This Post originally appeared on my mindfulness monday column on the vermont college of fine arts blog
For the past two years I’ve been dedicating much of my life to coaching writers, leading the occasional retreat, building and teaching courses, creating and sharing materials on craft and creative living and mindfulness for writers, and in a myriad of ways sharing what I’ve learned from being an artist and navigating this crazy world of publishing. Blog posts, videos, worksheets, Facebook live posts, and—biggest of all—creating an online community for lady-identifying authors where we give and get daily nourishment.
Many of you, I suspect, also wear hats such as these: it’s part of the landscape of being a writer, especially once you enter the professional sphere. In part, it’s a necessary income stream (writing, alas, doesn’t always pay all the bills). But writing has always been an apprenticeship-based art form, I think, even though so much of it is done in solitude. We value the sharing of knowledge, the passing on of wisdom, from one writer to the next. It’s a very generous community in that way, and I think when we figure things out, we’re eager to share them—and eager to learn regardless of our level of experience. And that’s a beautiful thing. I adore—adore—teaching and working with fellow writers. Sometimes more than writing itself.
All this work with others has been a real coming together of years of creative living, spiritual meanderings, and of pursuing my love of writing, and it’s been amazing to share what I’ve learned along the way with my fellow travelers – and learn from them, too. There’s so much big magic floating around out there. The community I founded online has become a genuine outpost for women to hold space for each other and create much-needed lifelines and connection in what is often a very isolating life we lead as writers. It’s been a privilege to see.
While all of this is very delicious, my shift toward focusing on working with writers also opened me up to more hustling. As if it wasn’t bad enough as an author (buy my book, buy buy buy), now I had to hustle as a teacher / coach / mindfulness evangelist. Classes I wanted people to attend, retreats to sign up for, blogs to read, and on and on. And while I absolutely loved (love) what I did (do) and believed (believe) in it, I couldn’t deny that it was a slippery slope. A slope that led away from my writing and, ultimately, myself, if I didn’t guard the work, my time, and my headspace.
In actively supporting other writers, I was necessarily having to take time away from my own work, and my own well-filling.
Now, the adage is true: when we help others, we help ourselves even more. So I often got even more than I gave. And every time I finished a class or got off a call, the buzzy feeling I had confirmed that I was where I needed to be: this was vocation. But I knew I had to be mindful of burn-out. I tried to take care of myself, though it was hard not to give every drop of energy I had, and it was so much fun to talk shop and to create community and to make things and to help others through the darkness I’d walked through myself. To be a light-bringer.
Problem is, all this light I was bringing to others was causing my own little flame to gutter. No one’s fault, except perhaps mine: my own eagerness and passion, my obstinate belief that I could do it all. This had a ripple effect on everything—and the writing, most of all.
I knew it was time to slow down. Big time. To get expansive. To get back to the work.
Several months ago, I spoke about my decision to have a hiatus from social media. Update: best. Decision. Ever. I have more flow, lots of big internal shifts, and I’m able to wrap my head around some really important things I’ve been mulling over. This was my first step in slowing down and coaxing that guttering flame to burn brighter.
For a long time now, I’ve been running on fumes. I bet a lot of you are, too. I’ve managed, through meditation, to stay upright, but it’s been too much. And now the chickens are really coming home to roost, as the deadlines pile up and I navigate the complexities of life abroad. All of this has created clarity on what has to go, what isn’t serving me or the work. I tend to be a gal who works in extremes, for better or worse, and so it took moving to Europe and a slew of unfortunate events for me to finally make some big decisions that were a long time coming.
It really comes down to boundaries. Yes, the boundaries you create with others, but—in my case—it was more about setting some boundaries with my perfectionist, ambitious, creative self. The self that wanted to please my publisher and get a book in on deadline even though I needed more time. (New Heather emailed her editor and said I need more time. Editor said this was okay and all’s well that ends well.). I had to set boundaries with the self that wanted to create bespoke worksheets for students and clients instead of being okay with knowing that what I was giving was absolutely more than enough already and that every time I slid into worksheet-making behavior I wasn’t working on my books. New Heather is currently not making worksheets. New Heather is honing her sense of when she is in a space of healthy output for others—a positive energetic exchange—and when she is draining herself. And she adjusts accordingly.
Giving of our time and creative energy to others, be it fellow writers or our readers, is a perk of the job. But in order to do that job well—writing—we have to be able to show up for ourselves, too.
A quick way to check in to see if you’re not setting good boundaries with yourself (and students, clients, readers, etc.) is to simply stop when you feel overwhelmed. Stop, close your eyes, and just follow your breath for a bit. Tune in to how your body is feeling. See where this feeling of stress or overwhelm is residing. Just sit with it for a bit. Don’t push it away. Breathe. Just a couple of minutes. Meditation teacher Tara Brach calls this a “sacred pause.” It can help you get a little clarity, stepping outside the maelstrom. A bit of walking meditation goes a long way, too.
It’s good to remember that what makes a flame stronger, brighter is more oxygen. So: deep breaths.
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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