Self-Care For Writers

What makes good writing? 

I’m seriously asking here. I have no clue what qualifies as “good writing.” I’m not even sure such a thing exists. Even when I think about my own writing, all I can talk about is a feeling; some pieces of writing just feel better than others. 

One thing I do know, however, is that, for me to write something “good” (i.e. something I don’t want to rip to shreds and set ablaze), I need to have somewhat of a clear mind. In other words, I believe that what a writer does when she is not writing is almost as important as the act of writing.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 favorite ways to unwind before and after (and sometimes even during) writing.

Table for one! Take yourself on a date. This doesn’t have to be expensive–in fact, it doesn’t have to cost you anything at all if you don’t want it to. For me, this usually means treating myself to a cup of coffee and a cookie at the Barnes & Noble Cafe. Even if I don’t buy any, just being in the company of books feels like a treat. You could do anything from taking yourself on a picnic to making fancy dinner reservations for one. The objective here is to take yourself somewhere new or novel.

Read. You know the old saying: writers read. The tricky part is finding the time, between writing and researching and procrastinating writing and researching, to simply unwind with a book. I try to gift myself a couple of pages before bed every night. Another little trick I like: keep a book in the bathroom instead of a magazine or newspaper. Leave your phone in another room, and enjoy the go (I’m not sponsored by Charmin, I’m just a dork)! 

Word games. My personal favorites are word searches and crossword puzzles. The key here is to keep it analog, to give your eyes and brain a break from backlit smartphones and computers. Dollar Tree and Five Below sell entire books of word games for as little as 1$. Alternatively, try finding some free crossword puzzles or word searches online and print them out. 

Collaging. Tired of words? If you’re sick of staring at words on a screen, options 2 and 3 might not sound very appealing. Whenever I get like this, I try to focus on images and colors. If you’ve got a stack of old magazines somewhere in your house, skim them for images that catch your eye, cut them up, and work them into a collage. This is a great way to keep the creative momentum going while still giving your brain a little break. 

Coloring. There’s a reason therapists keep coloring books and crayons in their waiting rooms. Coloring is a great way to relax and unwind. The adult coloring book phenomenon has grown so much that you can now find themed coloring books for almost every show, movie, and graphic novel you can think of. I’m especially fond of the Harry Potter coloring books. 

Soothing smells. Aromatherapy is the real deal, guys. I’m a sucker for a good scented candle! When I was still in college, I went through at least half a dozen sticks of incense a night during finals season. I also have a trusty diffuser by my bed and an assortment of essential oils to choose from–lavender, citrus, and mint are the best for relaxing. I have to mention Five Below again because I’ve seen scented candles, incense, and essential oils in their stores for 5$ or less.

Beautiful noise. This could mean something different for everyone. For me, it means listening to Brandi Carlile or Ben Platt as well as the instrumental piano songs and rain sounds included in my Calm subscription I highly suggest this subscription for any writers who can afford it. It helps me stay grounded and focused while writing, and it relaxes me after a long day of working on my WIP. Whatever you listen to, try to do it mindfully. Lie down, turn off the lights, plug in your headphones, and just concentrate on the music for a few minutes. It might also help to listen to something new or that isn’t on your daily playlists.

Stress toys. The Gen-Z in me (I’m on the Millennial-Gen-Z cusp) is showing, I know. But trust me on this! Squishy toys, slime, and even clay are great ways to unwind. Psychologists agree that engaging with our senses helps soothe and ground us. The good news is that with the increasing interest in “satisfying videos” (type that into the YouTube search bar and enjoy your trip down the rabbit hole!) you can find stress toys almost anywhere. I get my slime at (you guessed it) Five Below, and Dollar Tree has tubs of Play-Doh for 1$. 

Use your phone. Just NOT for social media. Social media is the enemy of the modern writer. Admittedly, it is also a great self-marketing tool, but this means that mindless surfing can easily turn into a form of work. Instead, try using your phone to play a game that keeps you engaged. My favorite smartphone game is a hidden-objects game called Seekers Notes. It’s non-competitive, fun, and it features a pretty neat storyline!

Retail therapy on a budget. I promise this is more than just another plug for Dollar Tree and Five Below (how do I look into getting them to sponsor me?). I love the feeling of coming home with a new purchase; it’s like Christmas morning, minus the surprise element and a bit of added guilt. Luckily, there are a couple of ways around that yucky feeling of guilt. Firstly, I get things I will actually use and enjoy. You could lose me in the school supply section of Dollar Tree (a girl can never have too many pens)! Secondly, I hunt for bargains–hence my love of Dollar Tree and Five Below. Thrift stores and the dollar section at Target are great alternatives too. Even if you have just 5$ to spend, you can get yourself something you’ll enjoy at any one of these places. The best part? You made it outside of your house, away from your computer, and probably interacted with other human beings. Go you!

I really enjoyed compiling this list! I hope, Dear Reader, that you can find some use in it! 

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Loving-Kindness and Writing Teenage Characters

Back in 2014, I had the chance to attend Leaky Con in Orlando. It was an all-around great time, but the absolute highlight was a panel called “I Was A Teenage Writer.”

One of my Leaky Con 2014 treasures.

From what I understand, “I Was A Teenage Writer” is a recurring event in these conventions. With good reason, too—it’s an amazing panel! It consists of some of the biggest names in YA literature—back in 2014, this included Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Holly Black, and many others—reading excerpts from their early works. And when I say early works, I mean early. The featured authors read from stories, poems, and essays they wrote as tweens and teens. The goal is to show aspiring writers that everyone was a “bad writer” at first.

The 2014 panel was, for the most part, hilarious— at one point, Holly Black burst into tears from laughing so hard at one of her old poems. While most of the authors present took jabs at their old writing, there was one notable exception. Writer and artist Kazu Kibuishi took a slightly different approach to his old writing. Before he started to read, Kibuishi made a disclaimer that he wanted to “show his younger self some respect and compassion” (I’m paraphrasing here. 2014 was a little while ago.).

At the time, I didn’t think much of Kibuishi’s statement, except maybe that his seriousness had briefly shifted the mood in the conference room to a careful silence. But all of this came back to me last week when I was writing Wednesday’s post.

The title of this post was almost “What The Jonas Brothers Taught Me About Loving My Teenage Characters & Younger Self,” but

  1. That’s a fucking mouthful.
  2. Two back-to-back posts about the Jonas Brothers might be a bit much for this audience, no?

Writing about something you loved so passionately as a teenager is tricky because there’s a tendency to talk down on our younger selves. Being in my early twenties, I think about my teenage self quite a bit. But it’s usually something along the lines of “thank God I’m not sixteen anymore.”

All of this reminds me of a meditation term called “loving-kindness.” Essentially, loving-kindness is about killing judgemental thoughts and replacing them with gentleness and understanding. Recently I realized that, when I think about my younger self, I’m often missing loving-kindness.

I’m not exactly alone in this, either. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only twenty-something who cringes at the thought of all those Team Edward posters. (And T-shirts. And the New Moon themed birthday party.) I can’t be the only person who went to the trouble of deleting old social media accounts in an attempt to erase boyband-related posts made at suspicious hours of the night back in 2012.

I can laugh about it now (because 48 posters of Robert Pattinson is a laughable amount), but sometimes I wonder whether I should. Hating on our teenage selves is an almost unavoidable bandwagon behavior; we all do it. And the closer in age we are to our teens, the more vocal we are about how “dumb” and “childish” we used to be as if by doing so we’re putting some sort of metaphorical distance between our present selves and the people we were six years ago. Well, recently, I started thinking about whether that’s fair to past me. 

Speaking of merch…

The flip side of being so close to my teens is that I still remember what it felt like to be a teen. A lot of the embarrassing things I did as a teenager came from a place of strong emotions. When I liked a book or a show, I hung posters and live-tweeted and bought all the merch my Christmas money could buy. When I loved someone, I was loud about it. When I hated someone, it consumed me. And just because I don’t feel the same way anymore doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid. 

This is 11 year-old me at her first Jonas Brothers concert.

For me, showing my teenage self some loving-kindness means admiring the strength of her emotions. Sometimes, when I catch myself being overly critical of my younger self, I try to flip the script on myself. It usually sounds something like “I love the way you love things. I love the way your eyes go wide when you’re talking about a story you love. I love the way your heart flutters when you see your favorite actor on screen. I love that you feel so strongly.”

I can’t say I’m perfect about this. I still talk down on my younger self sometimes. But, after a few months of loving-kindness, I have a newly found respect for my teenage self.

Strong. Fucking. Emotions.

The reason I’m writing about this now, Dear Reader, is because the protagonist of my WIP is a teenage girl. Her name, I might as well tell you now, is Anne Marie. I absolutely love Anne Marie, but, as I was looking through some old drafts of the story that inspired this novel, I realized I could have shown her a little more loving-kindness.

It was interesting going back to my workshop notes and finding that readers really liked the narrative voice poking fun at Anne Marie’s flair for drama. Anne Marie, much like my younger self, is all about strong emotions and wearing them on her sleeve. Going back to those early drafts made me realize that when we’re writing about all the awkwardness and urgency and the theatrics of being a teenager, we can choose to talk down on our characters. Or we can choose to show them some loving-kindness. 

Writing teenage characters in a way that truly honors their experiences is all about compassion and understanding. It’s about toning down judgments. It’s a practice I’m finding especially challenging as I attempt to write a novel with a teen protagonist but for an adult audience. 

I am not an expert writer, and I’m not trying to tell anyone how to write. But I find that practicing loving-kindness with my characters really helps me understand and sympathize with them. If you’re writing a character that you aren’t quite sure how to feel about—especially if this character is a teenager—I urge you to try some loving-kindness with her. You might be surprised at what you learn about her. And about yourself. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing