Sunday, August 22, 2010

Swimming the Riptide: How to Write Through Crisis

Whether we’ve ever experienced a riptide current or not, we all understand how to recognize the deadly undertow and, in theory, how to get ourselves out of it. Don’t panic. Keep your eye on shore and swim parallel to the beach. If you can do this, you’ll end up slightly off course, tired, shaken, but safe.

Life is messy. Crises will hit throughout your writing career. Knowing how to swim the riptide of crisis is crucial to your survival as a writer. Here are a few tips I’ve learned about swimming the riptide.

1.) Learn to identify when you’re in crisis. A strong undertow can be deadly, pulling you off course and out to sea. Know the signs. Be able to recognize when you’re in trouble. Self-awareness is half the battle. If you’re aware of your circumstances and your surroundings and your responses, you can face anything. It doesn’t matter what form your crisis takes--health issues, death in the family, divorce, unemployment, parenting problems--you’ll find yourself pulled off course. You’ll question what really matters and why it’s important to continue to write. Only you can answer these questions. But, if you understand how you react to crisis--whether you get depressed, angry, anxious, or deny it exists--then you can head yourself off at the pass and be intentional about getting out of the riptide.

2.) Have a plan. Even if your plan has never been tested, have one. We all have a riptide contingency plan. Most of us have never felt the scary tug of the undertow, and yet we all know how to get free if necessary. Once you’ve identified you’re in crisis, come up with a plan to move through it. Your plan doesn’t need to be elaborate. Keep your eye on your goal--the shore. But be prepared to move parallel to that goal for a while. You’re not really losing ground. You’re saving your life. One day at a time. One stroke at a time. One word at a time. You can do this.

3.) Relax. Don’t panic. The worst thing you can do when caught in a riptide is to panic. Don’t do it. You’ll tire yourself out and end up going under. Don’t expend excess energy or resources before it’s required. Preserve your strength. Stay afloat. Take care of you. A riptide plays itself out. What feels strong enough to sweep you out to sea today, will dissipate over a matter of minutes, days, weeks, or what may seem like years. Figure out what you need to stay afloat and make it happen. Read a good book. Take a day to totally immerse yourself in your characters’ problems instead of your own. Go to a movie with friends. Laugh. Light a scented candle. Play your favorite jazz collection. Remember what brings you joy. Breathe.

4.) Swim or float with purpose. Unfortunately, treading water isn’t an option when you’re in a riptide. You need to move forward to survive. You can’t roll over in the dead man's float and pretend your crisis doesn’t exist. If you do, you’ll lose everything important to you. You have to do the hard work of swimming or floating with purpose. Even if you’re on your back floating because you don’t have the energy to swim, you still need to kick, to keep your eye on shore, and to move in the right direction.

5.) Take the lifeline if it’s offered. If you have friends or teachers along the way who swim out to help you while you’re caught in the riptide, take the help they offer. Their burst of energy might help you kick free. The lifeline they offer might tug you out of the middle of the strong current. And while your friends may not be able to pull you out of the riptide entirely, they can lend you support, coach you, help you see your way clear. They’re an invaluable resource.

Swimming the riptide can make you stronger. Once you break free, you’ll come ashore feeling exhausted, beaten up, scared, and shaken. However, you’ll feel strangely stronger, too, because you know you’re a fighter and a survivor. You came out on the otherside of your crisis. It didn’t sweep you out to sea. It didn’t overwhelm you and take you under. And everything you learned in that journey, in that struggle with the riptide, you’ll now pour into your writing. You’re better for it. Your writing is better for it.


  1. Beautifully put, Candy. "Keep your eye on your goal--the shore. But be prepared to move parallel to that goal for a while. You’re not really losing ground. You’re saving your life."

    When you're actually in the midst of a crisis, it's hard to keep that clear. That you're not losing ground. I think that's one of the ways that friends can keep you working. By constantly pointing out that you're not losing ground. That you'll get back to it eventually.

    I know my writing friends pulled me back to shore, once the undertoad let go of me, and I will alwaysALWAYS be grateful for that.

  2. Your advice is on point. As women and writers, we carry a lot on our shoulders. Navigating the potholes is an important lesson. Thank you.

  3. Lots of food for thought here, Candy. Thank you. Because you're right. Dark days will come. I hope to follow your advice and, like the Boy Scouts, be prepared.

    Here's to reaching the shore!

  4. Stunning post Candy! I printed it out and have read it a few times now. I live in a pretty constant riptide and have had to learn how to swim with purpose without constantly being pulled down. Some days I am Michael Phelps and other days my back stroke stinks! Writing has been a balm to my soul through these times, my lifeline. I am grateful the words still come.
    Happy Writing!

  5. Great advice and wisdom, Candy. It's difficult when you're in the middle of a crisis to see your way out. Having friends and loved ones for support certainly helps so that you know that you're not swimming alone.

  6. Fantastic post. Thank you, Candy. A few years ago, I went through a major life crisis (several at one time, actually) while on a book deadline. I chose to focus on one thing -- keeping body, soul, and family intact -- before I even tried to write again. That book got turned in a year-and-a-half late. But you know what? Life went on. My publisher stood by me. My agent stayed solid. And when that book was published, it became my first NYT bestseller. Looking back, I wish I could have been kinder to myself during that time of chaos. It would have been helpful if I'd had your post to read back then!

  7. Susan ~ Yes, we tend to be very hard on ourselves, don't we? Thanks for sharing your experience with us. It's inspiring. :)

  8. Yvonne ~ Yes, friends can extend grace to us in ways that can be life-saving. We sometimes can't see it without them--the waves get in the way. Thanks for sharing your insights. :)

  9. Mary ~ I always see you as a Michael Phelps--a champion. You're one of the most resilient, strong women I know. Keep swimming, baby.

  10. Candy - the older I get, the better I get at spotting when I'm headed into a riptide. I love the imagery and language you've used to describe what to do when that happens. Floating with purpose, keeping an eye on the shore, allowing oneself to grab onto lifelines when they're offered. So wise. I'm faster at realizing my peril - haven't drowned yet - and employing my survival techniques now than when I was younger. But having a language for it I think will help even more at those times of troubled waters. Have a plan. Don't panic. Move toward your goal, even if it's in parallel. Yes. Thank you!

  11. Fabulous advice for writing an life, Candy!
    Sometimes we see riptides coming a mile away, but sometimes they surprise and almost swamp us. Thank you for reminding us how to keep afloat and land safely.