I measure out the last decade of my writing life in three phases of growth: craft, work, and self. My MFA was a period in which I was able to practice and hone my craft. The stories I workshopped back then are still in the drawer, written more for the sake of writing than for their content; perhaps they were simply craft exercises, or perhaps I'll open that drawer someday. The years following were about creating a body of work I could be proud of, including my novel, applying the lessons I had practiced in grad school. But since I let the novel go, sent it out into the world (it will be published a few days after you read this), I have been honing/creating/working on myself.
The self-work often translates as self-care. For me, that means meditating seriously. I've been more curious about myself, which, I believe, has directly led to seeing other people more clearly. This also translates to character writing: in my new book, my characters are more accessible to me, though no less complex. I find I write with more joy. It's the self-work that has opened up the possibility of new, significant-feeling material. Through work ethic, through the constant practice of empathy that fiction invites, and through the myriad of other writing side-effects, I'd like to think that writing has made me a better person—by which I mean more of a person, more wholly myself.
Of course these three phases of growth are not distinct—more ven-diagramy. I learned as much about myself as a person by examining my writing habits in my MFA class as I have by examining my emotional habits in therapy. Writing quirks and flaws say a lot about one's personality. The lesson most ingrained into me during my workshops was to practice "deceptive simplicity," as Colum McCann put it. In those old stories, I was showing off, trying to prove how smart I was, with loud openings and fancy sentence structures, at the expense of clarity. I was afraid the story behind the flashiness wasn't good enough or wouldn't stand alone. I still have fun with sound and rhythm in my prose, but story matters more to me these days.
My other favorite self-care buzzword is permission. I was very hard on myself when I was writing my novel, berating myself to an unhealthy extent when I wasn't writing. At draft five or so, I started giving myself permission to not write. Granting myself this leniency freed me up to write just as much and with less self-loathing.
It is easy to exploit your creative side, as it seems so willing to be over-worked. It's important to have self-care systems in place ahead of time to call upon when you're feeling depleted. These practices can come in many shapes and sizes: exercising, commiserating with another writer, visiting a museum, getting a massage, or reading an Agatha Christie novel, to name a few.
My friend, Melissa Chadburn, is working on a very dark novel (A Tiny Upward Shove, out next spring) about victims of a serial killer. It is so dark that it's hard to not carry that mood with her. To combat this, she came up with the ritual of lighting a candle at the beginning of her writing time, blowing it out when she wraps for the day. It helps distinguish that difficult work from her everyday life and invites a symbol of light into a metaphorically dark space.
Others writers find outlets outside of their practice. One friend considers going out dancing an act of writerly self-care. She tries not to be precious about her writing time because other experiences are feeding her right now.
Meanwhile, another novelist friend, who is deep into a draft of a new book, gives himself the gift of saying "no." His friends know not to take it personally. He protects his writing time, and he knows that a hangover won't help his work.
What do you do to take care of your creative self? As a teacher, I can't help but to give a homework assignment (it won't take long!): Make a list of possible kindnesses you can do for yourself. When you are in the muck or in a bad mood with yourself, these items can so easily slip your mind. Why not have a list, kept somewhere in your writing space, that you can glance at in those moments?
We "surrender" ourselves to our art, T.S. Elliott wrote. I hate to argue with the Master, but I'm not sold on the metaphor of war that's implied. Instead, I think of my dynamic with writing as the most equal relationship I've ever been in. There is a give and take. Sacrifice, yes, but not "a continual extinction of personality." If writing means an increase of empathy, then it cannot mean the killing or erasure of the empathizer. With any luck, and hard work, and self-care, writing induces the broadening of personality, revealed, between the lines, for its potential.