Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Self-Care in Publishing

Self-care is something that is often brushed under the rug in our society. Who has the time to stop and take care of yourself in our go, go, go world? I deal with it a lot in the context of my dayjob. With child protective services, it is a necessary component of the job, which makes sense when you're going up against troubled kids dealing with mental health and behavioural problems, as well as hostile parents who see CPS as the enemy. Every week it comes up, if not every other day, with "How are you taking care of yourself?" It can be a hard question to answer, especially when people in this industry are so used to putting other people ahead of them. Myself included.

CPS workers are far from the only ones who need to practice self-care. There are some scary misconceptions about publishing that can create a lot of tension between writers, editors, agents, and everyone else involved with the process. After all, you don't need to be screamed at every day to have stress and expectations mount on top of you. In publishing, there is a silent expectation that runs in the background of everyone involved: Work Faster. It's fueled by passion and excitement, the anticipation of an answer that could affect your entire career. But that expectation sits on the shoulders of everyone, whether they're waiting for a response or working to get one out. Though it may be an exciting kind of stress, it is still stress, which can still overwhelm you. It isn't about the severity of the stress, but how long you have to endure it.

It's like this: imagine holding a glass of water at shoulder height. Nothing too scary, right? Now, how heavy is that glass of water when you've been holding it for two, three weeks straight? Imagine this glass of water as the expectations of publishing: work faster, work harder, work passionately. Nothing too serious to carry, until you can't put it down.

Self-care is being able to put the glass down, take a breath, and rest. It is absolutely essential for anyone, whether you have to deal with attempted assaults from angry clients, or just impatient nudging emails from writers  hoping you've read their work. But self-care isn't as easy as setting down a glass of water. Often we have dozens of others in the industry hanging over us (or at least in our heads) waiting for that response. So how do you practice self-care in an industry where speed in an important factor?

Literary agent Laura Zats put it beautifully:

TS Ferguson, an editor over at Harlequin Teen also posted some great thoughts on burn out and self-care within the publishing industry. For the sake of length, I'll add in just a few (though he's an awesome person to follow on Twitter, so I suggest checking out his feed.)

Obviously, we have a problem here. The things that really jump out at me are the high turnover rate, and the fact that agents REQUIRE A BLOODY DAYJOB. It leads back to two significant needs that I face every day in CPS: high turnover in the industry means its employees require more support and self-care. There is a high turnover in CPS because of obvious reasons: not everyone can face child abuse day in and day out. There's only so much self-care you can do to handle it. But for publishing to have such a high turnover rate, when so many people claim that this is their dream job just doesn't make any sense. So why does it happen? Why do literary agents need a day job just to survive? How did we get to a place where the most passionate and driven people, who make books happen, have to struggle just to make end's meat?

So what do we do? How do we fix this broken system? Because our entire industry needs self-care, not just one or two of us. As a group, we need to learn how to put down that glass of water and understand what it means when we see others (agents, editors, writers) taking that time to rest their arm. But how do we get to that place, especially when we're all so anxious to hear back from each other?

Self-Care as a Group

  •  The first step has already been taken. We need to talk about it. This isn't a case of mental illness where a few people have a disorder and we should take the time to acknowledge it. This is about EVERYONE'S well-being. We need to acknowledge that we are all human, that we can all get overworked. No one here is slacking off just to take a paycheck from the big boss. We are all here because we want to be, because we're passionate about words. That means that when agents, editors, writers, whoever, wants to talk about what they're facing, we must let them. Laura Zats and TS Ferguson and everyone else out there neck deep in submissions should be able to say "I'm exhausted" without fearing for their careers. Part of having a community is the support that we're able to give each other.
  • We need to dispel the stereotypes already. In a world where we can log onto the net and find every answer we need at our fingertips, we can't keep perpetuating ideas about each other and the industry that simply aren't true. Such as, agents and editors being free to post on social media (we all need a brain dump after working non-stop) without fear of being seen as 'lazy', that agent and editors are merely 'gatekeepers' who want to keep people out (c'mon, let's get realistic), or that short form rejects are a personal attack. These ideas are all born out of an impatient and blinded mindset that comes from vulnerability. As writers, we make ourselves vulnerable by presenting our soul on paper. But you can't let fear of that vulnerability lead to angry or spiteful actions that will only destroy your career in the long run. Remember: always think of the person first, then their profession. 
  • We are running a marathon, not a sprint. This applies to everyone in the industry. For some people, it only takes a few hours to read through a book. For some, it will only take them a handful of weeks to pound out the first draft and start combing through with edits (I know a writer even who does marathon writing weekends, where he finishes a book in two days. Talk about a headache). But these people are the exceptions. It will take you a while to read through a requested manuscript, or to write out a first draft, or go through edits with a beta reader. IT. TAKES. TIME. I think all of us feel guilty knowing there are people waiting on us, knowing that we hold their heart and soul within bound pages. I know the weight of that guilt can push you to rush rush rush. I've felt it myself with publicists and authors waiting up on me for a review, and while I'm reading as fast as I can, it never seems to be fast enough. If you feel this way, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. This is one of those things that, as a group, we need to accept. We are running marathons, and that takes a little longer, but the prize waiting at the finish line is so worth every step, especially when you can take the time to appreciate the journey. 
  • Above all, kindness. Like I mentioned before, writers are often vulnerable due to the fact that they are turning their passion into a business. It can be taxing on the soul to wait and wait and wait only to be told no. Or you could be an agent or editor, tired of seeing the same rookie mistakes again and again. I think we're all smart enough (for the most part) not to air out our dirty laundry online and harass others in the business. However, I ask everyone to go one step further. The next time you find yourself annoyed by how long someone is taking to respond, or if you think they're tweeting too much, or you're overwhelmed by the urge to poke them with your very long pointy stick... just pause. Stop those thoughts in their tracks. Dialectal Behaviour Therapy is a strategy of therapy in which you acknowledge the patterns of behavior and do a complete 180 degree spin in the hopes of 'retraining' your thought patterns. So let's, all of us, start retraining our thinking. As much as business is competitive, we don't have to be. We have an incredible community that can allow us to achieve impossible things (like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and #YASaves), but unless we band together and support each other, there won't be a community out there much longer. When we stop to ask each other how we're doing, remind each other that we're all doing the best we can, and grant each other kindness, patience, and understanding, we will be able to build an incredibly powerful community. One where people can thrive and see their dreams flourish. 

Of course, it's easy to say what we as a group can do, but a herd won't start charging until its members start moving. So what can you when at times this business can make us all feel so powerless and isolated? Everything starts small. How can you hope to check in with the well-being of those around, if you never stop to check in on your own well-being? As they say in CPS, the only way you'll be able to help anyone is to make sure you're strong and healthy first. Then you are best prepared to extend support to others. 

Self-Care as an Individual 
  •  Take care of yourself! Often the most overlooked self-care tip. Eat right, make sure you get enough sleep, and take time to exercise. They're such small things, and can seem so freakin' unimportant when you've got deadlines and people breathing down your neck, but it is crucial. If you run yourself down and get sick, it will only stress you out more, and odds are you'll end up further behind. You'll be able to handle more stress and more shit slinging if you take time to stop, get some restful sleep, and eat an apple. Give yourself energy that will last. Don't let sugar and junk food make you feel sluggish. 
  • UNPLUG! This is probably the second most important thing when it comes to publishing. We are all bound to our screens, yes, but we need to take time away. Staring at your email and refreshing it every five minutes will only serve to make you more anxious. Cyber stalking someone you're waiting on an answer from will also only add to your impatience and make the response take that much longer to get to you (or at least it feels that way). It may feel like it's helping when you're having a staring contest with your inbox, but the reality is, it just makes things worse. Think of an addict-- getting stoned doesn't get rid of the craving, and will only make the craving for it much worse, later. Schedule a time to go in and check your emails instead of sitting on it all day. You'll never get your mind off it while hitting refresh. 
  • Use sensory items to help relax. This is a form of therapy that we use on traumatized kids in our facility. By utilizing the senses, you can actually help to regulate your emotions and calm yourself. Anything that invokes the senses can help: bubble baths, baking cookies, playing with Play-Doh, listening to music, listening to a river or fountain, etc. Try to invoke as many sense as you can (e.g., use bath salts or nice smelling oils during a bath). Again, this is such a small thing that has a powerful and lasting effect on your overall mental health. 
  • Achieve something small! Some days, it can feel like you're paralyzed by your anxiety or depression or frustration with the industry as a whole. You can easily feel like you have no control, and in a lot of cases, you don't. But that's not the end of the world! There are things you can control and by stepping out and achieving things, you'll feel more confident in your ability to be patient. It's more than simply working on your next project-- it's about starting something small and being able to finish it to achieve a sense of accomplishment. That feeling  is addictive, and helps to keep the impatient demons at bay. 
  • Get down, get weird, get CRAZY! This is a business, and we're all professionals standing around the imaginary water cooler. Often it can be hard to hold your tongue when colleagues are pissing you off, or unplug when you have four people who need you RIGHT NOW. Bottling up all those emotions will wear you down as quickly as not sleeping or eating poorly. So let loose. Go out and run about, fall to the floor laughing at your own jokes, rant at friends until your face turns blue. Express yourself, because your thoughts and feelings matter! But, as my mother would say, you've got to have the right place and the right time.

At the end of the day, you know you best and have the final say in what works and what doesn't. For myself, unplugging is essential. Often I'll get overwhelmed by others' successes, and when that happens I know it's time to step back and breathe. I also find going out for walks along the water and listening to the fountain in my condo's lobby incredibly peaceful.

So, what are your best self-care tips? What do you do to stay a #healthywriter? I would love to hear it!

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