Adjusting headspace

Sometimes there aren’t any easy answers. Especially not for authors — be they trad pub, or indie — who are balancing their writing against other commitments. Could be going back to school, or marriage and family, perhaps church and community, or the job (non-writing) that pays the mortgage? It doesn’t matter. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re very probably running into problems with delegation, time management, prioritization, crisis resolution, and finding enough hours in your schedule for decompression.

The latter can be especially tricky, if you’re like me, and you have a difficult time compartmentalizing. One thing bleeds into the others, and vice versa, thus it becomes increasingly difficult (over time) to just back off, and step away.

All on my own, I struggle when it comes to adjusting headspace.

As I commented to Sarah A. Hoyt recently, sometimes it’s as simple as my wife tugging me out of the house, putting us both into the car, then driving us to get some food, after which we find a quiet spot to park, eat, and talk. Maybe, for hours? Not at home, where there are a hundred different chores that demand attention. Just . . . off on the side. A stolen moment of time. To unload. Work something out. Maybe have that overdue (but potentially contentious) straight talk session, that you can’t really do in front of the kids? The business of taking care of business, so to speak.

Almost never does it involve anything to do with writing. But that’s part of the adjustment. The action of having your mind and your heart dragged away from the keyboard, and the manuscript, long enough to get your gears whirring along a different track entirely. So that when you eventually return to the project(s) at hand, you discover you’re staring at the pages with fresh eyes.

Now, in my experience, this kind of thing isn’t always romance novel material. A good, proper headspace adjustment can occasionally come with four-lettered words — both ways — and no small amount of gesticulating. But at the end of it all, common understanding has been achieved. New agreements forged, or old agreements renewed.

And when you get back to your desk, or your kitchen table, or your favorite couch — laptop propped on your knee — everything about your writing looks and feels just a bit different. Your plans for your writing will look and feel a bit different too. Almost always in positive ways. Because your mental and emotional picture is now much bigger than it was before.

I count these experiences as being distinctly different from down time, because down time is about unwinding the spring. Adjusting headspace can often involve winding the spring even tighter, before it suddenly unwinds itself very quickly, and in a fashion you (ubiquitous) did not plan, nor expect. It’s not relaxation, though you may feel very much more relaxed once you’re walking back through your front door, or in from the garage. It’s a form of necessary exertion, during which you grapple with your life — the other sectors of the “pie” — in ways that demand a great deal of energy and effort. But if you’ve managed to make good use of the minutes, you can return to reality with an expanded set of options, and a reinvigorated outlook.

Granted, my experience above is just that: my experience. I know too many writers who do not have the greatest relationships in the world, and for whom an event like this (described above) would spiral into destructive chaos. I also know some single authors who simply don’t have that Very Important Person in their lives, who will not only serve as a sympathetic ear, but also challenges these authors on a gut level — and in ways that won’t always be comfortable. In these instances, headspace adjustment may come in the form of a weekend backpacking trip into the mountains, or running a half marathon, perhaps even working on that classic car which has been up on chocks for years? You will know it when you experience it, because after said activit(ies) are over, you come back to the ordinary world with a different set of eyes. Eyes capable of seeing ways around obstacles that were blocking you before? Or spying new business avenues to take, where old avenues were frustrating you before?

The point is, everybody needs this, once in awhile.

Not constantly — because chronically adjusting headspace, or feeling like you need to do it constantly — is probably a sign that something genuinely and deeply wrong is happening in your life, or in your relationship. That’s when you want to look for some professional guidance. A therapist or counselor who can clinically adjust your headspace for you. Because you’re too deep in the shit to figure it out on your own. And that’s not a bad thing. Nobody gives any of us an owner’s manual for this life. The majority of us just kind of bungle our way through it. Some better than others. But even the seemingly well-adjusted, may not be so. And it’s not a sin to admit you need a pro to help you out.

Just be open to those instances when you — or you and your spouse — need to jump in that car, and bug out for a little while.

Even if the timing seems horrible, and it’s the last thing in the world you want to be doing.

Trust me, those are the moments when you may need it the most!


  1. Not constantly β€” because chronically adjusting headspace, or feeling like you need to do it chronically β€” is probably a sign that something genuinely and deeply wrong is happening in your life, or in your relationship. That’s when you want to look for some professional guidance.
    Minor quibble? Or would it be an exception to the rule? Raising a toddler….Constant needs for headspace adjustment. πŸ™‚

    1. Definitely a regular and continuing adjustment to Real World realities. And training in holding an idea encapsulated in your head while you deal with the latest interruption.

      1. Keep a notepad (book) handy to right down great ideas. Otherwise the constant interruptions would eventually chase away good scenes. πŸ™‚
        Holding onto ideas? Got that one nailed down.

    2. Very true. Every few months they’re doing different dastardly deeds. Their headspace adjusts, and ours has to, too. I remember all the times I thought I had it all figured out, and then it all changed.

  2. Date nights.

    And reading. I do way too much writing. I now have to make myself sit down and read, take a mental vacation in someone else’s universe. It’s not just a break, it’s keeping up with the market. And non-fiction, keeping up with science, and marveling about the outrageous things that you’d never dare put in a book.

    Good for the eyes, too. I spend way too much time staring at the monitor.

  3. One of the greatest headspace clearing activities I found was disaster clean up. Flat State U was visited by a tornado, and an all-hands call went out to the churches, since the storm was not polite enough just to whomp the college but wandered through the rest of the city, and then dropped flooding rains just for spite. There’s nothing like helping pull as much out of a school building as possible before the water reaches it, or chopping up fallen trees so people can see how much of their house is left, to clear the mind and reorient you. (And to reconfirm my love of basements.)

  4. For me it’s range time, the Zen of trying to shoot well tends to force one to clear the mind. Another is our weekly get togethers, bouncing ideas off each other, updating where we are with our writing and cussing/discussing life in general.

    1. Flying: because when you’re rushing at the ground, there’s no time for might-have-been, for should-have-done, for wish-it-were, or for I-don’t-want-it-to-be. There’s only you, the airplane, and an utterly uncaring and indifferent universe that’ll kill you and your passengers if you screw up.

      As a bush pilot I respect taught me, “If you fly the airplane with your mind on what went wrong five miles back, it’ll kill you in the here and now.”

      Shooting is also very like that; there’s no room for the everything else, only for the shot. It’s very zen, as a solitary sport. (As a group sport, especially with suppressors and electronic muffs, it’s as noisy with chatter and laughter as when friends are doing anything else… except we all pause and wait for the shot.)

      I’m a great believer in get-togethers for solitary creatures of habit, especially people who do far too much of their work in their heads. Whether accountants, sculptors, or writers, actually having people to bounce ideas around and come up with unexpected responses or familiar reassurance and support, is a valuable thing.

      Speaking of, Jim, what do you think of chicken breasts stuffed with mozzarella, basil, roasted red peppers, and garlic for Tuesday? I’m feeling ambitious with keto recipes, and ready for summer food!

  5. I learned long ago that I need about two hours a day of doing something completely useless, all by myself. The unwind headspace time. It might be riding the bike to nowhere in particular, or killing hellspawn in DOOM, or whatever that Doesn’t Require Thought, but it’s necessary enough that if it gets skipped, nothing else gets done. It’s the conscious recharge phase of my brain (as contrasted to the sleeping-recharge phase).

    1. “What a week. I need to turn my brain OFF for a while… how.. oh, Scooby-Doo movie playing at the theater? That ought to work.” Almost did. Picture was better than I’d expected.

      1. Actually, for a pre-nap exercise, I do a mental countdown from ten and at zero try to stop all conscious mental activity. Usually I drop off to sleep, which is good, too.

    2. So far, the best for me has been writing fiction when a story pops in mind. I lose track of time and forget, for a time, the sundry things clamor for attention. It’s perhaps an indicator how preoccupied I’ve been that I didn’t have much until the last couple of weeks. Now all I have to do it tweak a scene in the last short story and I’ll have two. Since food on the table doesn’t depend on them, it’s still fun when this happens.

  6. In the firearms arena headspace is the measurement between the bearing surface in a gun chamber and the bolt face. Too short and a cartridge won’t load properly, or the gun might fire before locking shut, causing a premature explosion. Too long and the firing pin may fail to ignite the primer, or if it does fire may allow hot high pressure gas to blow back in the shooter’s face.
    So, here too proper headspace is a very good thing.

  7. Reading history you don’t know is great for this, or reading folktales from a different culture.

    Churchill’s biography of Marlborough is on Audible. Four volumes, 1 credit. Contains a D’Artagnan walk-on, as well as royal mistresses, comparisons between the 1600’s and WWI, the life story of the first Winston Churchill, tons about Kings Charles, James, and William, what the deal was with Queen Anne, and a huge number of love letters between Marlborough and his formidable wife, Sarah. (Plus Churchill prose, which is always interesting and surprising.)

  8. shows you where a bubble head’s mind goes, My first thoughts with that title were M2HB, or a tilt steering wheel.

    1. Or not overfilling a canning jar before you put the lid on, screw the ring into place and put it in the waterbath to boil.

  9. Painting. Me and my roller, an empty room, and a tray of latex. Primer and two finish coats later, re-calibration complete.

  10. and sometimes if you don’t adjust your headspace, you end up on high blood pressure meds.

  11. A change of pace and scenery is often the solution to many of life’s problems.

  12. Sometimes, for a mild case, merely getting up and walking about the house suffices to jiggle all the thoughts so they fall into new configurations.

    1. The possibility has occurred to me that if I can’t find myself, there is either too little of me to find, or that I’m too well hidden. I prefer the latter theory…

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