Business Musings: Comparisons (Writing With Chronic Illness)
Note: I have just written a short book titled Writing With Chronic Illness. The book will appear in mid-April, just in time for my annual spring Writing Storybundle. I’ll be excerpting three chapters from the book on this blog. There’s a lot of material in the book that’s not available on the blog, but I feel this post, and the previous two are general enough to appeal to everyone.
When Dean and I first got together, we had a long discussion about careers. We were both new writers at the beginning of our careers. And we knew that our careers would not end up being the same. We had a long series of conversations about what we would do when one career was ascendant over the other.
Good thing, too. I won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer shortly after we got together. For about ten years, I was on all the award ballots. Dean’s books sold more copies, but I got more attention.
Right now, he’s the one who is getting attention. He has done videos that have gone viral. His Cold Poker Gang series sells like crazy.
If we hadn’t been aware of the potential differences in our careers from the very start, we probably would not have been together for more than thirty years.
Comparison is a natural thing. It’s how we learn. Watch toddlers sometimes. They mirror their parents, sometimes literally— trying to sit like Daddy or moving their hands (or trying to) the way that Mommy is. We look to others to see what’s possible.
It’s hard to stop doing that, particularly when we’re only seeing others from the outside. It still surprises me when I hear very successful people talk about their struggles. The skier Lindsey Vonn has been upfront about her injuries and her goals, how she managed her profession day to day while dealing with so much pain that I can’t quite imagine it. Yet to look at her, pretty, blond, smart and athletic, without knowing any of that, you’d think her life is perfect.
Writers are even more mysterious than celebrities. You see their output, but not their daily struggles to get it done. Everyone puts a good face on what they’re doing, particularly on social media. Sure, a handful of people log onto their accounts and outline how depressing their day is, but most only talk about the highlights.
I’m as guilty of that as the next person. I don’t like sharing the bad things. I love sharing the good.
But the struggles? They’re personal. Not to mention the fact that I’m not the most touchy-feely person. I would prefer to discuss books than health problems—mine or anyone else’s.
That makes comparisons even tougher.
I’m considered prolific. So from the outside, I look like a writing machine to many writers. I’ve heard that over and over again: How I’m so dedicated and strong and am all about writing.
It doesn’t feel that way from the inside. I don’t write nearly enough. I never get to everything I want to do. I feel like I’m doing things other than writing most of the time.
It’s even harder considering that I live with an extremely healthy former professional athlete. Dean, even as he ages, gets more done in a single day than some people do in six months. If he sets a goal of 10,000 words per day, he hits that goal. He doesn’t have to stop because he got brain fog or needs extra sleep.
He did suffer from severe migraines when I met him, and that did slow him down, but he had such a healthy base that he could do amazing things on the days he wasn’t down with a headache. I never had that healthy base.
If I compare my daily word count to his, I always fall short. He can be much more consistent than I am and he can write more. He’s a sprint writer, though, so he often stops to do something else. I wish he wouldn’t, because I love his work and want more of it, but I understand.
I suspect the sprint writing is his way of resting. He goes hard and then takes time off, just like the running guides tell you to do when you’re in training for a sporting event. You work hard, then you taper. You do the event, and rest afterwards before starting hard training again.
That’s his history as an athlete and he took it to writing.
I couldn’t do athletic things as a younger person, so I learned how to write around illness, rather than the other way around.
The comparisons end here, though, because they’re not useful. No matter how hard I try, I can’t do things the way he can. And no matter how hard he tries, he has been unable to break the start/stop sprint aspect of his career (careers). That’s his work method.
Most writers aren’t lucky enough to live with another writer. They don’t get into the nitty-gritty of someone else’s routine. Most writers have the Imagined Routine of Favorite Writer or Role Model and then their own routine. And their routine never measures up to the imagined routine.
So rather than let the comparisons overwhelm, try this.
Celebrate your achievements.
Dean actually taught me that early in our relationship. I have since learned it’s another sports thing. Once I started running five days per week, I realized that all runs are not created equal. Some are great; some suck. And getting to the run isn’t easy either. Some days, that’s all I want to do. Mostly, though, the running, like my steps, is a serious inconvenience. I would so much rather sit on my butt and write and read or go to a movie or go out for a meal or spend time with Dean.
But all the running guides point this out: if you go out for 10 minutes (even if your normal is an hour), count that as a victory, especially on the tough days.
Here’s the secret: if you go out for ten minutes, you often do your usual run.
That was a great rule of thumb for me with the running because it got me out, even on rainy days (up north) and on days with the beginnings of a migraine. On the rainy days, I’d often have the most fun, because running in the rain makes me feel like a little kid. I actually run and laugh. (Even here: I did a 5K in February and it rained, and I found such joy in getting wet.)
However, with the headache, I was never certain if I could run until I tried. Sometimes I’d run for ten minutes, and the headache would get significantly worse. A few times, up north, I’d start the run and realize I would have trouble making it home. On those days, I’d run toward the WMG offices, which were a mile from my house. I could always get to WMG and catch a ride home.
That sounds like a defeat, doesn’t it? My run ended because of my headache.
But I never saw it that way. I would get a half mile of running, usually, and some walking, as well as some fresh air. Considering how ill I was, that was a victory.
A major victory.
I learned to apply that attitude to my writing as well. If I was really sick, and I managed to get 500 words on a day when I could barely crawl out of bed, then that was a victory. It wasn’t a qualified victory. It was a real victory.
What do I mean by a qualified victory?
I mean this: Considering how sick I was, that was pretty good.
No. Get rid of the qualifier. How many other people could get 500 words in a day while healthy? How many other people have the determination to write at all?
500 words that day was great. It was amazing. And I pat myself on the back for getting that much done.
Sometimes I pat myself on the back for the planning. Yesterday, for instance. I had a busy day. I had a yoga class in the morning, and Dean and I had some planned time off in the afternoon—going to see a movie. We also planned our steps at the local mall, to do some browsing.
But I want to finish this book, and I had a hunch I’d be too tired when I got home. (Turned out, I had a migraine from some perfume. Which I found ironic, given that I’m working on this book.) Since I knew I’d be busy, I got up early enough to write one of the chapters before I went to yoga.
And sure enough, that was all the writing I managed yesterday. But I was and am happy with that. I planned well, and that’s a victory.
A friend of mine has a saying about certain people. He says that they can find the dark cloud in any silver lining.
In other words, they can make any positive experience negative.
I sure get that. It’s really easy for those of us who suffer from a chronic illness to beat ourselves up for all of our body’s failings. In fact, that’s often the default for us. It’s about what we can’t do rather than what we can do.
I’m as guilty as anyone else of that.
But mostly, I try as hard as I can to savor the silver linings. And the rainbows. And the sunshine.
I like to see accomplishing things—even small things—as victories. The more victories I have, the more victories I want.
And that keeps me going, even on the hard days.
So stop comparing yourself to some imagined ideal. Start celebrating what you accomplish. Make a list of your daily victories.
You’ll be surprised, over the space of a year, just how much you’ll accomplish.
And how much fun you’ll have doing it.
As I mentioned above, this is part of the book Writing With Chronic Illness that will appear later this spring. If you support my Patreon at the $10 or above level, you’ll get this book (and others that I write while doing this blog) for free. If you support at the $5, you’ll be able to see some Patreon-only content, including one other short essay that’s part of the book, but too short (in my opinion) to be part of this weekly blog.
The next two posts will be from the book as well, unless something major happens, the way it did last week, with the whole plagiarism scandal. Then I’ll bump the chapters back to accommodate the news items.
And…since I’m mentioning Patreon…here’s the weekly reminder that this blog is reader-supported.
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“Business Musings: Comparisons,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.
More great advice, thanks for sharing! Can’t wait to read the book when it comes out!
I’m watching for your book on chronic illness with great enthusiasm.
I’ve just had a few months of daily significant symptoms (at least part of the day unable to get out of bed, too ill to read) after nearly two years of better control of my illness. I’ve been trying to take my little victories where I can get them.
I’ve been writing almost every day. Okay – some days it’s two or three sentences, but I wrote! I ate almost every day. Okay, sometimes it was dry toast, but it was food! I… did not get outside every day. (Cold air can be a trigger, light is a trigger, the motion of walking, running or swimming can be a trigger even when I’m feeling fine.) I’m still working on finding an exercise plan that’s not too likely to knock me flat. (A quiet fairly exercise bike, maybe? Should be able to find one on Craigslist…)
It’s somehow harder to be cheerful through a setback, somehow, than through the initial decline, at least for me. (No! Not back here again! I thought I was /past/ this place! I don’t /want/ to do this again.)
Regarding celebrating your achievements, no matter how small: there is a great book that came out recently called Atomic Habits. One part that jumped out at me was how much habits (what you do) intersect with identity (who you are).
So when you talk about running for 10 minutes, even with a headache, that truly IS a victory. Despite it being “only” 10 minutes, you are casting a vote, telling yourself that you are the type of person who runs every day, no matter what. You are a runner. And often, as you said, you end up running more than you felt you could.
Each time you achieve this victory (no matter how small), you reinforcing the idea of being a runner. In fact, it is likely the 10 minute runs through cold / headaches / sore throat / sore muscles that reinforce this idea better than the runs where you actually want to go.
The longer you do the activity, the stronger the identity becomes. The stronger the identity becomes, the more you do the activity. So it’s a self-reinforcing pattern.
I think that lies somewhere at the heart of being prolific.
You are a runner (or writer / painter / etc.). Focus should be given to activities that build that identity.
And the results (you running a lot) are simply the natural progression of that.
I wonder if people who are “prolific” (results-based) have actually succeeded in building a stronger identity (process-based) than those who are simply “regular” practitioners.
Comparison and the resulting envy was a huge topic in my relationship too. Like you, I notice that men are naturally stronger than women with any amount of training can possibly become. I used to be jealous of my husband‘s ability to get so many things done and operate on high levels of energy throughout the day (and he doesn‘t even drink coffee!). But women have other strengths, and I‘ve learnt that being gentler to myself works better than beating myself up for the goals set too high. Thank you for writing about this important topic. You and Dean have so much experience in working as a couple. It might become a book someday, and I will buy it.
Back when my wife and I were preparing our wedding, I had to keep the whole process from blowing up. I implemented these things to kept her sane.
I told my wife, “At the end of the day, either it goes right or you get a good story. Nobody talks about what went right at a wedding.”
I implemented a Win List. As we accomplished prep tasks, we wrote them on the win list, so that no matter how discouraged we felt, we could look at the list and see all the we’d accomplished.
As for the ceremony, the only important thing was getting married. If, at the end of the day, we’d gotten married, then goal accomplished.
Just wanted to say these posts have been helpful and I look forwards to the book and Writing Storybundle. I have an underactive thyroid and it saps energy at times and makes my brain foggy, among other sympstoms. Some days my mind keeps going blank and I can’t seem to write anything that makes sense and most what I did write seems bad. I can recognize those moments as my brain being foggy, but it’s still frustrating. I was diagnosed under a year ago so I should get better.
I’m currently doing a writing steak inspired by Dean. I try to write new words every day, now word count just write something. I’ve managed 8 so far. Also doing a ‘eat +500grams of fruits and vegetables’ streak. Doctor told me to ‘eat everything good’ and it’s helping with my energy levels.
Exercise had gotten easier as well. I go to historical battle practise once a week and can follow instructions better now. Before I’d focus on our instructors words and what he was doing. When it was time to practise with a partner my brain would go “I do what with my sabre?”. Now I can follow instructions and repeat them easier. Also my (blunt) sabre feels lighter. Little and big victories.
It’s always fun, even when the words count in my head doesn’t match the ideal I keep trying to nail to an arbitrary board. There are times, and more times, where I don’t remember that, how fun it always is, even at ten minutes and a couple hundred words and I have to go do something else now.
And then I smack myself on the head and ask why didn’t I remember the fun part when I was so down on myself about writing that day. Ah well.
It’s nice reading how much Vegas is having a good effect on you, Kris. Especially the writing, but seeing good health and well being peek through your words makes me happy for you and Dean both. Best wishes and better stories to come for you both!
Oh, and if I haven’t said it before, thank you, for the blog and your stories, and for your time at F&SF as well. I remember the first time I recognized there was a reason I found so many of those stories and enjoyed them, and then went looking for the editor’s name. Stumbling across your blog years later and going, “Hey, I know her” meant a great deal when I started writing in earnest.