It occurred to me late on Monday night that it has now been exactly a year since I graduated, and I wanted to take a few minutes to look back on the past year and some of the things I’ve learned.
It’s strange to think how much has changed and not changed at the same time. Last May, when I graduated with my Master’s in Literature, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not be moving onto to PhD work as I had planned. Mostly because of the floundering economy, I was unable to get into a PhD program. My mother kindly offered to let me stay at home without paying rent, and so I took a year off with the intention of writing. In lieu of paying rent, I would do housework and cooking. So feeling like a failure, dreading the prospect of turning into a housewife (I mean no disrespect to housewives, it’s simply not what I’d been planning on), and drowning in a depression no amount of writing was going to dig my out of, I started the summer.
Over the past year, I’ve had problems with depression, and been frustrated by my unemployed status, but over all I am grateful for the experience. I traveled, I visited friends I hadn’t seen in awhile, I discovered that I really enjoying cooking, and have become quite obsessed with trying new recipes. (But cleaning still sucks.)
But most importantly, I’ve written almost maniacally: starting this blog (which was a spur-of-the-moment thing and has since become very important to me), writing several research papers for literature conferences, participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time ever, and working on my urban fantasy novel with an almost frantic intensity. Through it all, I have been stressed out, panicked, depressed, and flat-out crazy. But the fact that I am now almost finished with my first novel makes it all worth it.
Now it’s May again. I’ve been accepted to a PhD program, I have been offered a Teaching Fellowship, for which I am very thankful. But I realize now how much I will miss the freedom I have experienced this past year. And I fear that once I’m in school again my personal writing will fall by the wayside once again, just as it did when I was working on my Master’s. However, I hope a few of things I have learned (or re-learned) over the past year will help me to find balance, keep me from burning out, and allow me the time to continue working on my personal projects.
So, what have I learned anyway? Well, here are the top six most important elements in keeping your sanity:
1) Time management is EVERYTHING. Put yourself on a schedule that is efficient and REASONABLE. And then stick to it as much as humanly possible.
2) Give yourself goals. Again, be REASONABLE about your goals (you’re not a robot, after all), but make the goals meaningful and useful. And then REWARD YOURSELF when you meet them. It doesn’t matter how, whatever is going to be a nice treat for you will work.
3) Support systems are VITAL. Everyone needs a group of people to turn to who will understand what you’re going through, be able to offer encouragement, advice, commiseration when things go badly, and enthusiastic praise when things go well. I rely almost entirely on the writers I’ve met on Twitter, and two friends who live at opposite ends of the country. If you have access to writer’s groups or other support systems that you can physically meet with, that’s wonderful. But there is nothing wrong with relying on social media and the virtual communities online. The people I’ve met on Twitter are brilliant, funny, and incredibly supportive. And that’s all that really matters.
4) TALK ABOUT IT. Explain to your parents, families, significant others, and non-writer friends what you’re doing and why. Even if they don’t really GET it, they usually try to be supportive in their own ways. And if they know what you’re up to, they might let it slide when you forget to laundry, or opt out of that family barbecue in favor of a few quiet hours for writing.
5) TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: get your necessary sleep, eat healthy, exercise. These things can make all the difference for your physical and mental health, both of which are necessary if you want to think clearly and live long enough to finish anything. This is one I have trouble with myself, as I’m a chronic insomniac, I have a talent for forgetting to eat, and I am so NOT athletic it’s not even funny. Yet even I am trying to make changes on that front. Sleep is still pretty hit-or-miss, but I eat more regularly now and much more healthy since I started doing so much of the cooking. And my mother and I have started tri-weekly walks through trails in the park. It’s not a lot, admittedly, but it’s a start.
6) And most importantly, GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK. Don’t expect perfection from yourself, ‘cause you’re NOT a robot. Stick to your schedule and goals as much as possible, but not at the expense of necessary sleep, regular meal times, and an occasional breather. I know that feeling well: when you’re working or doing something you need to do but don’t want to do, all you can think about is writing; and when you’re writing, you continually feel guilty about all those things you should be doing but are slacking on. Nothing we do every entirely erases that feeling. But cut yourself some slack! If your schedule is so full you can’t accomplish everything even if you switched to 20 hour days, then its time to prioritize and simplify. The important thing is to do the best you can without getting an ulcer or working yourself into an early grave. Just remind yourself: if you’re dead, or in the psycho ward, you’ll NEVER finish that manuscript.
And that’s my two-cents for the week. I hope these little reminders are of some use to someone. But if not, I’m still glad to remind myself every once in awhile.
So what about all you writers out there? What sorts of little lessons do you have to remind yourself of occasionally? What helps you keep your sanity in times of stress and over-work? How do you balance your work-life, family-life, and writing?
I’m still learning how to deal with it all effectively, and I have a feeling that in a few months I’m going to need all the help I can get.