Early in the month of August, I took a hard look at my writing responsibilities and my utter failure to meet them. Honestly, I don't feel like reflecting here on the reasons I've been struggling – I'm sick of thinking about burnout. That frustration was with me on the 5th, when I examined my schedule, realized I was behind, and decided to say 'fuck it.'
Working at a generally sustainable pace is an important part of my life as a disabled person. But the thing is, so are unsustainable bursts of effort. My sustainable pace keeps my house tidy, but every now and then, I set aside a day for a deep clean that I know will leave me exhausted because the satisfaction of having a well-scrubbed house is, to me, worth that exhaustion. This is not advice on how to live. These big bursts of effort are probably not good for me! But I do all kinds of things that aren't good for me, that's life. Sometimes I'm going to push myself a little too hard in the interest of something I want to accomplish. I'm learning to be realistic about that, to plan for it, and to accommodate it.
This is the mindset with which I approached a twelve-hour writing marathon on August 6th. A heady combination of frustration at burnout, fear of the Deadline Pile, and cussedness led me to turn to my partner and tell them my plan: a twelve-hour writing marathon, 8am to 8pm, uninterrupted. No admin, no housework, no domestic logistics – just writing.
I told Twitter about the writing marathon, too, because I enjoy my efforts more when they can benefit and support a community. I invited people to hop on and off, casually coworking with me. It was a blast.
I expected to get a lot done, and I did! My word count for the day was about 8,590, which is, for me, excellent. At the end of the day, I was tired but not nearly as wrung out as I thought I'd be. The next day, which I'd set aside for recovery and self-care, I wasn't as flattened as I would have expected. This is a direct result of the fact that I invited other people to join me and thought about the kind of care they might need if they were working with me the whole time.
Because of that consideration of the physical, mental, and emotional needs of the strangers on social media who might decide to write with me (or who might decide, in the future, to emulate my unsustainable decision), I took care of myself during that day of writing in a way I never have before at any point in my career. It taught me lessons that I have been reflecting on in the weeks since. It changed how I work, and the changes that I made have effectively broken me out of my months-long writing struggles.
Here's what I learned about myself and my process over the course of that 12 hours and the days that followed. Maybe some of it will be useful to you, too.
- Morning brain deserves more credit than I've been giving it. For this writing marathon day, I skipped my typical AM routine of working for a couple of hours on my phone in bed, then spending a couple of hours on admin at my computer. I've been working this way under the pretense that I need to let my brain warm up for writing – but the reality is I'm starting my day with three to four hours of intense problem-solving and communication sprints. No wonder I feel wrung out by noon and then take a long time to feel ready to create words! Skipping that first-thing admin grind left me with tons of capacity for writing.
- Writing is work. Hear me out on this one. Of course, we all know that writing is taxing mentally and emotionally, but sometimes I forget that writing is effortful for my body. I am not immune to the tendency to separate body and mind, to think of the I as being separate from the meat of me. But the truth is that the brain consumes a huge amount of resources and energy, especially when it imagines and translates that imagination into legible communication. This is all a long way of saying: writing burns fuel. In reminding others to nourish themselves, I came to terms with how much nourishment I need during my workday – nourishment I don't usually bother to give myself. Putting food into the brain-machine every couple of hours has made my days a lot less exhausting.
- Movement is not optional. I tend to plug myself into my office chair at the start of the day and stay there until something needs doing that can't be accomplished from said chair. Going into my twelve-hour marathon, I decided ahead of time that I'd incorporate stretching and movement into every hour because I knew it wasn't sustainable to just sit and write for hours on end. Which begs the question... why do I pretend it's sustainable when I'm doing non-writing work for hours on end?! The true answer to this is because writing feels like Accomplishment, while admin work feels like chores; I tend to approach treating my body well as a reward rather than a requirement. I've learned that I need to treat my body well, whether I'm grinding out chapters or sending a million emails. Getting up and stretching, walking around, going outside every hour – those are things I've decided to incorporate into my workday no matter what.
- It’s okay to put things down. Being a person involves a lot of fucking work. I try to maintain my house, my partnerships, my friendships, and my life with a level of care and consistency that consumes most of my time. That’s normal, that’s what a life is made of – but it doesn’t leave a lot of room on the plate for work. To do this big marathon, I informed the people who I love and to whom I have responsibilities that I was going to need to set those responsibilities aside for twelve hours. It was a scary thing to ask for! But it turned out to be fine. If I was sick in bed or driving on a long road trip or organizing a picnic for twelve hours, my friends and family and household wouldn’t expect me to be doing chores or handling bills or texting about how great A League of Their Own is. It turns out that asking for support and understanding in a big workday push is not different from asking for support and understanding in anything else. The people who love me want me to accomplish my work and are willing to make space for what that involves. I think my fear of being a Don Draper-esque figure has stopped me from asking for that space – I loathe the idea of my job making me into a tyrannical despot who demands beverages and won’t pick up his own necktie off the floor because of an ill-defined demon called stress at the office. But hey, guess what? That’s not the only option! It turns out that the world doesn’t burn down if I have to stop taking care of it in order to write a book, and asking for help with my usual responsibilities is a perfectly tubular thing to do.
- Big pushes are part of the rhythm of my disability. I touched on this above but want to go into it more here. All of the lessons I've learned from this writing marathon are lessons about me, not lessons about you, and that's especially true in this case. That said, I want to share this because it’s turned out to be an important part of accepting the way that I write, and that is something I think might be useful to people who aren’t me. I’ve internalized a lot of ideas about the importance of working responsibly, at a steady pace that chips away at projects – but in this writing marathon, I realized that the “steady pace” I strive for is something that requires a predictable body and a reliable mind. I don’t have either of those things! So why the hell would I set myself a schedule that demands them? The truth is that there are days when I can’t do anything, and there are days when I can do a whole lot. Accepting the way my body and mind function means accepting that I need to work with that shifting level of capacity. It also means accepting that a big day of Getting Shit Done might necessarily be followed by a few slow days, and that’s not a bad thing. That doesn’t mean I’ve failed at a sustainable workflow – it means that a sustainable workflow for me involves ebbs and flows rather than steady, consistent output. Being prepared for and accepting of my physical and mental limitations isn’t an indulgence; it’s growth.
- Rest feels responsible when I treat it as recovery. When I was a powerlifter (picture me misty-eyed with longing here), I followed a training schedule that included recovery days for every muscle group I worked. This is because recovery is a vital part of building muscle and increasing strength. When I scheduled this big writing marathon for myself, I decided to do the same thing. I set the next day aside for recovery. I didn’t look at screens, I didn’t answer emails, I didn’t try to write – I prioritized caring for my brain in the immediate aftermath of it doing a huge lift, just like I would prioritize caring for my body the day following a new squat record. At the end of my recovery day, my partner told me that they’d been glad to see me resting, and I balked. I wasn’t resting, I thought, I was working on recovery. The activities I was doing were identical to rest, but I’ve always thought of rest as something apart from work to be approached when there’s time available. Designating those rest activities as being part of my working rhythm – as recovery – made it, so I didn’t neglect them. Rest and recovery are not separate from work; they are part of work.
These lessons aren’t the only things I took away from my twelve-hour writing day. They’re just the ones I know how to articulate. In the time since, I’ve done a couple of other writing marathons, including a two-day bonanza that showed me the boundary where output quantity and output quality drift towards an inverse relationship. More than anything, I learned that I love inviting my community into my work – that writing with people, knowing we’re creating at the same time, is thrilling to me.
None of us ever works alone. I think that’s pretty great.
PS - I host coworking dates on Zoom once a month for members of the Stone Soup Supper Club. We hop onto a virtual video call, chat for a little while, and then work together. These coworking dates have been about two hours long, mostly on Saturdays; heading into 2023, I’m planning to extend the length and diversify the days so more people can participate! Join the Supper Club to join me for this month’s coworking date, October 15, to come write and stretch and snack and thrive with me for a few hours. I’ll see you there!