Blank Page - Erin J. Bernard

Sick Days: Self-Care for the Underweather Writer

* UPDATE: Four days after publishing this post, I was diagnosed with pneumonia. And that means everything I said below now goes double… Perhaps even triple! *

It’s a radiant Sunday morning here in Portland, a Sunday much like any other, which can only mean one thing: I’ve got a bit of work to do!

It’s beyond boring to rag on about one’s workload, or one’s general busy-ness. Or, at least it used to be.

Seems to me much ado is made in popular media lately about The Cult of Busy.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it: we’re harried and hurried and overbooked and undervacationed to within an inch of our lives, and we really, really relish the opportunity to tell other people alllllll about it. We invoke our inescapable busy-ness so regularly and with so much ex post facto emotion in casual conversation that it’s starting to seem as if we might even sorta like it that way.

It’s difficult for a writer to avoid holding forth in such a fashion on the regular, much to the tedium of close friends and family. The freelancer’s schedule is necessarily loose and messy, with frequent exings out, scribblings in, and general chaos, with a few of those dread blank weeks sprinkled in between.

Feast or famine - Erin J. Bernard

“Feast or famine” is the commonly invoked adage, and while it’s a bit overwrought to compare fluctuations in a middle class income to the very grim business of food insecurity, the metaphor ultimately does the job.

There’s no clock to punch, and in absence of that structure, the work week has a sneaky tendency to meander right on into Saturday and Sunday.

Such a schedule is, I’m finding, a fantastic recipe for making oneself physically ill.

This month has been nutty. Work stacked on top of work with more work sprinkled on top, piled high and deep after a late-winter lull. And in the middle of it all, I had the chutzpah to go and get sick.

That was two weeks ago. And, because I haven’t rested properly, despite two trips to urgent care in between work and appointments and a pharmacopeia of herbs and potions, I remain sick. Really sick.

Thing is, I felt I could not cancel several planned writing and photography assignments, despite a sore throat and cough, and so I barreled through them, and came out the other side feeling like death warmed over, and with three looming deadlines that care not one whit whether I wanted to work through this weekend or pull the covers back up over my head and treat my poor, achy bones to some much-needed regeneration.

So here I am in my recliner, trying to wind myself up for yet another day of way too much shit to do. And I’m starting to feel a wee bit ridiculous about the whole thing. Really, I could have canceled stuff. The world would not have shifted on its axis. Nobody would’ve been put in a royal bind. At worst, I might have shifted a little of the heavy off my shoulders and onto the shoulders of somebody not laboring under the burden of an elevated white blood cell count and a crushing fatigue.


I want to talk a moment about self-care for writers, or for anybody who freelances. Working for oneself equals infinite sick and vacation days, in a sense, but it also equals zero of them, because nary a one is a paid day off. And there’s always the fear of disappointing a client, who might not hire you again if you beg off planned work. Or just the generalized fear of falling behind, of being undisciplined, soft. What to do, then, when you fall ill?

Herewith, a few tips for the underweather writer, culled from two rather unpleasant weeks. I did few of these for myself this go-round. I regret that. Don’t be like me!

  • Triage. What can be pushed forward a day or two? What can be handed off? What absolutely must get done? Divide your schedule up into these three categories. Then, do the work you can’t get around doing, pass off what you can pass off among your network of fellow freelancers (and if you say it’s hard to find writers in search of last-minute work, I’m gonna bop you on the head), request deadline extensions for the rest, and get thee to bed.
  • Work from a reclined position is still work. Don’t fool yourself: sitting in a La-Z-Boy with a blanket draped over your legs whilst you work (as I’m doing right this moment) does not equal “resting.” Yes, intellectual fatigue is a thing. Thinking takes energy, and so long as you’re galloping that big brain of yours around and around in circles, you are not fully giving your body a chance to recuperate.
  • Stay personable. If you do decide to duck out of work or request an extension on an assignment, call; don’t email. Your clients are human, and letting them hear your voice will remind you both of that fact. Be apologetic, but firm and helpful. Propose a later due date or another freelancer who could handily get the job done. Bonus: the sounds of you pathetically sniffling and sneezing will curry at least a few (deserved) pity points in the hearts of all but the most callous of editors.
  • Banish guilt. you are an independent contractor, not an employee. You aren’t privy to benefits, paid leave, or job security of any sort, as you’ve no doubt noticed, but the happier tradeoff in in that equation is that fewer things are ultimately your problem. It’s never fun to put a client in a fix, but keep the nature of the relationship in mind when you’re deciding whether that low-grade fever and hacking cough is serious enough to warrant a sick day. You are your own boss. Be a fair one.
  • Modify the work day. Switch up your schedule to accommodate abbreviated energy levels. Work in shorter-than-usual increments, with frequent naps between.
  • Hole up. When possible, rework in-person assignments into at-home or by-phone assignments. Many things don’t require your physical presence, even if that presence is preferable. Explain the circumstances to your client, then make your case for an exception. Most people would rather avoid being exposed to your crud anyway, if they can help it.
  • Get real. Recognize that if you choose to barrel through, there will be consequences. Most likely, as has been the case with me these two miserable weeks, you’ll be sick for far longer than you would have otherwise. Sometimes, work won’t wait. But be aware of the fate you are conscripting yourself to when you elect not to slow the hell down.Arrow sign - Erin J. Bernard

2 thoughts on “Sick Days: Self-Care for the Underweather Writer

  1. erinjbernard says:

    Yes, “enough” is a rather dastardly term, isn’t it? We are too hard on ourselves … I am constantly convinced that this is going to be the day or week or month when I totally drop the ball and miss all my deadlines and completely strike out at writing, even though it has yet to happen yet. The fear of it keeps me from slacking off, yes, but it also keeps me in a constant state of agitation. Not worth the tradeoff!

  2. Fred the Needle says:

    Thanks for your honesty, it really does help.

    One of the worst aspects of working alone is the constant worry about doing enough. If I were working in an office, I would be scheduling breaks and chatting to colleagues. Here in these four walls I jump from one thing to another – and still berate myself for the thousand things I did not do. I think my boss would be far kinder than I am to me!

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