Writing with Chronic Illness

I work full-time as a paralegal in a large law firm in Leeds and I also struggle with chronic illness – fibromyalgia and endometriosis in my case. As you can imagine, writing books as well is very much a case of careful management of both time and energy. I know a lot of writers, particularly those writing their first novel are in a similar position, so I thought I’d share a few things that I discovered, mostly through trial and error, that helped me.

  1. Write little and often 

When I was writing my first novel I set myself a writing goal of 300 words a day. I know that seems a very small amount but it felt manageable alongside balancing my work and my health. And here’s the thing. I often ended up writing more than that, but knowing I only had to sit down and write 300 words meant that I sat down and wrote nearly every day. And sitting down and writing nearly every day is how you get that first book written!

  1. Move as much as you can 

This is important for all writers but perhaps the most for those of us with chronic illness who feel too exhausted to go to the gym or for a walk. On days when I know I’ll be sitting at my desk writing for a long period of time, I set a timer for every 45 minutes and when it goes off I get up and walk around the room, or have a stretch or dance around the kitchen for a couple of minutes. It really helps get your energy moving again!

  1. Meditate 

I don’t necessarily mean sitting cross-legged on the floor in silence (although if that floats your boat I highly recommend it – nothing beats it for a restorative practice in this crazy busy world). By meditation I mean allowing yourself to find time to just be, to let your brain slip into neutral and have a rest. Not only is this restorative but it’s also the place where I unravel the most plot holes. Otherwise known as daydreaming, it can be done in the bath, while staring out of the window, sitting in the garden or on a gentle walk. 

  1. Don’t forget to do things you love 

It can feel sometimes as though every spare minute that you have should be spent writing. I tried to do that and didn’t find it particularly conducive to either my health or my writing process in the end. Give yourself time to do the other things you love as well. Read, knit, crochet, watch TV, cook, go to a yoga class. We can load the guilt on ourselves sometimes and buy into the idea that a lot of time spent doing these things is wasted time but balance is important for your energy levels and your creative brain.

  1. Make sleep a priority 

It’s tempting to stay up late writing, or to get up early to write before work, especially if we see other writers doing the same. But when we are living with a chronic condition, good quality rest is important – don’t compromise. Your first novel will be done when it’s done, enjoy the process because this will probably be the only book you write without a deadline…. And speaking of deadlines, one last little tip…

5.5 Be honest with people about your health 

I used to try to hide my illness and pretend I was “normal” (whatever that means). It doesn’t help, and 99.9% of people will support you in any way they can. My agent and my publisher both know that I need flexible and generous deadlines because of my health. I was really nervous when I broached the subject with them but they were so helpful. So always be honest, always ask for what you need – you’ll be surprised how much people want to help.

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3 Comments

  1. What a fabulous post! This is such sage advice and I couldn’t agree more. The last point about being upfront about your health is really important. I certainly used to be embarrassed by being ill but once I got over that and started being honest with people (and yes, that includes my editor and my agent) I was amazed how generous and supportive they were in their responses. Being honest about things, and being kind to yourself, makes it so much easier to achieve your goals. I’m really looking forward to more posts. Thank you!

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