Gareth L. Powell was born in Bristol in 1970 and still lives nearby. He began writing at school and was fortunate to count Diana Wynne Jones and Helen Dunmore as early mentors. After a number of small press publications, he sold his first professional short story to Interzone magazine in 2006. A short novel, Silversands, appeared in 2010 and was followed a year later by his first full-length novel, The Recollection. Since then, he has written many further novels, including the award-winning Embers of War trilogy and the four-book Ack-Ack Macaque series, as well as somehow finding the time to produce two short story collections, the crime novella Ragged Alice, and the nonfiction guide About Writing.
Writing has always been a solitary profession fraught with disappointment, poverty and self-doubt. Even during the best of times, it can play havoc with your emotions and sense of self-worth. Rejections, bad reviews, writer’s block . . . add these to financial insecurity, lack of exercise and long hours spent alone at a keyboard, and it’s not hard to see why some authors become depressed or disillusioned.
But now, in these times of pandemic, those worries are amplified, and joined by a whole new set of stresses. Some of us are finding our creativity frozen because we’re overwhelmed by the situation. Some are lonely and find the lack of human contact dulls our desire to work, while others are suddenly stuck in a house filled with people who never leave, and never give us enough peace to be creative.
Faced with all this, it’s vital we learn to look after ourselves – for the sake of our mental and physical health as much as for the sake of our work. And the first step in looking after ourselves is to learn to put ourselves first.
Putting myself first doesn’t come naturally to me. I seem to be one of those people who looks after everybody else but can’t ask for help when he needs it. Not that this is a bad thing. I have people in my life who need a lot of looking after. But I also need to get better at learning to relax.
One of the things about being a writer under deadline is that I feel guilty for every minute in which I’m not writing. My inner voice tells me I should be working every spare moment to earn money and keep us afloat. And if I’m not writing, I should be cleaning the house or doing the laundry . . . It’s easy to get sucked into a constant whirl of competing tasks, to the point where you feel you aren’t succeeding at any of them because you’re too busy worrying about the others.
Recently, all this got on top of me and I lost the ability to write. So, I started taking time to do small things to help take care of my mental and physical health. Here are Ten Self-Care Tips you might like to try:
1. Schedule in an hour a day for recuperation and relaxation.
Read a book, play a game, grab forty winks. It’s on the schedule, so you don’t need to feel guilty. You’re not slacking off; you’re investing in your ability to keep functioning.
2. Meet friends online.
I’ve been using Zoom and Skype to have face-to-face conversations and online parties with friends, where we dress up and drink wine together, and it has helped me feel like a participant in life again, rather than a bystander. Plus, as a writer, it’s good to talk more. Talking to people provides raw material when creating characters. It’s also good to step outside your own head sometimes.
Go for a walk, if you can do it safely. Steer clear of shops and busy areas and enjoy the way the air smells fresher. It will stop you feeling imprisoned in your home and boost your mood and your immune system.
4. Brighten up the place.
I have a vase of fake roses on my kitchen table. They look real but they don’t trigger my allergies. I’ve also put some fan art I’ve received up on my wall to remind me that people enjoy my books.
5. Feed your body as well as your brain.
Try to be imaginative with what food you have and vary your diet as much as possible. Keep it interesting. Cooking can be as much of a creative outlet as writing.
6. Try to worry only about the things you can control.
Easier said than done, but it helps if you avoid the constant barrage of news and maybe only tune in once a day for the headlines, rather than exposing yourself to the firehose of anxiety and drama.
7. Make playlists to help you write and keep you cheerful.
Make one filled with songs that make you want to dance around the room, and another to screen out background noise and help you concentrate. Personally, I find café noise helps me focus on my writing, and there are many two- or three-hour long videos of ambient coffee shop noise on YouTube.
8. Expose yourself to different media.
You can’t spend all day and all night cooped up with your novel. You need to give your brain time to absorb other ideas and make new connections. So, read as much as you can. Binge watch your favourite shows. View some art on the Internet. Everything is fuel to your writing fire!
9. Make a housework rota to stop it feeling like it’s all getting on top of you.
That way, you’ll have a specific and achievable task for each day, rather than a huge avalanche of outstanding jobs.
10. Embrace family life.
Rather than seek solitude, I recently moved my work desk into the living room, so the kids can keep me company while I work, and because it’s brighter and less like a cave. This puts me at the heart of family life, even when working, so keeps those feelings of being a hermit at bay.
I still have a long way to go. I need to lose a bunch of weight and my diet still has room for improvement. But even making small positive steps has brightened my general mood considerably and helped me get my writing mojo back. A bright, tidy house provides a more relaxed environment, which in turn leads to a calmer, more creative mood.
But whatever you do, stay safe, stay well, and don’t put yourself under too much pressure. This will pass. All we have to do is look after ourselves until it does.
Looking for something to read during isolation? Check out Gareth's Embers of War trilogy.
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