
Creating a writing habit starts with showing up. Day in, day out, sitting down by the computer (or whatever is your writing instrument of choice) and writing something. Some days, it will be like pulling teeth, and others, it’s like transcribing from a mystical well of story deep inside. Those days are fun.

The writing habit is much like any other habit — it takes time to develop and not the supposed three weeks they’d like us to believe. Creating a habit, whether flossing or writing, takes three months or more. If you really want to be a writer, you have to show up every day of those three months. If, on your days off, you feel wrong about not writing, congratulations! You have successfully created a writing habit.

Ideally, the showing up should be at the same time in the same place every day. The Muse (and your writing muscle) is flighty and if you don’t pin her down, she’s going to swan off to look at butterflies. Trundling off to your computer right after breakfast every single day puts her (and you) on notice that you mean business. It also helps you get so immersed in what you’re writing that it starts to take over your life. That makes it a whole lot easier to just start typing, rather than having to find the tone and mood, and remember your character’s motivation.

I can hear all of you saying “but, but…!” out there. And I know. This writing habit stuff is a lot harder when you have a chronic illness or chronic pain. When you don’t know whether you’ll be able to get out of your PJs, committing to showing up and pinning down some recalcitrant Muse is a lot to ask.

So you show up in other ways. Maybe you don’t actively write on bad days, but you do a lot of thinking about your story. It can happen just in your mind, as well as on your computer or on a piece of paper. If you`re mainly thinking, keep something handy on which to make some notes so it doesn’t get lost. On days when the brain fog is as dense as peasoup fog, maybe you read a book or an article about writing. Perhaps you talk about writing, or maybe you fantasize about your fantastical future writing career.

The key is to make it writing part of your everyday. That’s how you show up.

A Writing Trigger
In a chronic illness community, there’s a lot of talk about triggers. They are usually things you don’t want in your life, because they trigger a flare or an episode of chronic pain, migraine, RA, Fibro, etc. A writing trigger, on the other hand, is something that nudges you to write and it’s something you can create yourself.

I recently accidentally created a writing trigger. In the first week of my vacation (actually, the first day), I was called back to work to write a few more articles that were time sensitive. By this time, I’d crashed after a high-production July and felt quite incapable of writing one more word. So I put together a survival kit in the hopes it would help get my brain going enough that the pieces would get done.

Not only did it get my brain going — that’s the benefit of drinking Coke when you’re normally un-caffeinated — but it worked so well that I decided to try it out when it came time to get back to my book. Within a few days, a mini-Coke and three Skippers had become not only part of my writing ritual, but a trigger. I pour the Coke into a glass, add a slice of lemon, and take a sip. This leads to an urge for a Skipper, and I go get three out of the bag. I eat one, and put the other two on the desk next to the keyboard. And then I start writing.

It has occurred to me that in the acknowledgements of my next book, I have to thank the Coca-Cola Company and Vermont Nut Free Chocolate for fuelling the writing.

Your trigger can be anything you want. It might be doing some gentle stretches or taking your meds with your morning cup of coffee or tea. Maybe it’s the rhythm of having breakfast, taking the dog for a walk, and then sitting down at the computer. Or perhaps you need to sing a 1990s power ballad first. If you do this every time you sit down to write, your subconscious will create a link and before you know it, the words will start spilling out anytime you hear this song

Which can get awkward in the supermarket, but there you have it. And the great thing about the trigger is that you don’t need to adapt anything because of your chronic illness. A trigger is a trigger.

How do you accommodate your chronic illness when you write?


Kaz said…
Hmmmm.....I'm a bit more haphazard than that, I think. Which is why - in all probability - that that book is still mostly in my head! I do write better in the mornings, and if I start in the mornings, I can usually generate enough impetus to keep going, on and off, most of the day. BUT...delay that beginning and I'm screwed. I do need coffee to clear my head once the morning meds kick in and I deliberately don't make that at home. Going out for it is one way I make myself be active, and get out amongst people and some fresh air - otherwise, I find it's way too easy to end up spending great strings of days at home. So my coffee time, out at one of a cluster of local cafes is usually my time to start thinking about the writing ahead of me that day, whether it's paid work, a blog post of my own, or a post for a site I blog for...I guess there's some sense of routine there - I'd just not really thought about it as such. The days that I find get really messed up - like today - are the ones when I've been up in the night. It's just on 2pm here in Sydney, and I'm JUST setting up the docs for a job that's due in tomorrow. Not difficult work, thank goodness, but I'm way behind what I'd planned yesterday when I was writing the blog post that had to happen before the job. However, they're ready now, so I need to finish this comment and go write the first one - I get 5-10 mins between articles to surf the net, make some tea, do a lap of the garden, or something that refreshes me before going onto the next one!
Great post, Lene!

I wrote on daily and weekly deadlines for so long as a journalist that I have a hard time writing without a deadline, now. It's like my trigger is that sharp pressure to perform with a clock ticking. So I've started setting an egg-timer for an hour with a word-count goal to meet by the time it rings. That works sometimes...

I've actually been thinking about this a lot, lately. A major challenge with working at home for me is approaching my days as work-days. I'm a terrible procrastinator, so I'm trying to figure out how to use my day more wisely and productively. "Showing up" seems to be a universal fix, even if it's hard initially.

I love your ideas here. I believe I'll set myself a "show up" time in the morning--I really do my best work then--and keep my egg timer handy!
Thank you for this article! I am a "writer" and finally after writing since the age of 13 years old, had 2 books of poetry and prose published. They were my "stepping stones" to the larger piece, a 3rd one that explains my entire ordeal with chronic illnesses, chronic pain, and things in our lives we often may not be able to control. So, I had made my writing a "daily habit" for a long while. Like every writer, I was in a panic! I feared "writers block" & all of the issues of autoimmune illnesses, had made a permanent block between my brain and my pen/or typing. Yet, my "routine" had gotten out of sync. Personal issues had briefly taken me away from my "scheduled walks and writing actually." Thus, as things begin to settle, I see my "voice" again appearing, and as always writing to be a joyful experience, cathartic for myself, to spill out the emotions & hope to give others a way to share that they are not alone. Again thank you for an amazing article! Rhia

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