September 2, 2021

Taking Care of Yourself as a Writer

writing tips

Today is my last article in our series on building your self-efficacy as a writer, based on the work of the late Albert Bandura. Our self-efficacy is the belief we have in our own ability to accomplish a goal, whether it’s writing a book, starting a blog, hosting a podcast, doing the laundry, or raising children. Building up your self-efficacy as a writer is one of my main missions as a coach and editor. 

We’ve talked about finding your small writing wins (mastery experiences), learning from writers who are or were just like you (vicarious experiences), and the power of people who believe in you (verbal persuasion). There’s one last (but NOT least) element that impacts our self-efficacy, which can be used to build up our confidence and competence in writing: taking care of ourselves, physically and emotionally (affective states).

Bandura writes that both our physical state and our mental/emotional state (he calls it our “mood state”) affect our efficacy beliefs—that is, whether or not we believe we can actually do the thing we’re trying to do. If we’re sore, winded, exhausted, or in pain, we probably won’t have as much confidence in our ability to run 10 miles as we would if we were feeling great and had high energy levels. Likewise, if we’re frightened, angry, grieving, or depressed, we may not “feel like” writing, because we judge our own abilities as less than optimal in that emotional state. If you try the activity anyway in that state, you’ll be more sensitive to any negative stimulation, which makes you more likely to fail… thereby reinforcing your negative efficacy beliefs. It can become a vicious cycle.

The solution, he says, is to “enhance physical status” and “reduce stress levels and negative emotional proclivities.”

Let’s break those down.

Taking Care of Yourself Physically

We often think that writing is a primarily mental exercise, and that therefore we don’t need to take care of our body as well. But that’s not how it works. Author Haruki Murakami in his lovely memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running shares what writing a book is like:

“The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there's grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you.” - Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

The writing process is full of physical metaphors: people talk about birthing a book, or that doing something like NaNoWriMo is like running a marathon. They’re right. Writing a book is hard mental labor, and that’s all the more reason we have to take care of our bodies, too. 

The truth is that regulating our bodies is the first step to regulating our emotions, so that we “feel like” writing. This is why physical practices like yoga, deep breathing, walking, dancing, or really any movement, can have tremendous positive effects on whether and how much we accomplish. In her book The Power of Writing It Down, Ally Fallon calls this process “getting limbic,” and it’s the first step to getting unstuck mentally and feeling good about your writing life.

Here are my favorite ways to take care of myself physically:

  • Sleeping (seriously, who doesn’t love sleeping?!)
  • Square breathing
  • Practicing yoga 
  • Walking my dogs
  • Hiking
  • Rock climbing
  • Eating well

I find that when I regularly engage in these activities to take care of my body, I find it so much easier to sit down and write later.

Taking Care of Yourself Emotionally

Our emotions also help to determine our efficacy beliefs around a particular task. There’s a fascinating link between mood and memory; Bandura found that when we are in a good mood, we are more likely to recall positive successes, and when we are in a negative mood, we are more likely to recall our failures. It sounds obvious, but it means that all of our small writing wins (mastery experiences) might not actually be that helpful to us if, when we’re in a bad mood, we forget that they happened! 

What might be surprising is that you can create a virtuous cycle between mood and writing, if you cultivate a positive emotional state when you take on hard writing work. Your positive mood will lift your self-efficacy, making you more likely to succeed at what you’re trying to accomplish, thereby embedding those positive feelings in your memory whenever you think about the task. The next time you sit down to write, you’ll recall the positive feelings from last time, bringing on more positive emotions and lifting your self-efficacy again. It’s the opposite of the vicious cycle I mentioned earlier.

Of course, I’m not saying you should only write when you’re happy. Some of my favorite research is from James Pennebaker, which showed that writing for just twenty minutes a day for four days can impact your mood for up to six months! Again, Ally Fallon references this research and writes about how important writing processes like journaling and morning pages are to our mental health as well. What I am suggesting is that journaling and morning pages are better types of writing to engage in when you’re in a negative mood state because they have a non-evaluative element, as opposed to a task like writing an article or book, where you will be evaluating the quality and progress of your work. For those evaluative tasks, where you’re trying to accomplish something, it’s better to be in a positive mood state.

Here are my favorite ways to take care of myself mentally:

  • Journaling or morning pages before engaging in hard writing work
  • Meditating
  • Taking time to plan my day
  • Getting curious about my emotions (“Why am I upset by that dream?”)
  • Maintaining boundaries around my writing time
  • Spending time with my hubby and friends

I hope with all of this information from Bandura, you feel like you have a process for increasing your self-efficacy around writing and are ready to take on harder writing tasks.

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