The writer’s life brings with it many blessings, like freedom, autonomy, and the ability to follow your creative desires in life.
But what do you do when you suddenly find yourself disabled, emotionally or physically? I’m not talking about days when you’re wiped out with a cold or when your Internet connection goes bad.
I’m talking about the realities that come with being human — those unforeseeable, sometimes long-term circumstances that follow tragedy, like a hurricane that levels your home. Or a dire medical diagnosis. Or the death of someone important to you.
“Life happens” sometimes, and there are a handful of things that can eclipse your day and leave you wrung out emotionally, making it next to impossible to be creative, write coherently, and pursue autonomous dreams.
I recently faced one of these circumstances … and recovery hasn’t been easy. So today, I want to share some of the things I’ve done, and continue to do, to move forward without letting my writing business fall to pieces.
#1: Put yourself first
There’s an ongoing frenzy in the world of web-writing that few of us talk about. It happens when you’re on the newer side of the writing business, after you’ve landed a few clients but before you’re at a place where you can comfortably take off months at a time.
Many of us fall into the habit of telling our clients “Yes!” and then figuring out how to make it happen. Many of us wouldn’t dream of turning down a lucrative project from a well-established client.
But you know what? The projects will always be there. If you’ve just experienced extraordinary circumstances in the shape of an accident or other misfortune, the number one thing to do is allow yourself time and space to heal, or to figure out how to move forward.
If you’re going through grief, or displacement, or a shocking medical pronouncement, I guarantee the most valuable thing you can do is show compassion for yourself. Move clients and projects to the back burner.
Politely decline when it comes to taking on new projects. Or, ask if the project can be delayed. You’ll be surprised how often the answer will be “Yes.”
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s how you get through your existing projects and obligations …
#2: Tell your clients and colleagues
Generally speaking, less is more when it comes to telling clients about personal struggles.
So when it comes to mundane things like your computer flipping out, or a doctor’s appointment that ran late, or a kid who forgot her school lunch and caused you to start work an hour late and threw off your whole day … spare them.
If you inform your clients about every personal challenge you face on a daily basis, you’re less likely to be seen as professional and in charge. Plus, most clients are busy and appreciate short, to-the-point emails.
Of course, clients are people too and they understand the difference in magnitude between, “I’m feeling under the weather,” versus “I’ve had a death in the family.” Still, when you come to a point where you need a grace period for an assignment, you’re likely to get more respect and sympathy when you haven’t been playing the “poor me” card on a regular basis.
That said, don’t feel like you need to be the hero. I know one web writer whose father passed away the day a big assignment was due … but the client was new and the writer didn’t want to lose the account, and so stayed quiet (which he regrets in retrospect).
When you look back at the hardest moments of your life, it’s important to know you were there for those who needed you most — including yourself. Memories of clients and projects and even paychecks will fade away, but how you handled your personal challenges will often stay with you.
A simple, direct email is completely appropriate. A call is fine too, if that’s how you and your client communicate. Don’t expect your clients to notice what you post on Facebook or elsewhere, even if you’re connected socially. Send them a direct message and share the details you’re comfortable sharing.
Along with that, make sure you …
#3: Be specific and professional in your requests and expectations
Since most of us rely on clients for our paychecks, it’s easy to see them as being completely in charge of the project process. But that’s not the case at all. Always remember you’re the one delivering a valuable service that benefits the client. You’re equal in importance.
That said, take the lead (politely, of course) when you send an email or make a phone call. Share your news, and then specify the course of action you’re hoping to take. Or, give your client some options. For example:
“I need to take the next two weeks off. Can Project X be delayed that long?”
“I’ll be away from my office on an irregular schedule. Can you please prioritize my upcoming projects in order of importance?”
“I won’t be able to deliver the remainder of Project Z. I’d like to introduce you to my trusted colleague, Jan, who can pick up things from here if you’d like.”
And that brings us to one of the things you should start doing right now in anticipation of any life hurdles …
#4: Shore up contacts and backups
Nobody understands your challenges and wins like your fellow writers. And while reaching out to others for support and feedback is a smart move even when times are good, it can be a lifeline when things go south.
Fellow writers can help you on many levels, from being a shoulder to cry on to sending daily inspiring emails to ghostwriting projects that you simply can’t deal with. They can also give valuable feedback if you feel like your writing is suffering due to stress or sadness.
And that’s a sobering reality when you work in a creative field: Your emotions play a pivotal role in the quality of your writing. It happens at the cellular level — a gloomy outlook lowers dopamine, which makes your whole world grayer. A recent study in the journal Psychological Science even reported on a link between depression and the ability to differentiate colors.
That same spike in sadness lowers perception and enthusiasm. And that makes for a challenge, because how you feel influences how you perceive the world, which influences how you write.
It’s like having chains wrapped around your mind, which keep you at arms’ length from the thing that’s always given you joy. And that’s why you ultimately must …
#5: Be patient with yourself … and keep showing up
I’ve always found it hard to write when I’m upset about something. And when sadness or stress intensify, even the act of returning an email can feel like climbing a mountain.
One challenge I’ve faced is impatience. Every time I thought I was ready to roll up my sleeves and get back to work in earnest, BAM — something would surface to set me back all over again.
A wise writer friend told me, “When you’re ready, the words will come.” She’s completely right. First, they’ll come as a trickle. Sometimes more. Every day will get better, every setback shorter.
In a creative field like ours, all we can do is let the process unfold in its own time. And ever so gradually, you’ll get back to where you want to be. Hopefully wiser. Maybe even stronger. Definitely more appreciative of the freedoms you can enjoy as a writer if you make smart use of them.
Big Picture Lessons
I’ll be honest — I didn’t take all of the steps listed above when I got hit by a recent dose of Life. But I hope the value of my retrospective realizations benefit you no matter what clouds the path of your writing career.
The real lesson is to always put yourself and the important people in your life first. Your web-writing business is important, but it’s really just a tool to make sure you have the means and the time to spend with the people you love most. Because in the end, especially if the end comes too soon, that’s all that really matters.