Writing When Ill

Published by Sam Ruddock on

Tools for writing, no matter what!
Guest Post by Sandra Jensen

As I wrote in my previous blog, there are many impediments to writing with a chronic illness. I am very lucky my version of ME/CFS is not so severe that I’m constantly bed-bound, but it still has a profound effect on my writing practice. Yes, there are days when I’m too ill to do anything at all, but the accompanying despair and disappointment can take an even greater bite out of my creative impulse. I know that if I write, I feel better, at least emotionally. But that doesn’t make it easy to do. There are moments I’m so engaged in writing I forget myself and my attendant pains and woes. But mostly, for me, writing is tough. It is primarily, as Dorothy Parker said, “the art of applying the ass to the seat.”

I’ve developed processes to help me get back to writing when my illness has chomped away at my confidence. A Page a Day is the best way I have ever known to apply my ass to the seat and write, even if I’m too ill to write for more than a few minutes at a time. Essentially it is writing one page every day for a month. A page of anything at all. The three critical ingredients in this are:

  • Having zero expectation that the writing is good
  • Setting achievable goals
  • Accountability.


Taking Good Writing Off the Table

The moment I expect my writing to meet some sort of standard (whatever that might be: unique, interesting, intelligent, funny, or even just “well written”), I lose spontaneity, and worse, my confidence – probably already slipping away – finds some other person to inhabit. Sometimes I instruct workshop participants to intentionally write badly – as badly as they can! I first came across this idea two decades ago in an article by John Spayde, published in Utne Reader, about a group of artists who would get together one evening a week in his and his wife Laurie’s dining room and intentionally create “bad art”. The evening became so popular they had to turn people away.

One of our faithful attenders once asked Laurie why we use the b-word. Doesn’t it imply low standards, low expectations, low self-esteem? No, Laurie explained. It implies no standards, no expectations, and very high self-esteem. Bad Art is all about conscious, dedicated badness—in community—as a tool of liberation.

I’m not suggesting you always intentionally write badly, but that you try to avoid intentionally writing well (or at least notice when you feel this impulse, and try to let it go, turning your attention instead to the world on the page, to see it more clearly, feel it more deeply, and write from that place).  

Very helpful here is NOT to edit anything you write. Spelling, grammar – anything at all. Don’t try to find a better word in a thesaurus or online, just write whatever word occurred and keep going.

How little writing can you do?

The second ingredient is setting an achievable goal. If I attempt to write, say, a thousand words a day, I might manage to do this for a few days, but then I’ll have a bad day health-wise and only manage a hundred and I’ll beat myself up, making it even harder to get to the page the following day. By achievable, I really mean achievable. The Page A Day process suggests that you commit to writing one page, double spaced – that’s about 250-300 words. But I use the term “page” quite loosely. Think of it not so much as how much writing can you do, but how little. Two paragraphs? One paragraph? If that is what feels actually achievable, then that’s the goal you set. And if you set a longer goal, say a full page, but have a day where you can’t do more than a sentence, that’s OK. So long as you write something.

And, while I feel it’s really beneficial to do the process for about a month (or more!), if that feels impossible, do it for two weeks.

A Writing Buddy

The third ingredient is accountability. Why do I find it easier to write within the context of a writing workshop, retreat or even just a writing group where members gather together? Because I know there are others writing, so I write too. I’d be letting the side down if I didn’t! Or I’d feel embarrassed if I just lolled about and did nothing.

But how to do this if one can’t leave one’s house, or bed? (Let alone the restrictions placed on us by COVID-19.)

Find one person willing to do the Page-A-Day process with you. You’ll need to share your writing with each other every day in some way: via email or WhatsApp or uploading documents to a shared Google drive, perhaps. I usually write my page in a word processing application, and then copy and paste it into an email. Other times, I simply write in the body of the email – this takes the least effort, and that’s what I want, no effort! But, there is a drawback here, which is it’s easy to lose those emails in the morass of my outbox, and not take the time at a later date to copy it all into a document where I can find it easily.

Key here is you do not give each other feedback. Perhaps you could check in after a month is up, or after two weeks as to how the process is going for you, but the moment you start getting feedback, even if it’s only positive feedback, perhaps especially if it’s positive feedback, it can activate the impulse to write “well’, to live up to perceived expectations. In fact there’s no expectation to read each other’s work at all, only that you send it to each other!

Something happens simply receiving that email from your writing buddy. You can’t let them down by not writing something, so you write, even if only a couple of sentences, and you send it along.

Additional Tips

So. Find a writing buddy. Set an achievable goal (each of you could have different goals), and write absolutely anything for a set period of time. If you don’t reach your goal that’s fine, just so long as you’ve written. And by anything I mean anything: random thoughts. Something inspired by a line of a poem, or a prompt you find in a book or on the web. Or use an old photograph or other image as inspiration. Or, you could use the process to keep going on a short story or a novel. But I think it’s helpful if you allow yourself, each day, to write whatever comes up, even if you planned a prompt, or had an idea, sit there a moment, and see what wants to be written. You might continue what you’ve written the following day, you might not. No expectations, remember!

If not knowing what you’re going to write about feels too challenging, then, before you start the process, make a list of memory prompts, short one-liners describing a specific memory, a scene or moment in time, and use those as inspiration. When you choose a line from your list, you might write the actual scene, or find yourself moving into something fictional.

Good luck! Write badly! And, if you have any questions at all about the process, I’m more than happy to answer them. Just email me at sandra@sandrajensen.net

About Sandra Jensen

Sandra Jensen’s work has been published in a number of literary magazines and journals; her awards include winning the 2019 Bridport Prize for a first novel.She was a guest writer and panelist at the International Conference on the Short Story and a workshop leader at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka. She’s received writing and travel grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. You can find out more about her at www.sandrajensen.net.

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