Writers have this tendency to romanticize mental illness. We talk about how crazy we are, how crazy our characters drive us, how crazy our schedule or our writing time is.
Even when it’s clearly in jest, protecting our mental health during the month-long pressure cooker of NaNoWriMo is no laughing matter.
As a long-time participant, I’ve observed my share of breakdowns and burnouts. (I blogged extensively about my NaNo journey last year, the first year under this pseudonym, but my first NaNo was in 2003, and I’ve participated about half the years since.)
Since I don’t want anyone to find themselves in the Pit of Despair, here are my tips for keeping NaNo in perspective.
- You’re only competing with yourself. Having writing buddies, whether in real life or through social media, is awesome, and keeping an eye on their word count totals can certainly be a healthy motivator–in moderation. I’ve always had a buddy or two who writes insanely fast and finishes waaaaay early, often because they don’t have the same real-life responsibilities I do and can binge-write instead of working or sleeping. That’s great for them, but don’t let competition push you harder than you want it to.
- Sleep is not for the weak. Should you stay up that extra half-hour if you’re on a roll and the words are flowing out of you? Sure. Sometimes. Should you stay up five hours because it’s late in the month and you’ve fallen behind? No.
- Don’t neglect your body. If you already have an exercise routine, do NOT give it up for more writing time. Stick to it. If you don’t? Consider using the self-discipline of NaNo November to start a simple one. You’re going to be spending a lot of time sitting and writing, so break up your writing time with “inspirational” walks when you get stuck, or do yoga before your writing session, or give yourself breaks in between sprints to do push-ups or jumping jacks. Find something that works for you and be as dedicated to it as you are to the writing.
- Take care of your hands. Whether you’re typing or writing longhand, your hands are going to be doing extra work during NaNo. Try these stretches to combat fatigue and prevent strain from overuse.
- Keep in touch with your friends and family. It’s easy to drop socializing first when you’re pressed for time. Set aside small chunks of time to call and chat, and don’t talk about writing. (Even if you’re talking to a writing friend, try to think and talk about something else for a while. Give yourself a break.) If you have more time, go out for coffee, go shopping, go to the zoo. Keep your writer-brain engaged by paying attention to overheard conversations or details about the setting, but beyond that, have fun. Fun is important!
- Finally, allow yourself to have “bad” days. We’re coming up on cold and flu season here in the Northern Hemisphere, so accept that you might get sick sometime during NaNo. On days when you feel good and have extra time, write those extra words to give yourself a cushion for days when you simply can’t write because of illness. (Or your schedule outside of writing, too, of course. Regular life doesn’t stop for NaNo, sadly.) If you can drag yourself in front of your computer for half an hour to pound out some words even while you’re ill, that’s great–any progress is better than none. But if you need to stay in bed with tea and toast and bad daytime TV, that’s okay. Take care of yourself first, write second.
If you’re participating this year, I’d love to have you as a writing buddy. My username on the official NaNoWriMo site is Elena Johansen, feel free to add me!