Writing with Chronic Pain
Photo via Towfiqu Barbhuiya
One quick perusal 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 some form of “just do the damn thing!” Besides being dumb, that advice also lacks a lot of nuance, especially if you’re a writer with chronic pain.
I feel like I write about my chronic pain and diagnosis a lot, and in retrospect, I don’t. If you want the boring details and more medical terminology than you can handle, feel free to check out my book, This Book Brought To You By 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 mild, sometimes it’s not, but most of the time it screws with my ability to meet deadlines with quality material.
It feels like I write about the 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 think I need anger management. I reread my work and think, Who hurt you, lady?
Chronic illness and pain add another level of worry about how you’re going to make money in a deeply capitalistic society when you can’t churn and burn the way some of your peers can. I wouldn’t take assignments I knew I would love because I was afraid I would have to ask for a deadline extension and be deemed unreliable, so I decided not to put my hat in the ring strictly out of fear I wouldn't be able to complete the article or essay. It took me a while to understand that the pain will happen no matter what, so I might as well start putting myself out there. After all, most of my writer friends were missing deadlines because they were hungover or fighting with their roommates. I legitimately know a writer who missed a deadline because there was a ghost in her room. If she had the gall to say that to her editor—and she did—I realized it was valid to ask for an extension because my body felt 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 disabled and chronically ill writers are just as hard to find as disability-positive spaces in a normie job. However, the community I’ve been able to build as a writer with chronic pain has been vital to my artistic survival. Poet, essayist, and chronic illness awareness advocate Lisa Marie Basile graciously let me bug her about how she deals with meeting deadlines, chronic pain, and the business of being a writer.
“Managing a disability while working or writing or trying to be creative is entirely about managing expectations, both for yourself and others. Be as professional and transparent as you can along the way. Try to develop and nurture relationships with the editors and people who understand you. In a perfect world, this would be everyone, but this is not a perfect world and most businesses don’t care about chronic illness or disability. I think having a realization about this, and developing a tough exterior, can also help—even though it’s not ideal. Capitalism is not an ally, especially to the disabled.”
And in my experience, lit spaces are sometimes only supportive if they can capitalize on your story. I’ve noticed I get asked to write about my illness and chronic pain a lot, sometimes I want to but most of the time I don’t. It’s hard to say no to paying writing gigs, but as disabled writers, we have other stories to tell. And for me, focusing on the pain and bringing it into my work sometimes makes it worse.*
Sometimes the pain is my coauthor, other times it is the monster standing 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 down my shoulders. Sometimes the pain makes me poetic, other times it just makes me write like a cranky asshole who doesn’t know basic grammar. Finding time to write is already a high hurdle to clear on its own, finally getting time to write and only producing pain-soaked crap makes it feel impossible to meet deadlines. When my first, second, or even final draft reads like it was written by the edgiest of lords, my editing time increases exponentially. Meeting deadlines can be difficult when I have to do an intense edit so the article I just wrote about fundraising for cancer research doesn’t sound like it was written by a Bond Villain.
When I do miss deadlines, I’m usually harder on myself than most editors are. I want to produce great things and my body won’t let me. When your art is trapped inside, that becomes a different kind of pain, and it’s important to not romanticize that part of the process.
Chronic pain also impacts my mood, memory, energy, and my ability to concentrate. Something I learned living in this body is that pain changes you as a person, and while that’s not always a bad thing, it is difficult to knock out long-form projects 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 jaunty tweet. I will say yes to an assignment with the full intention of meeting the deadline, only to spend the two weeks I should be writing combating brain fog while it feels like there’s a fish hook lodged in my trigeminal nerve, and then scrambling to catch up.
With that healthy dose of hyperbole, you may wonder how a writing career can be sustainable or even lucrative and fulfilling when your body doesn’t give a shit about meeting deadlines or writing something that isn’t refill-your-prescription level depressing. Writing can be a personal and lonely craft. Living with chronic pain can be equally lonely and personal. Granted, I’m fresh off an appointment where a doctor was nice to me and treated me like a person, but I believe these two things are not incompatible or insurmountable. Here are some finer truths I’ve realized while juggling my career with chronic pain.
You do not have to leave it all on the page.
You don’t owe any agent, lit mag, content farm, reader, or rando every bad day, sharp pain, or muscle twitch. You don’t have to write about your body trauma to be taken seriously as a writer. So often we expect writers who find success through disclosing trauma to be defined by that element of their lives and pigeonhole their work. We are allowed to write about other things.
Stop sitting like a fucking gargoyle.
This is simple but effective advice. Sit up straight. Stand up. Stretch. Roll your shoulders. Stop sitting like you’re perched on a water spout atop an old cathedral. I find I can usually work through low-pain days when I don’t sit like I’m in a freak show tent, waiting for children to walk by and gawk at me. Having a comfortable workspace is key to not only staying pain-free, but also managing low-level pain, so stop sitting like that.
Editors aren’t therapists.
I have overshared about the ways my body was broken and why I would be missing a deadline to the point where the more I talked the more it seemed like I was lying. I ended up looking like a flake who couldn’t get my work done. That magazine did not ask me back. If you need an extension just ask for one as soon as you think you’ll need it. You know when the bad pain days roll in. Ask sooner rather than later and ask simply.
But neither are they monsters.
Editors are humans who also have bodies that break. Except for the one time I overshared to the point of freaking my editor out, I’ve never had a problem with asking for an extension in the literary community. While most editors may not be able to truly empathize, they can understand. I’ve only ever had deadline problems with content managers in the influencer ad-sales space, and I don’t worry about that so much because content managers aren’t humans, they’re three horseshoe crabs in a coat.
Ask not for who the edge lords.
If your pain impacts your tone, spelling, and grammar, or moves you into cranky bitch territory, give yourself a buffer of time to edit before you deliver on finished projects. The same thing for brain fog. I have written some incomprehensible shit in the throes of brain fog and having a few days of buffer time to edit what I assume was a grocery list of the damned but was supposed to be an article on gardening saved my ass in a lot of ways.
Don’t push it.
There are chronic pain days when nothing is going to get done. As someone with chronic pain and illness, I’ve accepted I don’t have the same 24 hours in a day other writers do. When the pain hits, fuck the laundry, and screw the dishes. All I can do is huddle on the couch and eat ramen like the miserable little cinnamon roll I am. I don’t write on those days, so don’t push yourself. Comedy legend Greg Mania also graciously let me bug 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 feeling well for a number of reasons—chronic pain, depression, a combo of the two, or any of the other chronic medical conditions I live with—and I try to allow time for that. I’ve stopped trying to work through the pain, the brain fog, the anxiety, the migraines, and so on, but never has that done anything for me but make it worse. If I feel like I’m going to struggle meeting a deadline—because, also, life!—I try to loop in my editor, or whomever I owe work and let them know well in advance so they can adjust whatever they may need to adjust, and, more times than not, I’m met with grace and understanding. But the most important, for me, is to be honest about how I’m feeling. To rest, for me, is just as productive as producing words.”
In essence, 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 through the process. The irony that I asked for an extension on this article is not lost to me as I ended up hospitalized the night I was planning on turning it in, proving that truly my body did not give a shit about this deadline. I guess the universe wanted me to test-drive my advice before it went out to the masses. So treat yourself kindly, and go write.
*I totally pitched this article to the wonderful folks at LitReactor. They’re nice.
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