How to Survive the Emotional Turbulence of the Writing Life

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on April 17, 2017 • views: 2346

turbulenceIn a recent Writing and Wellness survey, I asked readers to share with me some of their biggest struggles when it comes to managing the writing life.

One of the answers I received from several participants was that they needed help managing the “emotional roller-coaster.” More specifically, they didn’t want to feel so “emotionally tossed about.”

Try to explain this phenomenon to non-writers and you’ll get a lot of blank stares, but writers and other creatives know exactly what we’re talking about. It goes something like this:

Awesome! I finally finished my novel! I’m so proud of myself!

Man, this stuff is crap. No one is going to want to read this. I should just trash it all.

Sweet! My critique group loved my story. I’m going to send it out.

I’m so anxious. My story has been out there for five weeks and I haven’t heard back yet.

Okay, I’m done with this writing thing. All I get are rejections and more rejections.

Whoa, an editor just told me my characters were great!

Ugh. Five years at this and I’m still not published.

Whoo-hoo! I can’t believe I just signed my first publishing contract today!

I don’t know why I bothered working so hard. My publisher is doing nothing to market my book.

Wow, a reader just gave me a five-star review! I’m treating myself to a night out.

My books aren’t selling worth beans, and I have no more time or money to invest in marketing.

I can’t finish this novel to save my life. I think my writing days are done.

My novel just won first place!

We think that once we reach a certain level of success, the emotional ups and downs will stop, or at least even out a bit, but from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve heard from other writers, that’s just not the case. The emotional roller-coaster is just part of the job.

None of us enjoy it. Sure, we like the ups, but we despise the downs, and feel them keenly. They aren’t just difficult, they’re devastating, and boy it can get tiring to always be wondering if we’re really cut out for this.

So if there’s little chance of this emotional roller-coaster going away, how can we learn to ride it well?

roller-coasterWhy a Writer’s Emotional Roller-coaster Seems So Difficult

When examining this issue, we have to take a step back for a minute, and realize that emotional roller-coasters are common in all types of situations. Sometimes as writers, we can get tunnel vision and think it’s only because we’re creative people that we suffer these drastic ups and downs, but it only takes a bit of poking around to realize that’s definitely not true.

Every day people struggle with difficult emotional changes. There’s the emotional turbulence of dealing with an illness like diabetes, cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease. Being a caregiver definitely qualifies, as do any of the big stressful events in life, including marriage, divorce, moving, and having and/or raising children. Even surviving life as a teenager is often referred to as the same type of experience.

Most of us have gone through these other types of emotional roller-coasters too, but yet we qualify the writing roller-coaster as different somehow. Why is that?

roller coaster kidsThe Writing Emotional Roller-coaster is Unique

Singer/songwriter Enrique Iglesias said:

“The one thing I’ve learned in the last ten years is that successful artists don’t get paid to write and sing songs, they get paid for the psychological roller-coaster they’re going to have to ride. That’s the hard work.”

What a quote, right? Creatives are nodding their heads. It’s true. To manage this life, we have to learn to manage the dips and rises, but why is it these seem unique compared to the other ups and downs of life?

Some of it has to do with our expectations. If we’re diagnosed with cancer, or if we’re taking care of someone with a serious illness, we know that it’s going to be tough. We expect a difficult experience, and that may make it a bit easier to manage.

Becoming a published writer, however, or continuing to achieve in our writing careers, is certainly not something we expect to feel like battling cancer. Writing is a dream, a passion, and we imagine that dream coming true, and how wonderful that will feel. The down times, as a result, can be a real shock to the system.

Is it really supposed to feel like this? we ask ourselves. It can be even more confusing when we look around and see other writers thriving in their careers. They seem to be doing so well, it’s easy to imagine that we’re doing something wrong.

What we don’t see is the hard times that other writers go through, and there’s no doubt they go through them.

“Being a writer is hard work,” says screenwriter Isabel Holtreman. “And I’m not just talking about the work itself. It’s difficult to stay even, to function in society, to not allow ourselves to fall into the pit of despair….”

“Every comment and edit can make you feel like your writing will never be good enough,” says author and coach Sukhi Jutla. “And just when you think you are getting somewhere with your writing, you feel like you are back at square one.”

“Either way you boil it,” says writer Krystina Pecorari-McBride, “being a writer is emotional. There are so many ups and downs—the trick is learning how to ride the emotional roller coaster.”

Perhaps another part of the issue is that writing is such an intimate part of our inner self that we feel the emotional downturns even more keenly than we might other types of negative experiences. Losing a job, for instance, can lead to some definite down experiences, some that can even effect our security and ability to function in the world.

Yet still, those writing lows can feel even more devastating. Financial issues hit our minds and spark our fears for survival; writing issues hit our hearts and spark our fears that our lives are meaningless. Slightly deeper stuff.

“Writing is an emotional, internal, weird thing,” says YA author Ava Yae. “It tricks our brains into thinking we’re literary geniuses one day, then has us pounding our faces on the keyboard the next, ready to toss every word we’ve ever written ever in the trash….And you know? It’s hard. It’s really legitimately tough to have confidence in your work and yourself one minute, and deal with crushing, joy-sucking doubt the next. It’s hard to call yourself a writer when you look at your work and wonder what the hell you’re thinking writing this nonsense.”

emotional makeupWriters Can’t Change Their Emotional Makeup

The problem writers share is that we enjoy where our emotions take us on the page, but then we curse the way they can affect us in real life. And unfortunately, we can’t choose. Many of us were drawn to writing because we needed an outlet for those deep emotions, but then we’re disappointed when those same emotions make the writing life itself more difficult.

The truth is that you’re literally stuck with your emotional makeup. Outside of getting some therapy when you need it, there’s not much you can do to change how you’re wired, and that’s a good thing, because you can continue to use your intense emotions to fuel your writing.

Anaïs Nin once encouraged a young, aspiring writer to nourish his strong emotions, and to let them flow as they would, stating that “creation comes from an overflow.” She went on to explain:

“The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing. Permit yourself to flow and overflow, allow for the rise in temperature, all the expansions and intensifications. Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”

I love that last sentence. It’s the writing that balances us, the writing that helps ease the pressure of all those emotions inside. It’s why we return to it again, why we’re compelled to keep trying despite the difficulties. We have to surrender to this compulsion, surrender and surrender again to who we are, and to what we need to do to find balance within.

That means we have to accept the whole package, accept that we will experience pain over and over again during our creative careers, but we will also experience intense highs. Then we have to recommit on almost a daily basis to release the pressure onto the page, to create and to do our best to make something of value out of what we feel, because that’s where we find meaning for the entire experience, and where we have our best chance of connecting with others.

Meanwhile, there are things we can do to take the sting out of those emotional lows.

parachute10 Ways to Cope with the Turbulence

The key word here is “cope.” Try not to berate yourself for struggling with the emotional difficulties of the writing life. You’re not trying to cure yourself here, just find ways to support yourself through the hard experiences.

  1. Write about it. Seems cliché, but studies have shown that journaling about difficult experiences is cathartic.
  2. Know that it will pass. Writers and other creatives often feel emotions intensely, and become absorbed in that feeling. Try to remind yourself that this is a temporary state, and that the emotion will pass. That can ease some of its intensity.
  3. Let it out. Remember that repressed emotions are dangerous for your health. (For more on that, read “Why Writers Should Ignore ‘Be Positive’ Advice.”) Choose a healthy way to let it out. Cry if you need to, punch a few pillows, go for a run, write a letter that you never send, bake some cookies, whatever works for you.
  4. Accept it. As long as you deny the situation at hand (“I can’t believe this is happening!”) you will continue to experience pain. The moment you can accept it, the pain will lessen, and your mind will be more open to coming up with solutions.
  5. Realize the trade-off. When those downs feel really miserable, try to remember the highs that you’ve experienced in your writing life. Realize there are two sides to every coin, and that you will enjoy more good experiences as well.
  6. Identify your triggers. Most of us have “trigger thoughts” that start the emotional roller-coaster on its downward trend. These usually go something like this: “I knew it. My writing is no good. I’m a fraud. I’ll never get there.” These are the thoughts that trigger all the emotional turbulence. When you hear these in your head, tell yourself to “stop,” and choose more soothing thoughts instead, like “I’ve gone through ups and downs before. Everything will be okay. I can get through this.”
  7. Take care of yourself. Many times emotional lows tie in with physical lows. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and participating in stress-relieving activities like yoga and meditation. These are especially beneficial to creatives. Keeping your physical body healthy and active can also make you more resilient during low emotional times.
  8. Talk to a good friend. Choose someone who’s been there, or who understands of the writing life. Writing friends can be hugely helpful during these times.
  9. Choose something new and cheery to add to your writing space. Give yourself a reason to smile.
  10. Know your limitations. Maybe you’ve been driving yourself too hard? Creative folks often expect too much of themselves. See if you need to back off and give yourself a break. Know when you need to say enough is enough.

How do you manage the emotional ups and downs of the writer’s life?

Note: This post came out of responses from Writing & Wellness readers. If you have questions, sign up for our newsletter today and don’t hesitate to ask!

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Comments (4)

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  1. I love this post, Colleen–it truly captures the writer’s emotional roller coaster. This is a tough, tough business, and the advice to “get a thick skin” will only take you so far. As I often tell my editorial clients, “We’re not trying to sell bread dough here, but part of your very heart and soul.” As an author, I know this well.
    And funny thing–the roller coaster really doesn’t ever stop.
    I love your tips. What works best for me is as you say–write it out. When that voice shouts in my ear, I just tell it I hear it. And it’s probably right. But right now, I have a paragraph/scene/chapter to write. Then I dive in.

    • Colleen says:

      So true, Susan. We’re on the ride for good! Your comment about saying “I hear you” makes me picture that discouraging voice as an annoying aunt or brother or something. Nice, helpful image. :O)

  2. I’ve found I sometimes need to give in and wallow in the emotion for a few hours…or days if the trigger event was big.There really are no shortcuts to the other side of grief, for instance. I have to slog right through the middle, feel the pain, and then move on.