As is the case with every year, I kicked off 2023 with the intention of improving my writing.
Little did I know that there was something waiting to kick me in the butt and throw those plans out the window faster than the clean-up crew hitting Times Square after the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.
Hi, my (pen)name is Avril, and I'm a Covid-19 long-hauler.
I haven't shared much about it online but after two years of successfully avoiding it, I contracted Covid-19 in early November 2022. Thankfully, it wasn't too severe. I had been vaccinated and double-boosted with the plan to get a third, I was able to get a prescription to lessen the symptoms a tad, and did not need to be hospitalized for it.
For the most part, I remember being pale and puffy one day and sunken the next. I spent most of those days curled up in bed and have little recollection aside from feeling like utter crap.
And I had the taste of what I can only describe as a smoothie-thick cocktail of shampoo and nail polish remover lingering in my mouth for days; this was a side-effect of the prescription I was given, and worth dealing with.
It could have been a lot worse, but it still did a number on my system. I just didn't know it at the time.
I was fine for a couple of weeks before having a resurgence of my symptoms that hasn't entirely cleared up.
The worst of my ongoing symptoms have been cognitive. My short-term memory is a mess. You can say something to me and within maybe ten minutes I'll have already forgotten it—and that's if it clicks at all. Multitasking is often a thing of the past, and focusing in general has been a challenge. I've described it as my auto-pilot buffering or skipping like a scratched CD.
I'm also dealing with near-daily headaches ranging from mild to severe.
Then, there's the fatigue. Most days, I have about an hour of what I call "lucidity" before I gradually decline back into a tired little mishmash. Naps were a daily affair for a good while and are still frequent. And no matter when I sleep or for how long, I am still tired and groggy.
At the end of April, I went on medical leave at the day job due to the symptoms' interference with my ability to, for lack of a better term, function as a normal human.
♡ Please note this is all for context and based on my personal experiences. This review of symptoms is not to be viewed as a means of self-diagnosis. ♡
Aside from impacting work and home, as you might have already assumed, life as a long-hauler has affected my writing. That's been hard.
Writing is linked so closely to my identity, the way I see myself and who I am. Weakened reading comprehension and not being able to take a strong, critical stance have made editing Bound to the Heart even more of a challenge. Derailed trains of thought aren't the best for following new story ideas.
The vast majority of the writing I've done in recent months has been content for the blog. And it's around this time of year that I typically write a mid-year check-in to review how things are going in relation to the goals I set for myself in January.
I almost held off on doing this year's check-in altogether because I haven't been making strides with any of my writing projects and don't have much to report on.
Instead, I've decided that 2023's mid-year check-in is going to look a little different.
Here are a handful of tips for balancing your writing aspirations and chronic illness.
As a friendly reminder, I am not a medical professional by any means. Some of these tips may work for you, some may not, just as some of what has not worked for me might work well for you. This is all based on my personal experience.
Expand Your Tool Kit
"The Writer's Tool Kit" is a phrase you may hear in creative writing classes or in writing circles and refers to the skills and knowledge developed by exploring the craft, such as research techniques, understanding story structure, your unique voice as a storyteller, and so on. A collection of learned elements and little nuances that make your writing distinctly yours.
This can also include physical tools and how they fit into your writing process, like writing software, notebooks, and so on.
Just as a carpenter has hammers, nails and screws, and saws, writers have tools they need to get the job done.
And on days that job is more challenging, it's important to seek out tools that can help you adapt.
I try to lessen screen time when I'm suffering a more gnarly headache. If I'm still up to writing, I'll either use a notebook or my Alphasmart NEO2, aka Mavis.
I have an entire post reviewing the Alphasmart NEO2 (which can be found here), but if you're unfamilliar, it's a device mostly used in 2000s classrooms for typing lessons but have since seen a resurgence in popularity among writers because of its distraction-free, low-key nature.
I had been using Mavis for a bit before my long-Covid symptoms really started to whack my brain and have since relied on her all the more. Even though she's not the best tool for my editing style, I'm still able to work on content for the blog and can toy with new WIP ideas when I'm feeling more up to it, porting everything to my computer at a later date. The portability also allows me to write in bed or in the waiting room at doctor appointments.
One of the symptoms that's had the largest impact on my writing is impaired memory and concentration. Editing is therefore all the more difficult so on the rare days I'm able to get a smidge done, I have my tools ready.
I've been using ProWritingAid for a few years now and it continues to be an asset. It's an editing program that helps identify errors I've missed and suggests corrections, among other things. When your attention to detail is inconsistent, having a backup system proves to be a lifesaver.
As for new WIPs, I've been using a few systems. There's my tried and true method of sticking Post-It notes on a sheet of poster board, Pinterest, and scribbling ideas down on whatever paper I have near me. I've also been playing around with Notion to organize everything for my scattered, foggy brain. I'm also exploring my Planner side a bit more and using plotting worksheets when playing with new story ideas.
Again, these are some of the things that have helped me. Your Writer's Tool Kit probably looks different based on the tools that are beneficial to your style.
The key takeaway here is that for writers balancing their creative endeavors with a chronic illness, it's especially important to find the tools that will make the process smoother.
Focus On What You Can Do
When introducing myself as a writer, I always mention my historical romance WIPs first. Being a long-hauler, however, has made editing existing fiction projects and drafting new ones has become secondary.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, the majority of my writing has been for the blog.
I've always been one to stay ahead of schedule when it comes to prepping posts for a few reasons, one of them being life's habit of finding a way to get in the way. I typically like to have a minimum of three weeks to a month set to upload in advance just in case.
A lot of this prep would be on my lunch break at the day job. The timeframe and environment usually don't allow for the extensive focus needed for storytelling projects, and blog posts tend to be easier for me to jump in and out of.
Brain fog makes writing and editing my fiction projects a challenge. Longer sessions are draining. It takes longer to reorient myself in the world on the page, remember what I was planning when I left off, and focus on the smaller details.
Blog posts, meanwhile, are easier to break down and work on in smaller doses on days I "can't brain," as I've been calling it.
Instead of getting frustrated with myself for not being up to doing something, I'm trying to focus on what I can do.
I feel most like myself when I'm writing. It's still tough not being able to lose track of the hours immersed in the world of my novels, but managing to find ways to write in small doses, in a way that accommodates my current condition, helps.
To Thy Own Self Be Kind
I've always been my harshest critic. So when the symptoms of long-Covid began creeping in, I was increasingly frustrated with myself because I wasn't running on all cylinders.
Prior to my long-Covid diagnosis, I was making uncharacteristic mistakes without knowing why and I was absolutely gutted by it. Muddled and fatigued among other things without a defined reason for it. I just wasn't myself, and it showed in virtually every aspect of my life—including my writing.
Identifying the cause has taken some of that weight off my mind. Knowing it's not all in my head and, arguably equally important, being believed is validating, but it doesn't make the condition go away overnight.
The symptoms continue to take their toll. I usually have at least two appointments per week with various medical specialists. My sleep schedule is all over the place.
The thing is, healing is nonlinear, and it's not easy. Some days are good for writing, and I'm able to get the words down (and they're even coherent!). But there are days that I need more rest or have appointments and can't be at my computer for extended periods. And in general, it takes longer for me to get things done nowadays.
One of the hardest parts of feeling poorly for me is going easy on myself. Heck, it takes me a while to even be willing to say I'm sick! Remembering that when I'm not at my best, the only way I'm going to get better is by allowing myself to take it easy in the meantime—and not getting frustrated with myself for needing to.
This includes giving myself a little more grace on the rougher writing days.
To thy own self, be kind.
When it came time to start working on 2023's mid-year check-in, I dodged it for a while. Maybe it was out of the hope that I would in fact have something spectacular to report, or because of that feeling of guilt that gnaws at you when you feel like you've fallen behind.
Far more often do we hear of successes than missteps. It's almost as though setbacks are not to be spoken of online, that we only want people to see the best of us and the accomplishments and not the struggles until they've been long since overcome.
I guess that's why I wanted to shift the nature of this post. To talk about what's going on behind the scenes and remind readers (and myself) that it's okay to not be 100% all the time.
With something as new as Covid-19 and long-Covid where so much is left to be figured out at the time of writing, and there's not a quick fix, learning to adapt to the new normal becomes vital—as does finding ways to adapt your dearest passions to it.
As tough as it is, it's not the end. It's just something to work around.
With previous mid-year check-ins, this is about the point at which I would review my goals and adjust the plan to get there by December. However, I think the goals I set for myself in January 2023 are not the same as they were.
So what does that mean for the next six months or so?
As it stands, I need to make healing a priority. My goal for writing is really to not be so hard on myself during it all. Back in January, I intended to be more rigid with my routine, keeping it to working on just one WIP and the blog. However, that's not as feasible for me right now. There are days I can only write in small doses, and others where I cannot write at all. Editing Bound to the Heart is more strenuous than it was. Sometimes I lean into my Pantser side and indulge in a new, vague WIP because that's what my foggy brain can work on at that moment.
Going with the flow will be instrumental going forward. You can't always plan for the future.
But you can adjust to your needs in the present.