Featured Writer on Wellness: Heather Marshall

Filed in Writers on Wellness by on May 29, 2014 • views: 987

Heather Marshall 2I think stiffness is the biggest physical challenge of being a writer.

We sit for hours at a time, hunched over a desk. I write all of my first drafts and take research notes with pen and paper, which alleviates the eye strain from looking at a screen.

Still, I hold the same position for longer than is good for the body.

Stiffness and Rigidity Also Affect the Mind

I think the rigidity that can set in also affects the mind, so the challenge is to find ways to keep body and mind healthy while putting in the time needed to get the work done.

Several years ago, I gave myself permission to get up and out of the seat, push away from the page or computer before my writing time was up. This can be risky because many of us find excuses to get away from the desk that are not productive—we’re just avoiding the work. I first began to learn how to decipher the difference between the two impulses when I took up distance running.

When I trained for my first marathon, I learned not only about the importance pushing past resistance and keeping going on low days; I also learned when to listen to my body and take a break.

I learned this the hard way, of course, by not listening and winding up with injury. My yoga practice has also helped this.

Yoga Teaches Us Where Our Edge Is

Often, in yoga, we hold long poses and breathe through discomfort.

We also learn where our edge is, physically and mentally, when it’s healthy to stay at the edge and when it’s time to back off and rest.

Now, when I’m feeling rigid and stuck, physically or mentally, I take a few moments to stop, breathe and listen in. If I need to get up and out, I do. Usually, I run. Sometimes I go for the distance I’d planned for that day’s run; sometimes I barely get a quarter mile away from my house when the body and the ideas loosen up.

If that’s the case, I turn back, go back to the desk and get back to writing. If I feel the need for the full run, I make up the writing time during the time that had been allocated for exercise.

Too Much Self-Doubt Makes Me Shut Down

Self-doubt is my biggest emotional challenge. There’s the obvious doubt about the quality of the work. Is it good enough?

Some of that is healthy. It keeps me pushing to see if I can improve. Too much makes me shut down. In that case, a piece of work might stall in progress, or a completed work might languish in my computer instead of being sent out.

For a long time, I also doubted whether I was even entitled to have writing goals. I’m a mother of three. I volunteer in the community. I wondered if it was too selfish to take the time to do what I love. I squeezed writing in after all the other, seemingly more important, tasks were completed.

I didn’t fully commit until I started my MFA at Queens University of Charlotte. I don’t think that’s the only way to cope with doubt, but it certainly worked for me.

My MFA: When My Writing Became My Homework

I had the initial validation of being accepted, and then my writing became homework. My children and I did our homework at the same time. It was wonderful—not only was I able to make time for writing and reading, I also was able to demonstrate being a good student for my children!

My homework took more time than my children’s, though, so I began to get up at 4:30 each morning. I still do. It’s a beautiful, peaceful time of day. No-one needs anything from me at that hour, so I’m free to write.

In addition, I discovered that the doubting, critical part of my brain takes longer to wake up than the creative side. I have my coffee and a bit of toast (with butter and raspberry jam), a short meditation, and off I go.

Along with the validation and discipline I developed at Queens, I also found a wonderful community and began to recognize the importance of engaging with the larger writing community. I’m still in touch with many of the people I met at Queens and have worked at letting go of my fear of meeting people.

I take every opportunity I can to go to readings, either to read my own work or to hear other writers read. Being in a community of writers and readers is always affirming.

The Darkest Moment: Progress Isn’t Linear

I’m not sure I’ve had a darkest moment! Running a couple of marathons initially taught me how to push through. It also taught me that there will be days on end when I feel that I’m not making any progress at all and then everything comes together.

Progress isn’t linear. I have learned to trust the process. Yoga has validated that as well. It can be difficult to notice subtle shifts, but if you stay with the practice, over time, you’ll get there.

The One Thing That Has Kept You On Your Path

I love words. I love books. When I was nine or ten years old, I’d take the bus into the library in Kilmarnock. It was an old, musty building. I still remember the deep joy I felt browsing the shelves and then carrying books back to the desk in the library, reading and taking notes.

I loved the language as much as the whole story. I wanted to be part of that. I still do.

Advice for a Young Writer: Develop a Writing Discipline

The two most difficult parts of becoming a writer are discipline and sharing your work.

In terms of discipline, young writers have to learn to come to the page regularly (every day). I don’t think writing is different from anything else in that regard, but it gets romanticized.

Some people think they need to wait until they have an idea. You can’t wait for that. And you can’t expect that every day you will produce great results. You have to do it, again and again and again. If you do this, you’ll be a writer. And then you’ll have the terrifying challenge of sharing your work.

To get around these, you can put your writing time on your calendar. Notice what motivates you in other areas of your life and apply those tools to writing. Join a writing group that requires you to submit work regularly. If you can’t find one, start one.

This will help with discipline and with learning to share your work. For several years, I was part of a group that met on Tuesday nights. We wrote together and shared our work immediately. No-one could pass and no-one could offer excuses for his or her work. We honored the process.

* * *

Originally from Kilmarnock, Scotland, Heather Marshall is an author and teacher currently based in the foothills of South Carolina. Other than reading and writing, she likes most to be outside. In her writing, she explores the connection—or disconnection—between characters and the natural environment.

When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s tromping or riding over the hills near her home, and, when she can get away with it, on the other side of the Atlantic. Read more about her on her blog.


The Thorn Tree frontThe Thorn Tree: Scottish stone cottage of Agatha, a spinster aunt with more than a helping of spunk.

For Agatha’s niece Margaret, born in the States but with her own secret connection to the cottage, packing her resentful daughter Hope off to Scotland the summer after her parents have split seems like the cleanest solution to the kind of messy emotions Margaret hates.

Margaret spends her summer finding out who she is other than a wife and mother ― and she likes it. Hope has to reinvent herself and her vision of her dad, tricky seas to navigate even without trying to figure out how to eat a bannock and remember which way to look when skateboarding across the road. And gentle Aunt Agatha wonders what would have happened if she’d made room in her life for romance and adventure, instead of just for family.

Told from the perspective of each woman, The Thorn Tree weaves together the complexities of love and life for each generation, and shows the strength of family ties.

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