Frazzled, Overwhelmed, Swamped? A Writer's Guide to Mental Health

by Ruth Harris

You’re swamped and there are alligators in that swamp. They have sharp teeth and they bite. Their names are Stress, Clutter, Distraction, Disorganization, and Interruption.

You’ve got a book to write, a cover to create, tweets to tweet, promos to set up, blurbs to polish, and pins to Pin. There’s metadata, pricing decisions, giveaways, keywords, tagging, liking, formatting, blogging, Instagramming and facing FaceBook.

Your phone is pinging and your computer is beeping. Your lists have lists, your eyes are crossed from staring at a computer screen all day (and night), and carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t just something that happens to other people.

Frazzled doesn’t even begin to describe it. You’re irritable and short-tempered. You’re working hard but never experience the satisfied feeling that you’ve actually finished something. You can’t think much less think straight. You’re overwhelmed, overcommitted, and in a state of perpetual exhaustion.

You are not alone. Anne and I confess.

Your social media accounts are growing mold and/or they are covered with cobwebs? You got lured in/carried away and signed up for accounts you haven’t visited since the last century?

Ruth blushes and raises her hand.

Your email is a tsunami of the unanswered, unfiled, and/or undeleted? Your in-box overflows with requests for quotes, newsletters, mass mailings and triggers feelings of guilt, fear, panic, and inadequacy?

Anne sighs and raises her hand.

Anne and I have both been feeling overwhelmed lately. We recently compared notes and agreed that we were probably not alone. We decided it was time to take a step back and figure out How To Be A Writer In The E-Age (title alert!) and have a life, too.

Here’s a little of what we learned and what we’re doing about it.

Clutter is toxic. That ready-to-topple stack of messy papers, print outs, scribbled notes you can no longer decipher, remnants of yesterday’s ham sandwich, unsorted receipts, unpaid bills, and that drooping plant gasping for water are the enemy.

Clutter will (literally) fry your brain and torpedo your memory. Not only does a messy desk (or desktop or work space) look unprofessional, clutter is a scientifically proven source or stress.

In a recent study, neuroscientists at Princeton University found that each piece of physical clutter in your surroundings competes for your attention. Each item shouts “me first!” and the consequence is decreased performance and increased stress

Different people have different definitions for how much clutter is “too much.” Sentimental Sam’s treasured collection of five year’s worth of birthday and Valentine’s Day cards will send Neatnik Nancy shrieking into the abyss.

Still, there are alerts that will let you know when you’ve reached your own limit. A few hints:

Sound familiar? If so, develop a realistic system for controlling the clutter. Some like to shovel out the mess straighten out their desk/office first thing in the morning. Others use breaks throughout the day to tidy up as they go along. Still others take a few moments at the end of the day so they can start the next day with a clear mind, ready to go to work.

Some let the chaos build for a while and then set aside a morning, an afternoon, a day if necessary, to dig out.

There is no one way to tackle clutter but whatever approach works best for you, stick to it and make decluttering a habit you incorporate into your daily routine. The reward will be increased peace of mind and an improved ability to concentrate.

Here are a few specific declutter and de-stress how-tos:

Organize and automate.

Writing by its nature is a messy business with notes, ideas, snatches of dialogue, plot points popping up in random order. All need to be organized and eventually wrestled into usable shape. Olde Faithful word processors like Word are powerful and reliable and work perfectly for many.

Newer writing apps take a deeper look at writers’ needs and offer tools to help control and organize the mess.

Scrivener, beloved by many (including me) comes in both Mac and PC versions. Scrivener is an organizing ninja that provides space for your manuscript plus character and place descriptions, and all manner of research including web links, images, audio files and videos. There’s an easily accessible cork board complete with index cards and an outline function. Thanks to Scrivener’s “binder” concept, moving scenes around is quick and easy.

There’s a learning curve but you can easily start with the basics and go on from there with the help of Scrivener’s own videos and tutorials plus loads of on-line info. Scriv offers a generous trial and, if you decide Scrivener is for you, the purchase price is $45.

Ulysses (Mac only) is another, newer but highly-respected writing app and presents the writer with a distraction-zapping interface. Author David Hewson is a fan and has written a number of helpful blog posts about how he uses Ulysses including why it’s so easy to write in Ulysses.

You will find a Ulysses-Scrivener comparison here and another here. Ulysses, like Scriv, offers a FREE trial and will cost $45 if you decide to buy.

Both Scrivener and Ulysses will export your manuscript into pdf and ebook formats.

Atlantis (for PCs) is a full-featured, moderately-priced MSWord lookalike. Comes with a generous FREE try-before-you-buy trial, offers on-line help, and user’s forum. Atlantis can do much of what most modern writing apps do including turn your text into an epub or mobi file.

Evernote and Microsoft’s One Note are both FREE downloadable on-line notebooks that will help organize the clutter. They are fast, searchable, and can be set up in whatever way works best for you.

Backing up your work is critical and being able to do it automatically means one more thing you can delete from your to-list. Some are FREE, others paid. Each takes a slightly different approach and each has its fans. To decide which is best for you, check out:








Distraction and Interruption

Whether it’s the phone, IMs, emails, texts, a friend, a spouse, a neighbor, those interruptions add up and not in a good way. According to a New York Times article distraction actually makes you dumber.

Other data show that the stress of the distraction or interruption causes cognitive fatigue, which leads to omissions, mental slips or lapses, and mistakes.

A 2007 study by Basex estimated that distractions cost $588 billion per year. To compound the issue, the time required to reestablish your focus after an interruption takes even more time out of your productive day.

Another survey found nearly 60% of disruptions come from email, social networks, and cell phones.

Nora Roberts has said that she permits distractions only in the case of “blood or fire.”

Some writers (including Ruth) wear earphones to block out noise and others set timers to carve out no-interrupt writing periods. Still others close the door and post “Do Not Disturb” signs.

MindTools offers an in-depth look at distractions and lists ways to curtail or minimize them.

Laura Stack, a personal productivity expert, looks at the negative impact of self-sabotage and the downside of multitasking. She offers strategies for staying on focus and in the zone.

Anne and Ruth Shape Up And Pare Down

Anne is spending less time on Facebook and she’s taking Thursdays off from all social media. The volume of requests for her time make it impossible for her to deal with them.

From now on she’s decided she’s not going to respond to mass mailings or cold queries. If she doesn’t have time to read newsletters or online magazines, she deletes them immediately. No saving for “later” because she’s found she never gets back to them.

I ration my social media to Twitter (where I’ve made lots of friends and which I enjoy) and indulge in one brief, catch-up session in the morning and another in the evening. Whenever something catches my eye and I think of it, I share it on Pinterest. Otherwise, my moldy, cobwebbed accounts are doomed to stay that way.

I’ve cut down on my blog and basically use it only to announce sales, reveal new covers or introduce new books. If I get a zippy idea I can write quickly, I’ll post it but, otherwise, my blogging is focused here with Anne.

I’m also planning to turn off those annoying email notifications but I haven’t quite gotten around to it yet.

Too busy. ;-)

What about you, Scriveners? Are you feeling a tad frazzled and overwhelmed? Swamped? Are you paring down on Social Media? How about dealing with desk and office clutter? How do you deal with your tsunami of email?



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THREE WOMEN. THREE DECADES. Spanning the years from the optimistic post-War 1940s to the Mad Men 1950s and rule-breaking "Make Love, Not War" 1960s, DECADES is about three generations of women who must confront the radical changes and upended expectations of the turbulent decades in which they lived.

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Nick, handsome and ambitious, a chameleon who changes with the changing times, is her successful but restless husband.

Joy, their daughter, confused and defiant, a child of the Sixties, needs them both but is torn between them.

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DECADES, sweeping in scope yet intimate in detail, is the emotional, compelling story of family, marriage, crisis, betrayal and healing.


VIGNETTE WRITERS, here's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25.  Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.

THE MEADOW NOVELLA PRIZE $15 ENTRY FEE. The winner of the contest will receive $500 and publication in the annual print edition of the journal. Submissions should be between 18,000 and 35,000 words.  Deadline February 1, 2015. 

WALKER PERCY PRIZE IN SHORT FICTION $15 ENTRY FEE. Winner receives $1,000 and publication in New Orleans Review. All finalists considered for publication. Enter previously unpublished original stories up to 7,500 words. Deadline December 31st

Writers’ Village International Short Fiction Contest $24 entry fee. Prizes of $1600, $800, $400 and $80. A further ten Highly Commended entrants will receive a free entry in the next round. Professional feedback provided for all entries! Any genre: up to 3000 words. Deadline December 31st.

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