5 Tips for Writers Limited by a Chronic Illness

Writers with chronic illnesses, whether that’s fibromyalgia, mental health issues, ALS, multiple sclerosis, etc., often feel like we are seriously limited in our ability to produce quality work. Here are five tips to help you do what you can without using up all of your spoons.

Last week I was feeling terrible. I feel a bit better this week, but I had to cancel a meeting anyway. One of my colleagues who was at the meeting said: “I am always so impressed with how much you do get done — blog posts, Medium posts, book reviews, plus whatever editing you’re doing behind the scenes…not to mention, reading all those books!”

I felt a bit like I was being called out for being too productive to be sick. I don’t think that’s what my colleague meant, in fact I think she was being complimentary, but those of you with chronic illnesses will know how I feel.

It’s not that I’m not sick, but that I’ve developed a personal management plan that allows me to do writing-related things except when I’m feeling really, really terrible (like I was last week) as opposed to just really terrible (like I am now). I share five steps of that plan here.

1.Forget trying to keep up with the Joneses

There are people out there who are working on five (reported) pieces at once, while also editing a literary journal and writing a book on the side. That’s not me – and it’s probably not you, either.

Before I got sick, I could do in a day what it would take most people a week to do. That was just how I worked – and it was a (negative) precursor to my illness. These days it’s the other way around – I get done in a week what most people get done in a day. And I have to be OK with that, which has been one of the hardest things to accept about my illness. Because of this, I request extra long deadlines on any writing pieces, also to incorporate the inevitable bad days.

When other people think you’re too active to be sick, they have no idea what your previous productivity levels were like. You’re the only one who knows those details, and who has to deal with – in my case – the cognitive decline that prevents you from being as productive.

2. You can be working even when you’re not working.

“So much of not writing is actually writing. A writer at rest may at all times be imperceptibly writing.”

–Ingrid Rogas Contreras

I’ve written about this before. I can manage about 1-1.5 hours max in front of the computer at a time. I spend about an hour writing these Wednesday blog posts, while my Monday quote post takes about 20-30 mins and my Saturday shot post takes about 10 mins.

I’m not just pulling ideas out of thin air. I think about my posts throughout the week and write them out in my head, while also keeping an eye out for relevant/related content. That way, when I sit down to write, I already have ideas to work with. The process becomes more streamlined.

As Beethoven wrote: “I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down.”

–via Maria Popova

3. Reuse and recycle

As my colleague said, “you write blog posts and Medium posts.” But the trick is that the Medium posts are not new content. This was a recommendation from Phillip Smith in my post about how to drive more traffic to your blog.

Medium is a completely different platform than WordPress, with a completely different audience. I had an account there several years ago, and decided to reactivate it and repost the most popular posts from this blog. It takes about 10 mins to import a post, fix the formatting, and publish it on Medium.

Repurposing content is also helpful in freelance work. A really basic example: you’re reporting a story about peregrine falcons returning to an area in which they were locally extirpated (I picked this topic because, in elementary school, I did a report on peregrines and still think they’re cool). You could potentially spin this into several stories: 1. The success of the reintroduction program; 2. How the researcher you’re interviewing got into this kind of work; 3. Where some of the researcher’s graduate students have ended up working and why.

For example, I interviewed Barbara Kingsolver for Longreads. It was a great interview, but what I put together for Longreads was all about the craft of writing and Kingsolver’s writing history. I had an entire section of interview that was about her new book, and it didn’t fit into the Longreads interview both in terms of length and context. So I’m publishing it with the LA Review of Books instead (coming out December 3).

Many writers recommend this “multiple story” approach – in fact, I first learned about it in a workshop by Lori May at the Banff Centre.

4. Social media is a highlights reel

This is a well-worn phrase, and even though we all know this it can be a hard one to really come to terms with.

My colleague said “whatever editing you’re doing behind the scenes.” Note we took on no editing for the month of November because I wanted to do NaNoWriMo. While we do have one editing project lined up, it’s not only my responsibility. My husband works on it as well.

But I haven’t stated this publicly. So if you were browsing through my Twitter or Facebook feeds it might seem as though not only am I editing, but I’m also publishing blog posts, Medium posts, etc.

Nope. I can’t. It’s mentally impossible for me. If we’re working on an editing project, I don’t have the spoons to also write great blogs, work on NaNoWriMo, etc.

Since I’m not constantly creating new social media content, I tend to share older content where applicable – in relation to something someone else has posted, for example, or in relation to a current media topic. It might look like I just wrote it, but actually it’s already existing content.

5. We can all make time to read more books

The final thing my colleague mentioned was “all the books you read.”

It’s true, I read a lot. I go to my local library at least once a week to pick up books that I’ve put on hold, books that I run across on Twitter or via friend’s recommendations, etc. Then when I’m in the library I usually grab a book from the recently-returned shelf – these reads are more serendipitous.

But I can read a lot for several reasons. First of all, I don’t go out a lot. Well, I rarely go out at all. I might run some errands (like going to the library!). And I’m planning to go to the pool again now that I’m not doing intensive gardening. Lately we’ve been out for a few photo walks. But other than that I’m at home – and I never go out at night. Once I’ve used up my computer time, I read (or nap – I usually sleep about 2.5-3hrs every afternoon).

I also take a book with me wherever I’m likely to have to wait – at the doctor’s, the dentist’s, etc. When I had that bad week of going to the hospital every morning for IV antibiotics, I ended up finishing a book by the time the treatments were done. It was a good book, which also helped take my mind off being in the hospital.

And I read for about half an hour or so before bed, just to calm my mind and get me ready for sleep. 30 mins every night adds up to a lot of books.

So. For writers with a chronic illness, these are a few options for managing your writing and your illness. You may have other tips and tricks that have worked for you – please leave them in the comments!

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