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Ten Tips for Writing Through Family Stress

Mark Robinson, Flickr Creative Commons
Mark Robinson, Flickr Creative Commons

Please welcome Barbara Claypole White [1] as our guest today. A Brit living in North Carolina, Barbara Claypole White writes hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Her debut novel, The Unfinished Garden [2], won the 2013 Golden Quill Contest for Best First Book, and The In-Between Hour [3] was chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick. Her third novel, The Perfect Son [4], was a Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee for Best Fiction 2015, and Echoes of Family [5] launches this week!

Writing to contract is extraordinarily stressful, as is sharing your family with mental illness. I juggle both and if I couldn’t write through stress, I couldn’t write. Other writers often ask how I cope, but my family stress and my writing have become symbiotic. I’ve figured out how to accept the chaos and let it fuel my writing. Maybe at this point, I can’t write without stress. I hope not!

Connect with Barbara on Twitter [6] and on Facebook [7].

Ten Tips for Writing Through Family Stress

I’ve birthed four novels in the midst of family drama. My husband and son battle OCD, an anxiety disorder that generates an 80% divorce rate and a nasty suicide statistic; we have two aging parent situations an ocean apart; and we’ve had our share of medical crises. Often I’m the craziest person in the house, but throughout, I’ve written to contract—with the occasional extension. (Hey, I’m not Wonder Woman.) And along the way, I’ve picked up some kickass coping techniques:

  1. Laugh like you mean it

I was having a good rant the other day when I overhead my husband ask our son, “Is she talking to us?” The Delinquent replied, “Nah, Dad. She’s just venting.” “How can you tell the difference?” my husband said, at which point I cracked up. Real laughter, the kind that snorts out through your nose, annihilates stress.

  1. Acknowledge negative emotions

If you had mold in your house, you’d deal with it, right? Much of publishing is about handling rejection with a smile when you’d rather spit venom. Find a private place to release those feelings because denying them is akin to feeding them Miracle-Gro. Let’s face it: writing is personal to you. Here’s a useful trick from the war on OCD: assign yourself time to worry, set a timer, and when it goes off, you’re done.

  1. Give your stress to a character

Who doesn’t love the Donald Maass third level emotions? After my mother fell and smashed up her elbow, I had to juggle my deadline with a dash across the pond. I was mad, I was resentful, but underneath I had horrible guilt. I bequeathed those feelings to my hero in a win-win situation that gave him authentic emotions and me therapy.

  1. Think small

To counter my son’s crippling exam anxiety, we used to create a day-by-day study calendar, working backward from his finals. When his anxiety peaked, I would redirect him to his daily goal. He still uses this technique as a college senior, and I use it for deadlines. Next time you’re overwhelmed, shrink your world to daily goals.

  1. Discover safety in words

unnamedGiven the permanently high level of stress in our house, I have a safe phrase that I’ve used for years. My guys know it means: I love you, but I can’t be with you right now. I simply say, “I’ve hit that wall.”

  1. Protect me-time

I drink gin on Friday afternoons with my BFF. After she leaves, I watch a movie with hubby (or rather fall asleep on his chest). Whatever the deadline clock says, I’m out of my office by 5:00 p.m. every Friday. No exceptions.

  1. Take advantage of the unexpected

Next time a family member has major surgery, and you’re alone with fear in a crowded hospital waiting room, eavesdrop. I did this recently and created a Word doc called southernisms. Today I put several of those gems in my WIP.

  1. Find the silver lining

While traveling back and forth from rural England, I decided it was time to develop a story set in an English village. Suddenly those trips started working with—not against—my writing time, and the manuscript grew into Echoes of Family. For an added bonus, my mother bragged about being my research assistant, and I donated boxes of the novel to the church fundraiser. The vicar’s thrilled.

  1. ‘Piss off, I’m working’

Control your social media; don’t let it control you. When I write, the Internet is off; when I’m dealing with a family crisis, I unplug from Facebook with a vague explanation to readers. As one of my secondary characters says in Echoes of Family, “Our mental health matters too.”

  1. Let writing be the cure. Always

Keep the passion alive by treating your writing as a guilty pleasure. Indulge in it: mess around with words, create sentences that make your toes tingle, or polish a snippet of dialogue to find a character’s voice. When family stress and the author life threaten to suffocate me, writing becomes my escape. It’s how I process and make sense of everything that I can’t control. Writing is my cure for stress.

How do you keep writing during times of stress? We’d love to hear your tips for writing through family (and other kinds of) stress!