Managing Stress: The CDC and me. Part 1

Each of us is experiencing this shared crisis not only as one of many, but as an individual who is coping with a unique set of circumstances. For me, those circumstances include trying to figure out how best to support my students in a way that helps them stay on track with their academics while not unduly stressing them out. That’s a tall order. I worry, a lot. I worry about students who ‘disappear,’ I worry that too many students are doing too little writing and their skills are plummeting, and I worry that too often I myself come too close to running on empty.

One day, while I was mindlessly following links about stress as a sort of ‘break’ from real life, I came across this page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About a third of the way down the page I found a little section titled, “Ways to Cope with Stress.” For me, the little list of four items offered there was the best thing on the page. It got me thinking – which was a welcome relief from the empty-headed mindset that had set me on the path of clicking for answers. The list, I decided, was a good fit for writers and teachers, and I set myself the task of adapting the advice to the context of building skills as a writer and as a teacher. The result of that work – on the first piece of advice – is below.

The CDC advice –

Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. (CDC)

Here’s my take-away for writers and teachers –

Do Something Else Repeatedly: Write

Checking media can be a habit, and when you want to change a habit the first step is to replace it with another habit. Writing, as a habit, offers great payback:

  • It is therapeutic – you’ll carve out personal time to check in with yourself, think your own thoughts, and come up with ideas you wouldn’t have had – or known you had – otherwise.
  • It will improve your ability to get your thoughts on the page, and therefore your skill as a writer.
  • As a teacher, you have the opportunity to create primary documents that you and your peers can consult and use for lessons on history, health, writing, etc. For example, you can set aside part of your writing time to write a letter to your future students. What is it you’ll tell them about this global experience?

3 Simple Steps to Cultivating Writing as a Habit

  • Gather your basic tools – something to write on and something to write with – so they  are ready for you.
  • At least once a day when you go to check your phone for news or find yourself heading to Facebook to keep tabs on the feed, say to yourself – “First, I’ll write half a page.”
  • Go write. Sometimes you’ll only write a scanty half page, other times you’ll find yourself on a roll – go with it.

Final Advice

Remember, the goal is health. Smile to yourself when you’ve written, and smile when you realize the day is gone and you haven’t written. On those no-writing days (and there will be no-writing days), say to yourself, “Tomorrow, friend; I’ll meet you on the page tomorrow.”

“Secrets of Good Writing”

‘We are two classes into our three session SOAR class, “Secrets of Good Writing.” Below is a list of the books I’ve mentioned so far along with the reasons I mentioned them. You’ll see that I’ve got a big section on writing morning pages under the Artist’s Way listing: that one strategy moved my own craft forward in unexpected ways, and I highly recommend it.

As a writing coach, I often advise “just write.” This advise is pretty ubiquitous – everyone from Nanci Atwell to Stephen King offers it in one form or another. Basically, if you don’t know what to write, write that: “I don’t know what to write.” (Something will come to you, grab it and write it down.) As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones, keep your hand moving across the page. Goldberg has 5 more rules to this kind of writing, but I find that students do well starting with just that one – keep writing. That said, Writing Down the Bones is a classic for a reason, and I love introducing people to it – for people across the age spectrum, this book can serve as a revelation on how to break away from the “shoulds” about writing that can hamper actually getting words on the page.

Here are the books I mentioned, and why I mentioned them:

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. Doerr’s first book, published when she was 74. It is beautifully written and a very encouraging example of what people can do in their older years.

Solitude: A Return to the Self  by Anthony Storr.  Published in 1988, this book helped strengthen the persistent myth that writers (and other artists) are loners. I like to point out that Storr thanks eight people for helping him with the book – must be he didn’t spend all his time alone.

Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown  (author of Rubyfruit Jungle) One of the key (and unusual) messages Brown has about writing is that writing is a physical activity, and our craft of writing benefits from our paying attention to our body’s needs.  In fact, her first chapter is titled: “The Beginning of All Literature: Your Body.” So, roll those shoulders, take a good belly breathe, and get to work. Getting tired? Try a short walk and a glass of water. And, if you’d like to get a good scolding about the evils of sugar and/or enthusiastic coaching on the benefits of studying Latin, this is the book for you!

The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman

Friedman is a kind but firm guide to what it takes to make money at writing. Even if you don’t care two hoots for making money, she is so articulate on the page that reading her words is a pleasure. Here is a line from her book that I particularly like to share, “One of the great secrets to building the writing life you want is to pursue a vision that is truly yours, rather than someone else’s expectation . . . “

Check out her website – especially her blogs and her book recommendations. Here’s a link to her recommendations. I’ve ordered two of them – some of these books are probably available through libraries.   https://www.janefriedman.com/best-books-on-writing/

3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley  I haven’t read this book, in fact I just found out about it on Jane Friedman’s website.  At least my writer who wakes up at 3:00 a.m. knows she’s got company when those great ideas come to her during the night.  

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – I learned about the idea of writing a set amount every day from this book. The book offers daily things to do to empower the creative self. I made it about half way through the book: I’m not sure if anyone actually makes it all the way through. I stopped because I felt I could set out on my own and didn’t need the book anymore. (Not needing the book anymore is, I think, a recommendation for the book – all our teachers should be so effective that we don’t need them anymore!)

Cameron calls her version of daily writing, “Morning pages.” The key element of the method is writing daily for a set number of pages — longhand (she suggests, and I have used, 3 pages). Doing this moved my writing forward more than any other thing I have done over the half century I’ve been putting words to page. It also helped me stop paying attention to things that didn’t deserve my time: if I got super annoyed with someone, I’d just think – I’ll write about it tomorrow. But when tomorrow came, whatever it was just wasn’t that interesting anymore.

If you want to give morning pages a try:

Just write – write about anything, just keep going. .

Doing these pages in the morning will get your day started one way, but if you find you’d rather do them another time – go ahead, look for and do whatever works for you. I do find that writing them out longhand generates a different level of engagement with the words, and I recommend trying that method – even if you usually much prefer to type. Here are some arguments against longhand and my answer for them:

a) It will slow me down.

That’s actually okay: your brain will learn to not race ahead of your ability to get the words down.  

b) My handwriting starts out bad and gets worse over the course of the three pages.

That’s okay. Why? Because you never need to go back and reread these pages. I get my student’s point about not wanting more journals to pile up – if that describes you, too, you can try this: write the pages and shred them, or crumple them for fire starters, or put them with newspapers to use for mulch in the garden. The words serve your purpose when they land on the page. You don’t need to keep them. You are working to develop the connection between your brain and your getting words on the page.

c) It will take too long.

Fair enough. Divide the time you do have between handwritten and type written.  For example, you could try writing 1 page out longhand and then setting that aside and continuing on with the computer. Besides saving you time, this experiment might help you determine if there really is a difference for you between writing long hand and typing.

d) I really don’t like the idea.

This is the best reason of all to not do. (That’s not a typo – just don’t bother with it. It really is your work on your craft, and you are the best judge of what will work for you.)

All rules, hints, and other advice aside, a writer is someone who writes. It really is as simple as that.