5 Ways to Keep Writing When Life Intervenes

A stone angel resting her head on a plinth in apparent grief

by Cathy Baird | via Flickr

Today’s guest post is from author and editorial director of Writer’s Digest Jessica Strawser (@jessicastrawser); her debut novel, Almost Missed You, releases in spring 2017.


“I had every intention of [finishing this manuscript / meeting this deadline / honoring this promise to my critique partner / fill in the writing-related blank] but then [I was diagnosed / my father needed special care / my kid broke his leg / we had to relocate / my marriage fell apart / fill in the life-related blank].”

This post isn’t about writing through the little things (teething babies, cold and flu season, overtime at your day job)—though we all know the little things can be tough to write through. This is about writing through the big stuff.

I’m a longtime member of the writing community on Twitter and in the blogosphere but a (very) latecomer to Facebook, as a fairly private person with a fairly public job who has grappled with how to separate the two. Earlier this year, when I finally made the decision to set up my personal profile alongside my author page, I was looking forward to participating more actively in the groups of which I am a member—places like the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, which had moved its forums almost entirely to Facebook.

And those connections have been wonderful. But what I’ve also seen amplified across a range of writing groups on that platform is something I’ve been glimpsing elsewhere for years—so many writers, too many writers, who are struggling to write through their own variations on the “qualifying life events” mentioned above. I read their posts—anguish, apologies, frustration—and my heart aches for them.

Sometimes, when something big gets in the way of your writing, you want or need to just step away. Fair enough. When my family and especially, always, my kids really need me, there’s no contest. And that’s as it should be. We’re all human—editors and agents included. People will understand.

But sometimes, you don’t have much choice but to find a way to keep writing while you’re dealing with everything else. Or you want to go on, feel a need to go on, but can’t see how, and that only makes you feel worse.

This, I know something about.

In November 2008, I was hired as chief editor of Writer’s Digest magazine. I’d started my career there years earlier, then moved on to other things—but everyone who knew me knew that the opportunity to come back and take the helm was essentially a dream job for me. I lined up my first cover story—I’d be interviewing (wait for it) Stephen King, alongside his friend and very different kind of bestseller Jerry Jenkins. My husband and family were excited, of course, but my best friend was hilariously so. She took me out to celebrate and would call with random updates about how she’d been telling everyone that I was interviewing THE King.

And then, in December, she was murdered.

The day of her funeral, a colleague dropped off the final page proofs of my first issue in a binder on my front porch. We had a printer deadline in a few days.

Editing a magazine might not tap exactly the same creative well as, say, writing a novel, but it’s not as far off as you might think. Our staff being relatively small, my job was relatively big—and I was still learning how to do it. I had to generate ideas, execute a vision, maintain a voice, strive for quality, work with contributors, interact with readers, write features, introduce each issue in a letter, blog.… You get the idea.

In the months that followed, let’s just say there were some distractions, piling like bricks onto my grief. Her cause of death was released in our local news and delivered to my inbox via Google Alerts while I was sitting in my cubicle, surrounded by office chitchat. I attended her killer’s arraignment one morning and was in by noon. I arrived home at the end of a long day to a subpoena in my mailbox.

I had my dream job—one I really, really wanted to excel at—and I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to hold it together.

It wasn’t easy, but I did. And so can you—whether you’re the one struggling, or trying to help a fellow writer in a tough spot. Here’s what I learned about how.

1. Give yourself permission to duck out.

Jane Friedman (the very same) was my boss at the time, and she took me into her office my first day back after the tragedy for a gracious moment of kindness: “If something ever comes up that you need to leave, just do it,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for my okay. Just explain later.”

I took her up on it only once or twice. When someone extends such kindness and trust to you, the last thing you want to do is abuse it. But just knowing that I could leave if I needed to made a huge difference. It took away a sort of panicky feeling I’d been fighting.

As a writer, you’re ultimately your own boss. So extend this same small kindness to yourself: If you ever need to stop, just stop. No questions asked. You may find that the pressure it alleviates is a great release.

2. Use your anger.

Go ahead and get the “I can’t believe this is happening at all, let alone when I have to _____ / am right in the middle of ____ / just committed to …” out of your system. Acknowledge it for as long as you need to—a week or two of hard commiserating, perhaps—but then do your best to set it aside.

At the root of that frustration and disbelief is likely anger, perhaps a sense of injustice. Why me (or him or her)? Why now? Use it.

For me, I channeled my fury at the person who had taken my friend from me. Was I going to let his actions take my dream job, too?

Not if I could help it.

3. Distract yourself.

I threw myself into my work. The distraction, I found, could actually be quite welcome, if I was patient enough to wait for my ability to concentrate to steady itself. I could spend my Saturday morning thinking about how I could no longer call my friend to see what she was doing later … or, I could go into my quiet office building, alone, and try very hard to think about something else. Something productive. Something rewarding. And fortunately, that time more than made up for any weekday hours where my focus just wasn’t where it should have been.

Probably somewhere in the midst of this life-altering chaos you stopped thinking of writing as something you wanted to do and started thinking of it as something you had to do. Some extent of this may be unavoidable, but the quicker you can turn it around, the better off you’ll be.

If you can start thinking of distractions as welcome rather than required, you’ll be on your way to reclaiming what’s rightfully yours: your joy, your creativity, your goal.

4. Let people know.

You might not want to talk about it, and that’s okay. But the more people who you clue in even a little bit to what’s going on, the more support you’ll get. Grief, tragedy, and illness can be isolating. Sometimes to get what you need—whether that’s friendship, a babysitter, a lunch buddy, a ride, a cup of milk for the mac ’n’ cheese you already boiled, or a butt in a chair at the book signing you didn’t have a chance to promote—all you have to do is ask. No one can help you if they don’t know what’s happening, what you need, or specifically how to help.

I had a neighbor land in the hospital with a nasty infection last year. Once she was home recovering with her two young kids underfoot, I sent her a “Let me know how I can help” text, expecting a standard “Thanks, I will” response, which is often how those exchanges end. Instead, she wrote back, “Actually, we’re pretty set on meals right now but might need dinner Tuesday, if you’re sure it’s not any trouble.…”

Guess what she got from me on Tuesday? It wasn’t any trouble. In fact, it was a relief to be able to help in a way that I knew was truly needed.

Be direct:

“It might sound crazy, but what would really help me would just be to have a quiet hour with my laptop between Dad’s appointments. He doesn’t like to be left alone at the hospital. Can you keep him company during lunch for me? I’ll pay.”

To circle back to my observation at the start of this post, whether or how much you want to share on your blog or social media is up to you, and may to some degree depend on who your networks consist of, what exactly you’re going through, and what kind of support you would find most helpful. I’ve seen support rallied in moving ways (from GoFundMe pages to prayer requests to dinner delivery signups), and I’ve also seen comment threads take random ugly turns for no good reason.

There can be an inherent pressure to share on networks like Facebook, and I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to post anything you don’t want to. (As I’m only now writing about some aspects of my own experience for the first time, eight years later, you can guess where I stand.) But opening up to a few carefully selected someones, if perhaps not everyone, can make a big difference.

5. Control what you can.

We most often hear this advice in the form of not dwelling on things you can’t control. But I’m here to tell you to stand your ground. Don’t let the bad stuff tinge any more good stuff than it has to. In trying to focus on what you can control, try to consider that your writing is one of those things, even though it might not feel like it right now.

It’s not going to be easy—but then again, when is writing ever easy?

The cover for Almost Missed You by Jessica StrawserI had writing dreams beyond the pages of WD, and once I had a few years of distance from my experience, I was setting out for them with a determination I’d not had before. Eventually, what I went through inspired a novel—one that did not ultimately sell but did land me an agent, sending me down a road of revisions and submissions that I’d learn a lot from. A moment of healing became, to my amazement, a New York Times byline, in the “Modern Love” column. And my next (entirely unrelated) novel did find a home—in a preempt.

Life can intervene without taking over. Take those famous John Lennon lyrics further, and try not to stop making other plans.

We writers are a tough bunch. And the rest of us are right here with you.


Connect with Jessica on Twitter (@jessicastrawser) and Facebook, and be sure to take a look at her debut novel releasing next year, Almost Missed You.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , , , .
Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest. Her debut novel, Almost Missed You (St Martin’s Press, March 2017), is drawing early raves from Adriana Trigiani, Lisa Scottoline, Garth Stein, and other bestsellers (and is now available to add to your Goodreads shelf or preorder from Amazon and Barnes & Noble). Her ongoing series at WD’s “There Are No Rules” blog offers behind-the-scenes looks and lessons learned on her own road to Big 5 publication (search “Almost Missed You”). Connect with her on Twitter (@jessicastrawser) and Facebook.

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32 Comments on "5 Ways to Keep Writing When Life Intervenes"

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Cary Plocher

I’m very sorry to hear about your friend, Jessica. As a fellow private person with a public persona, I understand the struggle between opening up versus keeping to yourself what’s yours. I’ve had a number of my readers comment on my rather bare-bones style on my blog, and I particularly struggle with the share-all mentality of social media. Eventually, though, it has paid off as I’ve been able to forge some wonderful friendships with other writers I’ve met online.

I’ve enjoyed following along on your publication journey, and I look forward to reading Almost Missed You!

Best—Cary

Jessica Strawser

I totally relate to that, Cary — given that I’m writing about this 8+ years after the fact, you can guess where I fall on the sharing continuum! I think doing it on your own terms rather than bowing to pressure is key. Thanks so much for the kind words about my posts and book — looking forward to staying connected.

Stacey Wilk

Jessica, I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. Thank you for the blog post. It was heartfelt and inspiring.

Jessica Strawser

So happy to hear it resonated, Stacey — thanks for saying so.

C. S. Lakin

Thank you so much for this thoughtful and honest post. Too often we go along pretending we’re fine when we’re not, and not communicating our current stress only adds more stress to the mix.

Jessica Strawser

In today’s world, I’ve noticed no one ever has time to NOT be fine! I’m replying to this with a terrible chest cold (maybe bronchitis) and even that I certainly don’t have time for. So thanks for taking a valuable moment of yours to leave such a kind comment.

Tina Barbour

I am sorry about your friend. Thank you for sharing the ways that you kept going in the midst of your grief and shock. Work can be a solace to the hurt from whatever else is going on in our lives.

Jessica Strawser

It’s all in the mindset — control over which can be easier said than done! Thanks so much for the kind comment.

Vaughn Roycroft

I’ve said it before, but it can’t be said enough: So sorry for your loss. But, if there can be any kind of consolation for such a tragedy, it can be found in the wisdom and fortitude you’ve found. Thank you for sharing a bit of it. I know your friend is proud of you.

Jessica Strawser

I don’t know that I’ve found any special wisdom, but I’m a firmer-than-ever believer that it’s important to share our experiences and try to learn what we can from one another. Thanks, as always, for the kind comment, Vaughn–hoping you and yours are well!

Carol Tanksley

Thanks for this post. My husband died in February, and I had a contract to complete a book manuscript by June 1st. I made it! Setting aside specific time to write actually helped my mental focus. It gave me a sense of being productive even for relatively short periods of time when everything else in my life was completely disrupted. The book will be released early next year.

Jessica Strawser

I’m so sorry for your loss … but so proud of you. I’m sure no one would have thought less of you for bowing out, but you found a way. Can’t wait to read the book!

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[…] Author and editor Jessica Strawser offers guidance on how to write through illness, grief, and other major life events.  […]

J S Crail

Thank you for sharing this. Spot on, writing is the way through. For me, loss or anticipated loss triggers verse mode. During this year while my goddaughter (who’s parents have passed and whom we are adopting) has been battling a rare cancer, songs and poems pour forth in the small chunks of time available when diving into chapter writing seems impossible. Those small satisfactions have been a much needed boost to feel in control of something, and now it looks like she may have cancer beat.

Jessica Strawser

Wonderful news about your goddaughter! Good for you for finding your own way through, and I’ll be keeping a good thought for her that she has this beat. Thanks so much for the kind comment.

Debbie
Jane, I always love reading your emails and if no time – like for the last months – I file them away to be read later. I never delete them. This one, however, takes the cake, Thank you for guestposting Jessica’s advices. Jessica, thank you so much for this. Earlier this year one of my oldest friends passed over, after battling a life threatening disease, and me making an emergency trip home to see her. Her local community honoured her incredibly afterwards, as she had been a slawart of kindness in the community. Much and all as I have been… Read more »
Jessica Strawser

What a kind comment, Debbie–I’m so sorry for your loss. My heart goes out to you as you work your way back from this, and I am so pleased to know you found some small comfort in my post.

Debbie

Thank you Jessica, indeed I have. I will reread the article to consider more fully how to add significant time to all my writing projects once more, on top of work, study, mothering etc etc. Your article was really inspiring.

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[…] 5 Ways to Keep Writing When Life Intervenes (Jane Friedman) Sometimes, when something big gets in the way of your writing, you want or need to just step away. Fair enough. When my family and especially, always, my kids really need me, there’s no contest. And that’s as it should be. We’re all human—editors and agents included. People will understand. […]

HEATHER WRIGHT

What a wonderful post! As someone who has reached the final 2 of 30 radiation treatments for breast cancer, I can relate to everything in this post. I host a website, Write from Experience, and would love to repost your article. Please let me know if that would be okay. If not, I will definitely be linking to it in my next post. My audience is baby boomers who want to finally write that book on their bucket list. One way or another, they will face or are facing these challenges. Thanks again for such a great post!

Jane Friedman

Hi Heather – Linking is great, and you’re welcome to excerpt a small portion when you do. Thank you!

Sandy Peckinpah
What a tragedy, Jessica. I’m so sorry. These are some powerful tips in dealing with the emotional toll of tragedy and the necessity of real life continuing on. I can certainly relate. When my second book came out, I’d just lost my son, and I couldn’t continue on with the book tour. Two decades later, I was about to send off my manuscript of my story on surviving the loss when my other son had an accident. I fought through it and prepared the final touches on my manuscript, and I’m so glad I did. My son is fully recovered… Read more »
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[…] amateurs don’t, Sage Cohen has 2 keys to unlock your writing momentum, Jessica Strawser lists 5 tips to keep writing when life gets in the way, and Jody Hedlund wonders: Is saying “I’m too busy?” just an […]

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[…] Jessicca Strawser: 5 Ways to Keep Writing When Life Intervenes  […]

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[…] via 5 Ways to Keep Writing When Life Intervenes | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] 5 Ways to Keep Writing When Life Intervenes […]

Michael LaRocca

I think we all know that, if the work’s important enough, we’ll find a way to keep writing. But it’s a lot easier for a non-writer to whip out such non-specific advice. Thanks for your article.

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[…] the publishing industry to write a useful and easy to follow blog. I particularly like her blog “5 ways to keep writing when life intervenes”, I think we have all been there, with the best of intention to produce something, but the clock […]

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[…] I will leave you with a post from one of the best, Jessica Strawser, in her guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog – 5 Ways to Keep Writing When Life Intervenes. […]

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