Photo via Towfiqu Barbhuiya
A quick read of the sad garage sale that is Writer Twitter and you’ll inevitably come across a bio or pinned tweet where the writing advice is a form of “just do the fucking thing!” Besides being stupid, this advice also lacks a lot of nuance, especially if you’re a writer with chronic pain.
I feel like I write a lot about my chronic pain and my diagnosis, and in retrospect, I don’t. If you want boring details and more medical terminology than you can handle, feel free to check out my book, This book is brought to you through my student loans, but the short version is that I have rheumatoid arthritis and polymyositis. Pick a joint, tendon, nerve or muscle group and it hurts. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s not, but most of the time it doesn’t care about my ability to meet deadlines with quality material.
I feel like I write about pain all the time because even if I don’t, the pain is evident in my writing. Revisiting pieces to pitch or working on commissioned content sometimes makes me feel like I need to manage my anger. I reread my work and think, Oho hurt you, lady?
Chronic illness and pain add another level of worry about how you’re going to make money in a deeply capitalist society when you can’t twist and burn like some of your peers can. I wouldn’t accept assignments that I knew I would like because I was afraid that I would have to ask for an extension of time and be considered unreliable, so I decided not to put my hat in the ring strictly for fear of not being able to complete the article or essay. It took me a while to realize that pain will happen no matter what, so might as well start showing off. After all, most of my writer friends missed deadlines because they were hungover or arguing with their roommates. I legitimately know a writer who missed a deadline because there was a ghost in her room. If she had the nerve to tell her editor that – and she did – I understood that it was valid to ask for an extension because my body looked like a flaming wasp’s nest wrapped in concertina wire.
It seems counterintuitive to want this unpredictable career while living in an unpredictable body, but spaces for writers with disabilities and chronic illnesses are just as hard to come by as disability-positive spaces in normal employment. However, the community I was able to build as a chronic pain writer was vital to my artistic survival. Poet, essayist and advocate for chronic disease awareness Lisa Marie Basile graciously let me tease her about how she deals with deadlines, chronic pain, and the craft of a writer.
I legitimately know a writer who missed a deadline because there was a ghost in her room.
“Managing a disability while working, writing or trying to be creative is all about managing expectations, both for yourself and for others. Be as professional and transparent as possible along the way. Try to develop and maintain relationships with editors and people who understand you. In a perfect world that would be everyone, but it’s not a perfect world and most companies don’t care about chronic illnesses or disabilities. I think having an awareness about it and developing a strong exterior can also help, although it’s not ideal. Capitalism is not an ally, especially for the disabled.
And in my experience, lit spaces are sometimes only useful if they can capitalize on your story. I have noticed that I am asked a lot to write about my illness and my chronic pain, sometimes I want to but most of the time I don’t. It’s hard to say no to paid writing contracts, but as writers with disabilities, we have other stories to tell. And for me, focusing on the pain and incorporating it into my work sometimes makes it worse.*
Sometimes pain is my co-author, other times it’s the monster that stands between me and my keyboard. Right now the pain is sitting from ear to ear, stretching behind my head like a pair of Guy Fieri sunglasses and crumbling over my shoulders. Sometimes the pain makes me poetic, other times it makes me write like a grumpy asshole who doesn’t know basic grammar. Finding time to write is already a tall hurdle to overcome on its own, finally having time to write and only producing painful bullshit makes it impossible to meet deadlines. When my first, second, or even last draft reads like it was written by the boldest of lords, my editing time increases exponentially. Meeting deadlines can be tough when I have to do intense editing, so the article I just wrote about raising money for cancer research doesn’t look like it was written by a Bond Villain.
When I miss deadlines, I’m usually harder on myself than most editors. I want to produce great things and my body won’t let me. When your art gets trapped inside, it becomes a different kind of pain, and it’s important not to idealize this part of the process.
Chronic pain also affects my mood, memory, energy and ability to concentrate. Something I’ve learned from living in this body is that pain changes you as a person, and while that’s not always a bad thing, it’s hard to eliminate long-term plans. when I’m not the same person I was last week, yesterday, an hour ago, or even ten minutes ago when I had a great idea for a book, article, or even a tweet playful. I’ll say yes to an assignment with every intention of meeting the deadline, only to spend the two weeks I should be writing battling brain fog when I feel like there’s a hook lodged in my trigeminal nerve , then struggling to catch up.
With that healthy dose of hyperbole, you might be wondering how a career as a writer can be sustainable or even lucrative and fulfilling when your body doesn’t care about meeting deadlines or writing something that isn’t. depressing. Writing can be a personal and solitary profession. Living with chronic pain can be just as lonely and personal. Granted, I just walked out of an appointment where a doctor was kind to me and treated me like a person, but I believe those two things are not mutually exclusive or insurmountable. Here are some finer truths that I realized while juggling my career with chronic pain.
You don’t have to leave everything on the page.
You don’t owe any agents, light magazines, content farms, readers, or hikers every bad day, sharp pain, or muscle twitch. You don’t have to write about your bodily trauma to be taken seriously as a writer. Very often, we expect writers who are successful in exposing trauma to be defined by that element of their lives and to rank their work. We are allowed to write about other things.
Stop sitting around like a fucking gargoyle.
This is simple but effective advice. Recover. Rise. Stretch. Roll your shoulders. Stop sitting like you’re perched on a fountain on top of an old cathedral. I find that I can usually work for days without pain when I’m not sitting like I’m in a freak show tent, waiting for the kids to come by and watch me. Having a comfortable workspace is essential not only to stay pain-free, but also to manage low-grade pain, so stop sitting like that.
Editors are not therapists.
I shared too much about how my body was broken and why I would miss a deadline to the point where the more I talked, the more it felt like I was lying. I ended up looking like a snowflake that couldn’t do its job. This magazine did not ask me back. If you need an extension, request one as soon as you think you need it. You know when the bad days are coming. Ask as soon as possible and just ask.
But they aren’t monsters either.
Editors are humans who also have broken bodies. Except for the one time I overshared to the point of scaring off my editor, I’ve never had a problem asking for an extension in the literary community. Although most editors can’t really empathize, they can understand. I’ve only had timing issues with content managers in the influencer ad sales space, and I don’t care that much because content managers aren’t human, so are three horseshoe crabs in a coat.
Don’t ask who the lords on board are.
If your pain is affecting your tone, spelling, and grammar, or moving you into grumpy territory, give yourself some time to edit before delivering finished drafts. Same thing for brain fog. I wrote incomprehensible crap in the throes of brain fog and having a few days of buffer time to edit what I assumed was a grocery list of the damned but was supposed to be a gardening article saved my ass in many ways.
Don’t push him.
There are days of chronic pain where nothing is going to get done. As someone with chronic pain and illness, I’ve accepted that I don’t have the same 24 hours a day as other writers. When the pain hits, kiss the laundry and wash the dishes. All I can do is curl up on the couch and eat ramen like the miserable little cinnamon roll that I am. I don’t write on those days, so don’t force yourself. Comedy legend Greg Mania also graciously let me nag him about how he meets his deadlines with chronic pain and, like Lisa, he advises rest, self-care and honesty.
“The first thing I try to do is budget my time. I know that some days I don’t wake up well for any number of reasons (chronic pain, depression, a combination of the two, or any other chronic illness I I live) and I try to leave time for it.. I’ve stopped trying to get over the pain, brain fog, anxiety, migraines, etc. but it never did anything for me, but make it worse. If I feel like I’m going to have trouble meeting a deadline—because, too, life!—I try to appeal to my editor, or whoever I have work to do and let them know well in advance so they can adjust anything they might need to adjust, and, more often than not, I am greeted with grace and understanding. , for me, is being honest about how I feel. Resting, for me, is just as productive as producing and words.
Essentially, meeting deadlines when you’re a writer with chronic pain comes down to managing your time, reaching out when you know you’re going to miss the deadline, and being gentle with yourself throughout the process. I didn’t miss the irony that I requested an extension for this item as I ended up being hospitalized the night I was planning to return it, proving that my body really didn’t care about that delay. . I guess the universe wanted me to test my advice before it was released to the masses. So treat yourself nicely and go write.
* I totally pitched this article to the great folks at LitReactor. They are nice.