• Mistreating Yourself

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 27 comments

    Discussion question: Are you prone to emotional and/or physical malaise as a result of writing? Does it affect you during your writing sessions, after, or both? How do you mitigate these effects, and how do you recover from them? Do you recall a particularly difficult example? Let us know in the comments.


    During last week’s discussion about mistreating our characters, Elissa M. mentioned how an intense writing project, a novelette, of hers took a physical toll: “I wrote it in three days over the course of about ten,” she said, “needing recovery time for myself after each session.”

    The week before, in “Let’s Talk About Our Writing Fears,” Susan trod similar ground with one of her fears, “a subtype of ‘Fear of Never Finishing’ and it’s a fear of not being able to stop–forgetting to sleep, missing the alarm, being late for the day job.”

    To which David L replied, “Also you can add the lack of physical exercise that happens when we write a lot.”

    We talk often about the mental approach to writing, but not very often about the physical approach, nor about how writing can drain us both mentally and physically.

    So… let’s!


    I think I’ve established by now the fact that I’m not a “write daily” kind of writer. I tend to go days, sometimes weeks at a time without writing a word. Then one day, something will click, and I’ll sit down and start writing, and the next thing I know, hours have passed without my knowledge.

    In my younger days, sometimes an entire night would go by.

    In undergrad and grad school, anytime I had a story due I would knock out the entire thing the night before, often writing until the morning. Procrastination brought on by fear, no doubt. But also, there was something exhilarating about it.

    But it was far from healthy. When I’d finally snap out of my writing fugue, I would find an overflowing ashtray and not remember lighting or smoking a single cigarette, and I would find an empty coffee pot without remembering pouring or drinking a single cup. And I’d feel like hell for the next several days, jittery and coughing when awake, jittery and coughing while asleep.

    The fiction I wrote at the time wasn’t mentally/emotionally taxing, because I hadn’t yet learned to tap into my feelings while writing. If I had? Oof. Things could’ve gotten real ugly.


    I still write in long sessions, but never overnight anymore. And I don’t drink coffee at night, and I no longer smoke cigarettes. There’s rarely much of a physical toll, besides maybe a little post-fugue fatigue.

    But sometimes there’s an emotional toll. Particularly on the rare occasions I work on my memoir. Even my fiction these days is much closer to the bone.

    It’s never debilitating–the worst that happens is I’m a little glum and/or listless the next day–but I can understand why writing might prove emotionally devastating for some writers.

    But that devastation is often the result of some excellent writing. So the question isn’t how can we avoid these emotional and physical effects. Because we don’t want to, right?

    The question is, how do we recover? How do we mitigate these effects? How do we plan ahead?

    What are you more prone to, physical malaise or emotional? Do these affect you during your writing sessions, after, or both? Is there a particularly difficult incident you’d be willing to share?

    Let’s talk about it in the comments below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    david lemke

    Even before I retired, I knew writing would be dangerous. Sitting is the new cigarette.
    Last night, John Campbell, a dear friend and facilitator of the senior scribblers writing group, died at 89. He will be missed by many. He was not a great writer, but he was good and he live a life to be proud of.
    I have to go for now, but I will be back later to write more.


    So sorry for the loss of your friend. He sounds wonderful.

    david lemke

    Some years ago a psychic friend had told me that If I was going to write, I needed to get out and exercise, or else. I followed her advice intermittently. While it was difficult writing about the house fire and the cats dying in it, or about my criminal brother and causing trauma for my character to go through, I’ve never been a very emotional person even if I can cry at movies and some music. I can’t say I’ve had a strong physical or emotional hangover in the aftermath of difficult writing. Even when I have writer’s dreams where… Read more »

    david lemke

    Lots of my stories and at least on novel are based on dreams. In some dreams, I am off to the side watching as the characters act and interact. as soon as I am awake and realize I had a writer’s dream, I get up and write down as much as I can remember or at least some details. If I don’t do that, it’s usually gone forever, though I have had a couple instances where I remembered segments days later of a dream. I agree, it is very cool. They are often lucid, I can sometimes run it back… Read more »

    david lemke

    I don’t have any control over it. It happens when it happens. I just keep pen and notebook handy.

    david lemke

    Friday I plan on suggesting that we re-name the group the John Campbell Scribblers or Writer’s Group.


    I can’t say that I suffer a malaise after writing. I may be physically tired, but usually I’m emotionally pumped or satisfied from having accomplished some writing. If I’m physically or emotionally down to begin with, I generally just won’t write. That’s kinda bad right there, because I should write regularly regardless of my physical or emotional state (up to a point, I guess). If my “day job” were writing, I would probably be more prone to the kind of drain you’re talking about here. That might be a distinction to make. That is, “If your writing isn’t your occupation,… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I’m one of those write daily type of people. Even without my computer, I blocked out a new novel, tried a new character study, and have added to the outline of the current book in progress. Luckily, I have this wonderful person when at home who comes over and brings me back to the real world when I have been working too long without a break because I forgot to set my timer for an hour. I will get up and walk around, talk and relax before returning to the computer. As for the emotional, I’ll cry when writing sad… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I only ignore it long enough to finish a paragraph and a note as to where I was going with it. The break helps me to make sure I was headed in a good direction. The time away also lets me ponder specifics and dialogue, adding to what I was writing. I’ll admit to having learned how to quit and restart without much of an issue if it is only 10 or 15 min. I got used of interruptions while writing papers and my senior thesis while in nursing school with 4 children, one which was 4 months old when… Read more »

    Anonymous Guest



    Hi David, Another great topic. I think emotional and physical pain are intertwined to a degree that traditional medicine still does not fully appreciate. I absolutely know that laughter is the best medicine. I go into the funk BEFORE I begin a new project and have learned to respect what may look or feel like depression as actually a part of the creative process. I go with the flow. A story comes from pain. Beauty comes from pain. I appreciate that once a story is “born” you can’t ignore it. If you do it will keep pushing on you and… Read more »

    david lemke

    Not silly at all, but I’ve never thought of stories in that way. I’m not motherly.
    Our writing group meets at 1:00 on Fridays at the Brookfield Civic Center, if you’re interested.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Terrific analogy!


    Hi David, I think maybe ‘funk’ is the wrong term, I do not actually know what is happening. One way I think of it is ‘hibernation’. All I know is that I have noticed that after I come back up I have a plot of a story, or a poem. Not always the whole story, but sometimes I have to dip into the blue a few times. I think it was Rilke I was reading long ago, oh yes, Letters to a Young Poet, where he advises his young friend not to be dismayed if sadness threatens to overwhelm him.… Read more »


    Well, maybe, but I was thinking more that what is happening is that the work is going on at a subconscious level–plot, characters, themes,but it’s still work; and then it’s time to bring it to paper. Sort of like solving problems in your dreams, only you’re awake. Does that make sense?

    Elissa Malcohn

    I’m currently in a place I never thought I’d be: not writing fiction and not blocked about it. And it all has to do with self care. Prior, working on a story could mean, as I wrote in 2006, “I can pull an all-nighter writing and still have the energy to dance — literally dance — afterwards. It means I wake up with visions in my head: in the morning, in the middle of the night; it means the visions are playing as I fall asleep. When I’m not working directly on the draft I’m scribbling madly in my journal… Read more »


    Hi Elissa. I’m glad you liked my analogy. I think health and loved ones are of course a priority in our lives. I went through a non-writing period like that caring for my Dad. Thanks for reminding me how important journaling is.

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x