If you haven’t already, please read the intro page to find out what these questions are about.
DO I EVEN NEED A DEGREE TO WRITE?
There’s tons of writers out there who don’t have any background in writing (NYT bestseller Susan Dennard has a science background, while NYT bestseller Lindsay Cummings didn’t finish college!) Think of it like acting. Some actors go to acting school and do amazingly well. Other great actors didn’t even complete high school. It didn’t make them any less great. Your journey totally depends on you and what you need.
The thing about a degree–it opens doors. If you ever become well enough to hold a job, you have a degree to make you marketable.
But you don’t need a degree, depending on the type of writing you want to do. While having a shiny degree may make your query letters pop more, agents/editors look for skill. Besides, when you read a book, do you check out the author’s credentials? Most likely, you only care if the story is good.
The biggest thing I got from finishing my college degree was learning how to take critiques. We had to work in groups and critique each other’s work. So I learned how to take positive and negative feedback and how to give it. That was awesome. And they made us submit to magazines via letter (the program was a weeeee outdated). So I learned how to take a rejection from publishers early. I also got rejected from the college magazine. Ahem. Several times. So I learned rejection there.
I also learned how much I FREAKING LOVED my writing classes. I’d skip other classes due to pain, but I’d never skip a writing class. In retrospect, I could’ve, should’ve, talked to my professor because forcing myself to go to class actually made my health worse—but I didn’t know this was an option.
So, let me be the first to say talking to your school and professions is an option.
Actually, what I should’ve done was talk to my college about taking classes at a slower rate or taken time off. At this point, I should’ve already been hospitalized, but because my pain transformed from episodic to chronic so gradually, and because I was so terrible at listening to my body, I didn’t know I was so sick. I didn’t even know I could take time off, let alone should. I graduated early, but I know if I took off time for college, I wouldn’t have graduated at all. I’m glad I got a degree. However, doing college made me so much sicker.
Was it worth it? I don’t know.
I gained a lot. I lost a lot.
By the time I was looking at grad school for an MFA in writing, I realized even with the disability programs, (and there are some great grad schools with programs to help with disabilities and chronic illness) I couldn’t keep up. So I didn’t go. (Now I know a good school should still work with you on this. I bet some of the schools would’ve, but I didn’t even know I could ask further questions.)
Can you tell how much not knowing played into my education?
My sister has a MFA for memoir. Personally, I think I got just as great an education, even though mine was scrappy. Things she’d tell me she learned, I’d honestly heard in a short online class some author offered. I read as much as I could. Attended conferences when I could (even free online ones), signed up for author newsletters–none of it official. Joined a critique group online, learned how to give/receive critique for big works. All of it was super helpful. I basically just kept my learning hat on full time and was able to synthesize lessons from everything I could get my hands on.
That worked for me. I’m also the type of person who does really well when left to my own devices. My sister, that doesn’t work for her. She needed the deadline of school and an MFA. That worked for her.
I did all of my learning at my own pace. Having no deadlines works for me.
You don’t need a degree. Especially to write fiction. You can piece together your own education. It’s harder and it takes more time, but I was able to tailor what I needed to learn based on skills I already had. I had to get creative about it. I did a ton of snooping on author’s websites and social media sites to see what tools/resources/tips they mentioned.
Because I had such bad repercussions from pushing my body to get a degree, I’d argue till I die—really question if pushing yourself is worth the degree. Maybe for you it’s yes. Maybe, honestly, it’s a no. And if the answer is no, is there another way for you to educate yourself? Remember, it’s the skill that counts.
HOW DO YOU MAKE AN INCOME WITH A CHRONIC ILLNESS?
Prepare for tons of honesty here.
I married super young (well, for a millennial). I was 20. I’d been chronic for three years at this point and when my husband proposed, he knew I was more sick than I realized. I recognized I was sick enough I’d have to look for a job that would accommodate me, but I didn’t know I qualified as disabled. My college job counselor did a terrible job in helping me and told me to “suck it up.”
So I did.
I got a part-time job (20 hours a week) working for an author. I learned tons about writing through my job. However, I would come home after a couple hours and sob because I was in so much pain. I didn’t know this wasn’t normal, so let me just say this in case you need to hear it: this is not normal. You should not be crying from pain after your job. And my boss was nice and willing to work with me. And still I’d come home in tears.
I worked for a year and a half before my husband and I decided I had to quit.
And this is where I have privilege. Due to our circumstances and family willing to help, I was in a position that I could quit without us starving. Did we have to give stuff up? Absolutely. But we did not starve or suffer. I’m extremely extremely lucky, to not only have a husband who could work but also have a supportive family system. Many do not have this. If you’re in a similar position, I swear quitting in order to take care of my body and letting others help saved my life.
I took a handful years of about 90% couch-rest before my pain started to get a little more manageable. I signed with a publisher when my pain was about 50% couch-rest. (Not to be confused with 50% pain free). However, even NYT bestselling authors don’t make nearly as much money as you’d think. Most still can’t afford to live off their writing and have to supplement. So, long story short—I, personally, don’t make much of an income at all. Like, at all.
So. Yeah. Sorry it’s not more cheerful.
My husband and I decided for me to pursue writing because that’s what I went to school for and we were making ends meet without my help. Writing made me happy and gave me something to work on that was bigger than myself. All of the arts still give me hope.
Some people with chronic illness qualify for disability (I personally don’t because I got sick too young) and can bring in some income that way. Others have learned to be really creative with their skill set and their time. Some have found working from home to be the answer, either through freelancing or those marketing-tier programs or something else. Others have found they could keep their old job, especially if it’s one they enjoy, by speaking with their boss. I’ve heard of some people switching to a part-home/part-office work schedule. Migraine.com gives some great tips for how to approach your boss to make your job more accommodating. Many bosses want to help, but either aren’t aware or don’t know how.
If you can’t work a “normal” job, but still want to try to make some money or find a hobby that might be able to make some money, I personally recommend taking stock of what training and skill sets you have—even if they seem super obscure. Then make a list of your limitations—and be honest. No need for heroics. Especially if you’re trying to figure out what actually works for you. Now have some fun brainstorming out-of-the-box ideas. Even if you don’t make any money, this exercise can give you an idea of the things you can do, which is super important when all you feel like you can be is a Pro-TV Watcher.
FINDING A WRITING GROUP WITH A CHRONIC ILLNESS
Most writers find critique groups they can attend in person. You might bring a certain number of pages or take turns reading your work aloud. For the Denver area, here are some places that meet in person:
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers has several here in Denver based on location and genre. I don’t think you have to be a member to join one, but they have them listed on their website.
Pikes Peak Writers also has some good ones. Their locations extend to south Denver around Castle Rock if you don’t mind driving. But I have a couple friends there who love the groups.
SCBWI–their Rocky Mountain Chapter are constantly setting up different groups. This one you definetly have to be a member for, but they have a wide variety of groups.
You also might want to check out the libraries and some of the indie stores, like The Tattered Cover. Sometimes they offer new ones from time to time. I’ve even heard of Barnes and Noble offering groups.
Due to the nature of my illness, meeting in person is rather difficult. I’m way more likely to miss a meeting than actually attend, so I never used in-person critique groups. I’ve met people online through courses and classes and made an informal on-line group.
Here’s a couple places where you can meet others online. Susan Dennard has a space where you can meet up with other people online: http://forum.susandennard.com/?post_type=forum In the forum there’s a subsection where you can meet other people and what they’re working on and try to connect there.
Maggie Steifvater sometimes hosts meet-ups on her blog: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/critique-partner-matchup.
Publishing Crawl also hosted online groups. They might have one again: http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2016/02/12/critique-partner-connection-time-to-meet-your-match/
If you’re active on Twitter, critique partner match ups pop up now and then too.
Throughout my career, I’ve transitioned from using a critique group to using only critique partners (or beta readers). This works better for my creative process, my deadlines, and my illness. It’s much easier for me to hand an entire book over to someone and get their feedback than to get 15 pages of critique at a time. I can plan around this easier, and working on-on-one with someone gives me more flexibility when my illness flares. I’ve also hired independent editors to give me feedback. This has been especially helpful as more and more friends have gotten published and we all have our own schedule to keep.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU WRITE WITH A CHRONIC ILLNESS?
You’ll hear a entire host of writing advice. Write every day. Don’t write every day. Write in batches. Write in stolen moments. Write in the morning. Write at night. Write whenever works for you.
Buuuut when pain’s involved, it’s a whole other ballgame. And, honestly, you can’t really play by the same rules everyone else does. If I sat down every day to write, I’d be couch-ridden. I can’t just “sit my butt down and write until it’s fiinihsed.” Writer retreats and conferences are also hard for me, and many people say you should go do those too. But that’s okay! Though this advice doesn’t work for me, maybe it’ll work for somebody else.
So, how, exactly do I write?
Because each day is unpredictable for me, I tend to plan by month instead of by day. As I’m currently answering this question in March, my deadline is June. So, that’s the month I’m aiming for. I’m planning to keep editing this month, give it to a friend in March (probably mid March). Get it back and revise in April. Line edits until May till I turn it in in June. I honestly don’t plan more than that. If I do day by day planning I’m more likely to get frustrated when I don’t hit my goal. Or, because I could get sick and not do anything for a while. So even those monthly plans I hold more loose.
(I came back to add this: what actually happened–I turned in the book in July, but with no line edits completed. I am currently on track to turn it in with line edits completed in November. So, even this plan isn’t foolproof.)
Right now I aim to do an hour of writing a day. Most of the time I can hit that. If I push myself, I end up with physical consequences. I’ve done the limitation thing long enough to know pushing for even two weeks could lead to two months of consequence. It’s a sucky logarithm.
(coming back to add: I recently received medication that allows me to work about four hours a day without consequence. I can work at this pace for about two weeks out of the month, then have to drop down.)
Even still, I still struggle with this—closing my laptop when writing makes my pain bad and living within my own boundaries. Even despite knowing the result, it’s a constant, daily struggle. It’s been a constant, daily struggle for over ten years.
So I figured out some ways to cheat 🙂 ‘Cause that’s what you have to do—you have a boulder in your path, so you either find a new path or figure out a way around it.
If I can’t write, but can still think, I’ll daydream about the work. I’ll let my mind play with characters and scenes and themes. Usually by the time I can write again, I have content ready to go. Especially if I’ve outlined first. I’m a huge outliner—it saves time and energy and lets me waste less words.
I’ve also started dictating. Instead of 1,000 per hour, I can dictate 3,000 words. This enables me to pump out first drafts faster without staring at a screen, which then aggravates my pain. I also use sunglasses or blue-light glasses to help with the photophobia. I have a litany of family nearby. My mom loves to help, and is super-human, so I line edit on gray paper and give her a stack of pages. She types in my changes for me so I don’t have to stare at the lines. All these things are shortcuts that help me manage my pain and time.
I have also budgeted for an indie editor to help me, who gives me great feedback and also helps me spend less time reading on-screen.
When I can’t do anything writing related at all, I try to work on other creative things. I really enjoy painting or compose music, or playing the piano. I still exercise my creative muscle and remain in a creative generating mode. It’s easier for me to jump back into writing even if I’ve been away for several days, or weeks, this way. I’ve also found the better I get in other mediums, the more my writing improves. I really believe there’s some sort of creative cross-training involved.
I think there’s a point in every creative person’s life where you have to learn how to be creative even when you don’t feel like it. In high school, I’d get these massive creative swings and ride the wave until I stopped producing. Then, I’d settle in for the next. That doesn’t work when you’re sick and trying to get stuff done.
My first job out of college taught me how to fight through this slump. It’s a skill I use all the time and it translated really well with working with lower level pain days. Doing other sort of creative things, even if you’re not writing, can still teach you how to do this. It’s useful on the days when the illness is more manageable, depression is low, and it’s truly only a willpower thing. (This rarely happens, but when it does, I can now work through it!)
I’ll also read a ton of books or watch a lot of movies or listen to good music or good podcasts. All of it is inspiration and, to me, a form of “working.” I might not be able to write this week, but I can study how this murder mystery uses pacing to enhance the plot. Or, how animators use different mediums to get the tone across. A couple months ago, I was on an animation kick–watching a lot of award-winning asian anime and then a couple movies from a Irish-based studio. Seeing how another culture tells stories is super fascinating. I learn a lot from it.
I do a lot of that sort of thing when I’m not actively writing. It’s me practicing creativity, even if not in a typical way. It’s a way to protect my body and not aggravate the pain or my illness.
To me, it all goes into the creative pot. And I know it’s making me a better creative person all the way around, not just in writing.
In essence—Be kind to yourself. Don’t write that day or that month or that year if it’ll make your pain worse. Be patient. Be creative 🙂
IS PURSUING A DREAM THROUGH THE PAIN WORTH IT?
This is probably one of the hardest questions I’ve ever answered.
I have a middle grade series I want to sell now, but middle grade is a tricky genre where you kind of need to work with a bigger press in order to find readers. Is putting myself in the big press machine worth it? Is writing “my job”? Or is it something to occupy me through the pain? Should I just write for myself and self-publing after my YA series is finished? Not put any pressure on myself? Should I only write stand alones and sell once they are completely finished (so I can write at my own pace?)?
It’s really really hard to balance pain and writing. Some days I’m good at it. Some days I suck at it.
It’s really hard to live in a culture where balance isn’t really prized. Sure, we say balance is great, but how many people do you see living it out? How many success stories are in the media that are built on a good work/life/home/health balance that aren’t trying to sell you something? We live in a culture of extremes and those who won’t, or can’t, go to the extreme are usually left in an abandoned parking lot.
I have to remind myself Every. Single. Day. That my life, my writing schedule, my marketing schedule doesn’t look like others. It’s really hard not to compare. To be content, I have to wrestle through that. 90% of the time, I have to wrestle to be content with “smaller.” I can’t do everything. I’m sick. It’s a constant attitude readjustment and “life purpose” management.
Even still, I’m constantly wrestling with pushing myself and accepting my limits and the consequences and the guilt whenever I don’t write. I’ve said no to many, many things I thought I wanted, only to find I was happy without them. I’ve also said yes to some things because they made my soul very happy and that was worth it to me.
You might notice I didn’t answer the question. That’s because I’m still trying to answer it for myself.
THE SOCIAL MEDIA QUESTION
I was more on top of social media before I got published. Having a platform doesn’t really effect your publish ability when you’re writing fiction (nonfiction is totally different) unless you’re pulling in mega numbers or being an online bully.
Honestly, social media didn’t impact my more serious work or my creativity. If anything, I really enjoyed brainstorm types of blog posts and Insta themes and Pinterest boards.
What social media did impact is my time and energy, especially after I signed a contract. If I’ve only got an hour to work, I need to be working on my contracted work and not spending half of it on Twitter. I’ve really backed off on social media.
Some authors who are sick manage to keep pace with social media just fine. For me, since screen time is a massive trigger for my illness, I’ve let a lot of it go and focused on the platforms I enjoy most, like Instagram. So far, I don’t regret releasing what I can’t control, though my reach isn’t as big.
WHAT TYPE OF PUBLISHING IS BEST FOR CHRONIC ILLNESS?
There’s a reason why you don’t find many authors with severe chronic pain or severe illnesses. I’ve noticed those who do publish tend to publish standalone novels or nonfiction—which is able to be published at a slower pace than a-book-a-year. Self-publishing is also a great option because you can publish at your own pace.
I highly recommend figuring out what your goals are, not what other people say is successful, but you. And comparing that to what you’re actually capable of. That’ll give you a better idea of what type might fit.
I personally signed with a small press who was willing to work with me on deadlines due to my illness. That’s been working well for my YA series. I communicate regularly with my editor so she knows what to expect from me and when. We’ve also built in extra time for my deadlines and I’m currently on an every-other-year release schedule. Since I’ve been chronically sick for a decade, I have a decent understanding of what I’m capable of and the rate which I can produce, which helps when building our timeline.
My calculator for this is [time I expect to get something done] x 4 = actual length of time. Lots of trial and error to figure this out 🙂