As Joseph Campbell once said, “We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” The seeds of this article came from my own experience with chronic illness. Type 1 diabetes sometimes affects whether I can write, think, and speak coherently. But I’m fortunate. Insulin pumps and glucose monitoring machines allow me to function at the same physical and cognitive level as most healthy adults. My less productive days made me wonder, though: How do people who have far more debilitating conditions manage to write consistently?
I interviewed three outstanding authors who are not only coping with their symptoms but also succeeding in the publishing industry. They shared how they overcome misconceptions about their capabilities and how they persevere through the pain. I’m sure that their insights will be inspiring, and even if bodily discomfort isn’t a recurring problem for you, perhaps you’ll gain more empathy for friends and family members who have been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Regardless, these ladies’ answers reveal mindsets that can bolster any stressed writer.
1. Focus on Your Why
As a Christian writer and chronic sufferer, God can use your unique perspective to touch hearts. Remember that He doesn’t make mistakes. But when you’re feeling unwell, quitting may seem like a relief. Revisiting your reasons for pursuing writing can help you stay on course.
Erin Elizabeth Austin, founder of Broken but Priceless Ministries, has lupus, Crohn’s, and fibromyalgia. Lupus attacks the skin, muscles, joints, and organs. Crohn’s attacks the entirety of the digestive tract. Fibromyalgia attacks the nerves. Yet she still devotes as much energy as she can to writing. “I’m motivated by knowing that God has given me a message to encourage others.”
Josie Siler, award-winning author of Howie’s Broken Hee-Haw, deals with multiple autoimmune diseases, but recognizing her limitations has brought her freedom instead of confinement. “Honestly, sometimes I can’t write. Other times I’m motivated because I know I can use my pain to add authenticity to my writing. I have less of a filter when I don’t feel well, and those raw and honest emotions are what connects so well with others.”
An upbeat attitude can work wonders too. On any given day, Kristiana Sfirlea, author of the award-winning Stormwatch Diaries, fights nausea, abdominal aches, the sensation of bloating after only a few bites of food, fatigue, malnutrition, and dangerous weight loss. All because of Gastroparesis, a rare and serious disorder that paralyzes stomach muscles, making digestion incredibly hard, if not impossible. But she doesn’t let it slow her down…too much.
“What really motivates me is how being with my characters makes me feel. They’re like the comfort food I’m not able to have. When I’m not feeling well, I want to be around the people who make me happy, who comfort me. I’ve written my main characters to be very compassionate for this reason. I want readers to find the same sort of safe place in my books and characters that I do, and as is my hope as a Christian writer, a roadmap to the God of comfort and the Father of all compassion.”
Many chronic sufferers understand these sentiments. A mission statement is a powerful driving force. God has called us to communicate a theme, an idea, an emotion—not in spite of hardship but often because of it. The responsibility to wisely steward our imaginations can increase our determination when obstacles threaten to overwhelm us. Then we can echo author Erma Bombeck’s vow: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left but could say, ‘I’ve used everything You gave me.’”
What motivates you? Do you want to reassure weary mothers? Teach children how to relate to people who are different from them? Provide clean entertainment? Turn hurt and anguish into beautiful poetry? Make a list of the values and goals that propel you to write and post it in a visible place near your computer. When your latest doctor’s appointment or relapse drags you down, refer back to it.
2. Change Your Perspective on Pain
As Josie mentioned earlier, your personal trials can lend authenticity to the fictional characters and situations you create. Pay close attention to how God sustains you and pass those revelations on to readers.
“For me, that familiarity with suffering is everything,” Erin says. “It’s why I started BPM. I realized that others were struggling with the same issues I was, so I began writing about what God was teaching me, my struggles, and the ways I’ve seen Him through the suffering.”
Josie emphatically agrees. “Suffering takes me deeper. It helps me get beyond the surface niceties to the real life that happens to all of us. Every person experiences suffering in some way. I can connect with my readers at a deep heart level because of shared suffering.”
Kristiana expands on those thoughts with a couple caveats. “As a Christian, suffering and hope go hand-in-hand, and it’s something I absolutely want to impart to my characters. Trouble is inevitable in life, which should be true of fiction too, but I never want to glorify suffering in my stories. If I allow my characters to go through something hard, it’s always for their benefit, to make them kinder, wiser, and more compassionate—which is what suffering can accomplish in all of us if we let our own Author have His way.”
Suffering is universal to humanity. You can either ignore any lessons you might harvest from it, or you can bond with readers through it. Which will you choose?
3. Adopt a Spirit of Forgiveness
Most people don’t realize that writers with chronic illnesses encounter biases regularly. Unless someone has experienced a condition firsthand, the dichotomy between strength and weakness can be difficult to reconcile, which tends to lead to lower expectations. But when the writers in your network underestimate you, responding with grace rather than defensiveness will enable you to maintain a constructive relationship with them.
My first writing mentor is a prime example. Crippling arthritis curled her hands and fingers into claws and deformed her legs so that she couldn’t walk. Brushing her teeth, let alone typing a news article, seemed preposterous. Yet this spitfire wrote prolifically with the aid of voice-to-text software that wasn’t widely available at the time. Whenever someone misjudged her, she didn’t hold it against them and plowed on, quelling their doubts with sheer grit. Soon, her quick wit and perceptiveness made them forget about her twisted body. Forgiveness kept her open to writing opportunities.
Josie chimes in with her frustration: “Some reactions used to really bother me, especially when people told me I couldn’t do something because of my illness. I’ve learned that I’m better off when I don’t allow their assumptions—good or bad—to take precedence in my life. We’re all on our own journeys, and I need to embrace the path God has me on. I need to walk in obedience to what He has called me to do and trust Him with the results. The voices that try to bring me down or puff up my pride can both derail me, but when I focus on who I am in Christ and what He gives me strength to do, that’s when I thrive!”
Erin and Kristiana address the other end of the spectrum—the assumption that you can accomplish a task when, in reality, you can’t. This, again, is based on your appearance and best handled with forgiveness.
“Just because I don’t look sick doesn’t mean I don’t struggle,” Erin explains. “I never want sickness to be what people remember about me, so I don’t make that my focus. Instead, I want people to see the overwhelming power of God in my life. Because I don’t make a big deal about the hard days, people often don’t understand when I say I can’t do something. I think they believe I’m being dramatic when the truth is that I’m a chronic understater.”
“I have highs and lows, good days and bad days,” Kristiana adds. “For the past year, my good days have definitely outweighed my bad. People assume that because I’ve found ways to help my condition, somehow I’m all better now. But that doesn’t mean I’m healed, and it doesn’t mean that the school visits, book signings, and Comic Cons I’ve been able to do lately are guaranteed a year from now. I’m okay with that. I just want my readers and publishing cohorts to understand that too.”
Misunderstandings are common. Sometimes the best solution to misplaced sympathy is expressing your true needs to those around you. Then be patient with the skeptics (and yourself) as you chase your dreams according to God’s timetable.
4. Don’t Give Up
The ailment that the world may view as a flaw is actually the resource that equips you to fulfill God’s purpose for you. Even though you may not fit the normal profile of a writer, trust that God has called you, trained you, and will carry you if necessary. You may have to prep and pace yourself differently, but don’t cast your talents aside.
When sitting for extended periods of time becomes uncomfortable, Erin writes or edits in spurts. She also invests in special equipment. “There are days I struggle to hold a pen. So I have a mousepad that cushions my wrist.”
Josie gives herself permission to deviate from the habits of a typical writer. “I have to be flexible. I hear over and over that real writers write every day. That’s just not true. I give myself grace on the days I can’t write and remember that sometimes resting is the very best thing I can do for my body and my career in the long run. When I’m feeling good, inspired, or creative, I write. Those precious moments can’t be wasted! I have to be willing to write anywhere, anytime. I often write from my recliner with my puppy on my lap instead of in my office chair at my desk.”
Kristiana offers three more suggestions: “Be sure to take all of your meds on time to keep your body happy. Also, focusing on writing when you’re not feeling well can be hard, so another thing I like is aroma therapy. I’ve recently started lighting a candle by my writing desk while I work, which has helped a lot with focus and feeling cozy and positive. Tea is another must-have, especially when you’re dealing with a digestive-related chronic illness.”
I have to ditto her recommendation about meds. I write best when my blood sugar is under control. Otherwise I’m plagued with fatigue, hunger, or distractibility. Monitoring my levels before I pull up my current project keeps my concentration steady so I can make measurable progress.
You’ve Got This
People who live with chronic illness face both mental and physical challenges, and writing only compounds that. But God is faithful and good. With a touch of grace, patience, medication, and a truckload of determination, you can reach beyond your limitations. And because of, not in spite of, the struggles you endure, your words can make a lasting impact on readers.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?