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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Stop the tornado

By Bonnie Vanak

Earlier this month, I was in my hotel room in Nicaragua, staring at the muddied waters of Lake Managua, and thinking about my own muddied life. There was Hurricane Ike, a 135-mph storm potentially buzzsawing toward my Florida home, I had a book due in three weeks, and I was about to leave to interview a child whose intestines burst from parasites.

Ask me about my stress levels.

Physicians warn us that chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, weaken the immune system, lead to headaches, insomnia and digestive problems. As writers, we face stress from all aspects of publishing. It can come from a rejection or even acceptance of a contract. Deadlines, worries and anxieties about a book’s performance, reviews, contest results, landing an agent, getting published and staying published all can cause stress.

Stress can eat you away. It has done so to me for a long while.

I work as a writer for a large international charity, traveling to impoverished countries to document stories of the poor and raise money to help them. I’m also the author of eight romance novels. Combining a lifestyle of a demanding day job with the stress of writing books under deadline, plus living in a hurricane-prone state during a busy storm season, means my stress levels bounce up and down more than the stock market.

I started writing romance as an escape from the emotional stress of seeing heart-wrenching poverty for the day job. Two years ago, I got a new agent, and more contracts. Suddenly I was writing werewolf paranormals in addition to the Egyptian historicals and producing three books a year instead of one. More deadlines, more books, and I loved it.

Unfortunately, it meant writing started to become more stressful instead of the needed escape.

The trip to Nicaragua this month was last minute, replacing another writer who was ill. It also threw me off the writing schedule necessary to delivering the book due in October. When I left Miami, I was fighting a nasty sinus infection, worried about making it back home in time to catch a plane to Knoxville for a planned writing trip, fretting about the Nocturne werewolf book’s deadline, and concerned about a congo line of hurricanes in the Atlantic.

The book deadline worried me the most.

The trip began in the lush mountains of northern Nicaragua, hunting down stories of women living in poverty. I interviewed women who walk two miles to do laundry at a polluted river because they lack a water well, and visited families living in crumbling adobe homes. We drove over rough mountain paths with straight vertical drops looming ominously to one side.

All the while, I’d climb back into the truck and when we hit a road that had pavement, I’d take out my Alpha Smart and write the Nocturne. In the hotel at night, with the fan lazily stirring the humid air, I’d write.
Then came the drive over the mountain road. We left Matagalpa at night for Jinotepe, a city near the Honduran border and ran into a dangerous patch of fog. It was so thick, it created white-out conditions and our driver had to slow down to five miles an hour to see the road’s edge. Off to the side were steep cliffs without guard rails.
If you drove off the road, you drove off the mountain.
Ask me about my stress levels.

A day later, when we finally made it back to Managua, I called home. That’s when I found out about Hurricane Ike. My husband was stocking up on gasoline and supplies because it looked like Ike would hit us. Our home had already been seriously damaged by Hurricane Wilma three years ago. Wilma was a Category 2. Ike was predicted to strike as a Category 4.

Ask me about my stress levels.

I was scheduled to fly home late Friday, and fly out to Knoxville Sunday for a week alone to concentrate on writing the Nocturne. Ike was due to strike the following Tuesday. It meant I’d either have to cancel my trip, or be away from home when a hurricane hit.

That night, I had a dream about tornados. When I dream about them, it means my emotions are swinging wildly out of control. I’m usually running from a killer storm. But this dream was different. Just as I was about to be hit by the tornado, I turned around, held out my hand and said, STOP.

The tornado stopped.

I woke up and realized I had the power to stop the tornado.

After a series of phone calls, I shifted the Knoxville trip back by a week. The load off my shoulders lightened. Hurricane Ike was beyond my control. But there were things within my control, including my emotions. In taking charge of what I could control and stopping the tornado of emotions, I reduced my stress levels. I was able to focus on the job at hand, and when I returned to Florida, relax with my husband.

When we found out Hurricane Ike would miss our area, we relaxed even more.

It’s not easy to control your emotions when events spin wildly out of control. However, consider the alternative. Stress can wreck your life, cripple your ability to produce, and infringe on your writing. When you have methods of coping, you can feel better and concentrate on your writing.

Here are some tips for managing stress:

  1. Take charge of things under your control. When I accepted an offer to write two more Nocturnes for Silhouette this year, my editor asked if I could deliver the first book by October. I said yes, but if I had to do it over, I’d tell her no. I didn’t anticipate traveling during a month I knew I had to finish the book and a hurricane bearing down on my home at the same time. However, I’m a Floridian. I knew the deadline would come at the height of hurricane season. Next time, I’ll avoid that kind of tight deadline and the stress that accompanies it.
  2. Realize there are things you can’t control, but you can control your reaction. Life doesn’t stop simply because you write. Relatives fall ill, hurricanes appear on the horizon, and small, but critical and time-consuming events happen. What you can control is your reaction. When you feel the stress building and you freeze, unable to write, take a break. Make a list of the items you face that are causing stress and see if you can control any of them. Even taking charge of a small item can make you feel in charge and reduce your stress levels.
  3. When faced with a disaster, or a life-changing event, assess your priorities. Try deep breathing to stay calm and then tackle the most important item first. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from family or friends. Even having a close friend to talk with can help.
  4. Avoid your automatic stress triggers. Get upset when you log onto certain internet boards? Stop visiting them. Have people in your life who always cause you stress? Limit your time with them.
  5. Buy music that soothes you. I purchased a meditation album on I-tunes and downloaded to my I-pod. At work on breaks, I walk and listen to the music.
  6. Try prayer or meditation.
  7. If you feel simply overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time, jot down a list of all you need to accomplish. Assign priorities to each task. Determine the difference between the “should” items and the “must” ones and leave the “shoulds” for when you have more time. Cross off each task when it’s done and you’ll feel a sense of achievement.
  8. Don’t keep your feelings bottled up, but find healthy ways to express them. Keep a journal, talk with someone who understands or write a letter. At the same time, if someone is disturbing or angering you, wait until you are calmer to address the situation. Overreacting by screaming in anger will only make you more stressful. Try communicating in a respectful manner and change the situation instead of avoiding it.
  9. Organize your time. Don’t cram your life with so many activities you have no time to write, and no time to live as well. Leave plenty of time to accomplish everything you must. You can’t do it all, and if you try, you’ll only be burdening yourself.
  10. Find balance. As writers, we need down time to replenish our creativity as much as we need time to write. You can avoid burnout by balancing your life. Take time off from writing to indulge in activities you enjoy, and free your imagination.
Stress can cause havoc for writers, make you unable to produce and even cause illness. But if you learn to take charge of what you can control, you can stop the tornado and find a healthy balance in your life and your writing.

Bonnie Vanak is the author of Egyptian historicals for Dorchester, and werewolf paranormals for Silhouette's Nocturne line. Her newest Nocturne ENEMY LOVER will be out in Novemer and is available to pre-order now at Amazon.


At 8:44 AM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I love the stop the tornado dream, Bonnie! What a great way to put it! And kudos to you for all of your amazing charity work. That has got to be one tough job.

Your stress level made ME stressed!

Your tips are great. Definitely a set to be printed and posted next to the writing computer!

My brother has a great poster that defines stress.

Stress is the resulting tension that occurs when the mind overrides the body's desire to strangle the life out of someone who really deserves it!

Unfortunately, sometimes the person who stresses us out the most is US!

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Bonnie, congratulations on your success, especially now that we know what it takes!

My cat is such a great stress reliever that after a hard day away from home, I find myself muttering her name. "Rosebud" may have been printed on Citizen Cane's sled, but it was probably named after his basset hound.

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

I think we can all see why Bonnie Vanak was chosen as one of the Posse's superheroines! See the e-zine archives for the article.

Thanks for giving us a peek into your hectic life, Bonnie! Your description of riding those Honduran roads made me think of the movie Romancing the Stone. I think character Joan Wilder would have had an alphasmart if they'd been around back then!

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Great blog, Bonnie!

Bonnie said: "Realize there are things you can’t control, but you can control your reaction."

I'm really working on this one. I'm reading more and more about eastern philosophy and Vedic culture, and maybe that's the cure for our stress. Eventually, maybe I'll learn to shrug and accept that the universe didn't see it my way this time, but that it (the universe) is on my side and is working on a better outcome for me. Needless to say, I'm not there yet. I'm still working on letting go of worry, or "stopping the tornado". (BTW, a great title.)

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Wow, what a month Bonnie had!!! Great advice from someone who has definitely been put through some stressful times.

Bonnie, congratulations on all your success!

At 6:22 PM, Blogger Denise A. Agnew said...

Bonnie! Hi there friend. Excellent post. :) And all so true. :) My immune system has actually gotten wiggy in terms of being over reactive. :) Not fun, but there. So stress, like you said, can do a lot of weird things to the old body.

Denise A. Agnew

At 6:35 PM, Blogger Bonnie Vanak said...

LOL on your brother's poster, Louisa! And you're right, sometimes we are the ones who cause the most stress to ourselves.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Bonnie Vanak said...

Thanks Esri! Glad you have Rosebud for a stress relief. Pets are wonderful for that. I know when I come home at lunchtime, my dogs greeting me at the door help the tension slide off.

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Bonnie Vanak said...

Aw, thanks Mo, that's sweet of you! I love that movie, too. The first scene where she's crying after finishing the book, and can't find a tissue, and blows her nose on the post-it that says, "Buy Kleenex," always cracks me up.

At 6:40 PM, Blogger Bonnie Vanak said...

Norah, that's a wonderful idea, reading Eastern philosophy. Lots of wisdom found there.

I forgot to mention as a tip that having a sense of humor can really help through tough times. Not so much making light of a tragedy, but finding the lighter side at appropriate times.

At 6:41 PM, Blogger Bonnie Vanak said...

Thanks Theresa!

At 6:42 PM, Blogger Bonnie Vanak said...

Hey Denise! Your poor immune system! Hope it's better now. Thanks for sharing!

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Bonnie, I can't believe I Missed your visit here! Of course, you would laugh--it was stress upon stress that kept me from the computer! :)

It's a great post, and an important message. Huge congrats on all your successes, and can't wait for the next book!

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Bonnie Vanak said...

Hey Gillian, good to see you! Thanks. Hope your stress gets less!


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