Monday, 23 May 2016

Write Around Your Cycle

Having a pronounced hormonal cycle isn’t often seen as an advantage – especially in a society that generally only recognises the PMT stage. Actually, a menstrual cycle which affects your moods a lot can be a massive boon. You can predict weeks in advance – even months, if you’re regular – how you’ll be feeling on a given day, regardless of the weather, work, and what else is happening. What’s more, you can harness those moods.


Any time you have a long-term project and you’re in control of your own work flow, you can map it around your cycle, so you’re doing the work that best suits your mood at each stage, never working against the grain. Suddenly, everything turns to magic: you’re brainstorming when you’re bursting with ideas, writing when the words flow, redrafting when you’re most objective, powering through admin and detail-checking when you’re most efficient. This isn’t just for writing; it works for any big project with a variety of stages. I started doing this in my Honours degree, for my dissertation and long essays, continued in my Masters, and now use it for both my writing and my daily life. If you’ve ever tried to write a cheerful scene when you have PMT and found all the characters just argued, you already know that your cycle affects your writing. Here’s how to turn to that to your advantage.

First off, we’ll go through a few details about your cycle’s timing, because the standard model isn’t one-size-fits-all. Next we’ll look at the broad-strokes picture of what’s happening with hormones and moods, and how we can refine that into eight stages, each with a core mood and superpower, both in general and for writing specifically. We’ll then look at each of those stages in more detail – what it’s like, its superpower and its other strengths for writing, and what’s happening hormonally.


Your cycle’s timing

First, you need a few basics about your cycle, including some info on common misconceptions. The average cycle is 28 days, but that’s only an average. Anything between 22 and 36 is “normal” and it can be less or more if you’re irregular. Day-counting begins with the start of your period as Day 0. Most people think ovulation is “Day 14”, but it isn’t necessarily. The one absolute constant in your cycle is the luteal stage: the time from ovulating to starting your period. This ranges from 11-14 days, so even if you have a 28-day cycle, you could be ovulating on Day 14, 15, 16, or 17. Your own luteal stage is absolutely constant, even if your cycle is irregular: if it’s 11 days, it’s always 11 days. When our cycles extend, we talk about stress “delaying our periods” – nope. Not possible. Once you’ve ovulated your period will come bang on time with your luteal stage (unless you’re pregnant). Stress delays ovulation – which is pretty thoughtful of our bodies, if you think about it. “Wow, things seem pretty crazy around here. Shall we get pregnant? Nah – let’s hold off on that.” PMT typically starts 2–5 days before your period, gradually intensifying, but again this varies: some can get it straight after ovulation, other lucky sods don’t get it at all. (They usually don’t have a pronounced cycle anyway, though.) It usually lifts when your period starts, but for some (including me) it can extend a day or two into your period.

Get to know your own cycle’s timings. If you’re using a cycle tracker app, make sure it lets you tell it your luteal stage. (I use My Calendar, which also lets you punch a kitten when your period starts.) If you don’t know your luteal stage, you can measure it exactly by taking your temperature each morning before you get out of bed: as soon as you ovulate, your temperature spikes or climbs rapidly. (Be aware that other things can also make your temperature jump: a fever, drinking the night before, being awake up to three hours before, getting up to go to the loo.) Toni Wechsler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility explains it all brilliantly. It’s great to know your luteal stage exactly, but not essential, unless you’re using the chart to get / not get pregnant. If you don’t know, you can chart your temperature at some point to find out, but you can also go by your moods, for now. As you get a feel for your own cycle’s timing, you can start harnessing it.


The eight stages of your cycle

Broadly speaking, after your period, you move through increasing optimism and “right-brain” creativity (that’s the yellow) until you hit Peak Awesome, and then turn increasingly focused and “left-brain” analytical (that’s purple) until you hit Peak PMT, then you have your period and start again. (Right-brain / left-brain is actually a myth, but I’m using it here for handy cultural shorthand.) This could be equally broadly described as oestrogen rising to a peak, then ovulation, then progesterone taking over until your period.


That’s a slightly simplistic description, though. Actually, the oestrogen has another much smaller peak in the luteal phase (between ovulating and your period). Those aren’t the only two hormones, either: you also have Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH), follicular stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinising hormone. After your period, the GnRH tells your pituitary gland to release the FSH, which tells your ovaries to start developing follicles; the luteinising hormone gives that fabulous high just before you ovulate. With all this, there’s more to your cycle’s moods than just “normal – PMT – period” or even “normal – ovulation – normal – PMT – period”. When we put together the various effects of all those rising and falling hormones, we can actually divide the cycle into eight different stages of core moods: calm, happy, joyful, yay, focused, sharp, dark, retreat.


(Note: The length shown here for each one is a guide only. I’m basing this on a 28-day cycle with an 11-day luteal stage, 5-day PMT, and 4-day period – your own numbers will likely be different, so adjust for your own cycle accordingly. Also, most of the stages shift into each other, rather than having neat start-times and cut-offs, as shown by the colour blending.)

Looking at those core moods, you can immediately start seeing how you can harness each stage for the different activities of your work and throughout your life. Here are the general skills for each stage: organise, create, invent, fun, assess & adjust, fix, admin, rest.



You can use these for anything in your life. At university, I used it for my long essays: organise – plan my schedule, check deadlines, gather research materials; create – initial research, entering the ideas, learning new things; invent – make the big connections and leaps, rough out the first draft; fun – take a day off to party; assess & adjust – revise the first draft and rework it into solid second draft; fix – make smaller corrections and edit; admin – sort out references and proofread; rest – hand in the essay and curl up with a book and a hot water bottle. I use the same cycle in my daily life. I plan my month and meals in the organise stage. I do most of my cooking in the create and invent stages, freezing batches for later. Housework happens throughout, but I’m more likely to decorate in the first half and deep-clean in the second half. I socialise more in the first half – partly because that’s when I’m more in the mood; partly because my endometriosis pain is less then, so it’s easier to go out. I always want to go out on the fun day! I do my finances, tax, and decluttering in the fix and admin stages: my tax form’s always completed months in advance, because I can rely on a good bout of PMT to sort it out.

The same cycle of activity maps beautifully onto writing. While you can usually manage to do most things at most times, each stage has its superpowers, so why not use them? Here are the core superpowers for writing: : submissions, writing drafts, brainstorming, fun, redrafting, proofing, typing up, resting.



The eight stages in detail

Each stage has its core mood, its superpower, and a batch of skills. For the graphic, I’ve selected a particular thing as each stage’s writing “superpower” – that’s the activity I tend to save for that stage – but each also has a batch of other activities that suit it beautifully. For each stage, we’ll look at what it feels like, its writing superpowers, other writing activities it’s good for, and what’s happening hormonally. Although medics count from the start of your period, it makes more sense for us to start when the period’s over – that’s when we have the sense of a new month beginning. Remember, the number of days given here is a very general guide only. As I said, this is based on a 28-day cycle with an 11-day luteal stage, 5-day PMT, and 4-day period – your own numbers will likely be different, so adjust for your own cycle accordingly.

Stage 1: Calm (± 3 days)


Your period has just finished. This is a “white” state of calm orderliness. All is sane. No hormones are tugging you anywhere – hormones aren’t even a Thing. It feels almost prepubescent. It’s a lovely stage for rebalancing life: creating a tidy desk, drawing up meal plans, having an orderly schedule, and mapping the month ahead with measured, realistic plans. For writing, it’s an O-negative state: you can use it for pretty much anything you want, although if you need to brainstorm brand new ideas or write an exciting pitch, you might want to wait till the joyful stage. It’s also practical, factual, and objective, given to neither highs nor lows, and very capable.

Superpowers

  • writing covering letters and synopses
  • sending out submissions

Also good for

  • rereading a draft to identify what’s working, what needs cutting, what needs reworking
  • any other writing activities (except possibly brainstorming new ideas and writing exciting pitches)

What’s happening hormonally

Around PMT and during your period, both your oestrogen and progesterone levels plummeted. Now, things are balancing out. Your oestrogen levels are rising again, but only very slowly right now. The GnRH is giving the FSH its orders, but the oestrogen is inhibiting that a bit, because your womb isn’t ready yet. Meanwhile, the oestrogen is also starting to develop your womb lining (the endometrium). Nothing is at high levels, though, hence the sense of prepubescent calm.

Stage 2: Happy (± 5 days)


You’re starting to move towards fertility and ovulation, getting increasingly happy and optimistic. You’re getting more creative and more “right-brain”, less judgemental of emerging ideas and emerging work. You’re not yet in the full-blown optimism of fertility, though, so you’re well balanced between judgement and creativity, and generally cheerful.

Superpowers

  • writing first or second draft
  • reworking passages you identified in the calm or focused stages
  • generative research – the kind of information that will affect the story’s shape

Also good for

  • mapping plot trajectories
  • opening up new seams in a story

What’s happening hormonally

Your oestrogen levels are continuing to rise gradually, bringing that steadily increasing sense of optimism.

Stage 3: Joyful (± 5 days)


By now you’re fully fertile, horny, and pretty damn rocking! If you’re not sure when you move from the previous stage to fertility, you can check your fertility by slipping a finger inside yourself to see what the fluids look like. The white opaque stuff, a bit like hand cream, is early fertile fluid. The slippery transparent stuff, a bit like eggwhite, is super-fertile fluid. As your fertility increases, so does your optimism and creativity. This is a brilliant time for BIG BOLD IDEAS. Whenever I need to launch into something completely new, this is the time I mark for it.

Superpowers

  • brainstorming new ideas
  • coming up with large-scale plot trajectories and major insights / connections
  • starting new stories or new seams within a story
  • writing uncritical first draft
  • writing exciting / challenging scenes fearlessly

Also good for

  • continuing with a first or second draft
  • reworking passages you identified in the calm or focused stages, especially longer or more challenging ones
  • writing sex scenes

What’s happening hormonally

Your oestrogen levels are rising sharply to their peak. This peak of oestrogen will shortly release a wave of FSH (the follicle stimulating ones) and of luteinising hormone, which both make sure you ovulate, and will result in…

Stage 4: YAY! (± 1 day)


PURE GOLD! You’re a goddess! (Or a god.) Hedonism time. Life is amazing, everything’s brilliant, and you’re gorgeous! This is usually the day or two before your egg releases, when you’re just made of sumptuousness and sensuality, and you’re walking on air. You could have a marvellous writing day, but you probably don’t want to be in a room on your own all day – why waste all that fabulousness?! – so dress up! Go write in a park! Be fabulous! Or just run around drinking champagne and being amazing. The world is your damn oyster. Don’t bother editing or doing anything serious, you’re far too much fun for that.

Superpower

  • drinking champagne (strictly speaking not a writing activity, but c’mon. It’s one day.)

Also good for

  • writing sex scenes
  • writing uncritical first draft (bearing in mind it will likely turn into sex scenes)

What’s happening hormonally

You’re surfing a massive wave of luteinising hormone, and the FSH is also spiking, which together make sure the egg’s released. Oestrogen is at its absolute peak (although about to drop).

Stage 5: Focused (± 5 days)


You’re getting calmer now, more focused, and more “left brain”. Your egg releases and the golden tide of fertility-vibe reduces, but you’re not yet approaching PMT. This stage is about as evenly balanced as the calm stage, but it doesn’t feel prepubescent. Your judgement of your existing work is in a superb Goldilocks spot between optimism and pessimism.

Superpowers

  • rereading a draft to identify what’s working, what needs cutting, what needs reworking
  • editing thoughtfully for better flow and for overall arc – anything that’s got too excitable or too dark in other stages can be trimmed and adjusted here

Also good for

  • continuing to write an existing story or seam within a story
  • research of the generative kind – the stuff that affects your story’s shape, rather than just minor details to get right, especially material that needs more focus and less distractibility

What’s happening hormonally

As soon as you ovulated, your oestrogen levels dropped sharply, and then plateaued. Your progesterone levels are starting to rise, but aren’t yet too high. (The luteinising hormone told your empty egg sac to start producing progesterone, after the egg’s release. The progesterone, in turn, tells the FSH to back down, so the ovaries won’t be maturing any more follicles until the next round.) The progesterone is rising slowly, though, and so far is about the same level as the plateaued oestrogen, so they’re fairly even balanced, hence the overall calm. As the progesterone continues to rise, the oestrogen also rises a little, so the two stay fairly balanced for now.

Stage 6: Sharp (± 2 days)


You’re increasingly left-brain now, sharp, analytical, and tending towards critical. All this, combined with increasing impatience, can make you superbly efficient and damn precise – mistakes irritate you, so you fix them; wasting time is annoying, so you work swiftly. You’re tilting towards PMT – the last day of this stage is actually the first day of PMT, for me, but it’s not the miserable kind yet, I just hit Peak Rightness: I am very very Right, about Everything, and everyone else, especially on the internet, is Wrong. I don’t count that with the Full PMT stage, because that hard confidence and authority is very useful and fits better with the other activities in this stage.

Superpower

  • powering through writing-related admin

Also good for

  • research – moving more towards fact-checking now than generative research; it won’t necessarily affect the story shape if the protagonist gets 10cc or 20cc of x medicine, but it matters to get the details right
  • spotting and fixing inconsistencies
  • editing down heavily and cutting out chunks (though keep a weather eye on this, as explained below)
  • sorting and decluttering your writing papers (likewise, with a weather eye)

This is also a great stage for decluttering generally, but keep a weather eye on yourself. You might, in restless impatience, throw out things you really should be keeping, so if you’re unsure, put it in a Holding Pile to revisit another time – especially regarding handwritten novel notes. Similarly, in brisk ruthlessness, you may delete chunks that should actually stay in the story, so a) make sure you save a new version before editing, as always; and b) watch out for anger/impatience levels while you’re editing. If you move from ruthless efficiency to restless impatience, stop editing. You also need to watch for when you switch into the next stage. One moment you’re thinking, “This bloody vase?! We never use it! OUT, OUT, damned vase!" and a minute later you’re weeping over it: “I remember when we bought this... Oh god, we lived in that house with the cherry tree, and we went to the charity shop together... The air was golden with the dust of leaves... I had so much hope, then!" If that happens, you've passed into the next stage.

What’s happening hormonally

The Age of Oestrogen Is Over. The Age of Progesterone Has Begun. Your oestrogen is actually still rising slightly, but the progesterone is rising faster and rapidly taking over. The progesterone is responsible for the increasing irritability and is also developing your womb lining (the endometrial tissue), so a fertilised egg can settle in.

Stage 7: Dark (± 4 days)


PMT hits in full now. The range of feelings vary, but generally include a pick-and-mix of the following: irritability, anger, misery, low self-esteem, weepiness, pessimism, hypercriticism. Other fun side effects include bloating, water retention, and assorted toilet troubles. Don't edit, you'll just delete everything. Don't declutter. Look after yourself. You may want to take these days off, especially if your PMT is short-lived. That said, you can work very usefully during this time, provided it’s purely objective work, with zero subjectivity required, and that’s often a relief: somewhere practical to put your mind and a sense of usefulness can really help with PMT.

Eat chocolate, especially if you keep working. For years I didn't eat chocolate during PMT, because the book I was given on How To Be An Adolescent said a) don't make an awful bloody fussy about it, get over yourself already you silly little girl; and b) don't get into the habit of eating chocolate, you'll get fat and yuck, FATNESS, YUCK. It took me until I was 26 to stop listening to that best-forgotten book. During my Masters, on a rainy day in Oxford, pouring and dark and deep in November, when I was minorly suicidal and two inches tall, I bought and ate the chocolate. Almost immediately, I returned to normal size and normal life-desire, albeit still wet. I want chocolate precisely once a month and if my PMT isn't too bad, not even that. This is not, on reflection, an unhealthy relationship with chocolate. Eat the chocolate.

For all this stage is mostly bleak, it often includes one lovely lee in the storm: FEAST DAY! This is the day on which all you want to do is push food into your mouth, from eyes-open to eyes-closed. As with the chocolate, I used to resist the call of Feast Day. Now I celebrate it. If I celebrate this sudden unbounded appetite, especially for uncharacteristic things like random street food and vendor vans, but even more especially for the holy hash brown (the sacred food of Feast Day), then it's actually a delightful day. If we're on the Cowley Road, I go into every shop and buy a cross-cultural assortment. Sometimes I go to M&S and stock up on party / picnic nibbles, and then eat all of them by turns and wantonly. People say, "Oh, oh, it's the progesterone blocking your reward pathway, that's the only reason you don't feel full" – funny how people only want to admit progesterone side-effects when they're trying to control our behaviour back into culturally prescribed norms. Who cares? It's one day a month, if that. Eat. FEAST. It is the Feast Day. (Feast Day is now a recognised Thing in my household and many of my friends have adopted it.)

Superpower

  • typing up work you’ve already written or typing up edits you’ve made by hand (make it cosy and comforting for yourself with blankets, non-weepy music, coffee / hot chocolate, etc)

Also good for

  • spell-checking
  • formatting the document properly
  • proofreading (not editing – just proofreading for punctuation and for misspelt words that a spell-checker misses)

What’s happening hormonally

Your progesterone peaks, with all its side-effects of mood-swings and misery, and then, presuming you aren’t pregnant, both your oestrogen and progesterone levels drop like a stone.

Stage 8/0: Retreat (± 3 days)


Your period starts and PMT eases, but the first day or two of your period can also include PMT, so take it easy: make no demands on yourself. You may still have PMT and now you’re menstruating and possibly cramping as well. Curl up with a book, film, or TV series and a hot water bottle. Eat more chocolate. Have a little weep. As your period continues, the PMT eases and you start to feel a bit happier again – but often still quite sore, so keep taking it easy. Take a day or two to recover; having PMT and then cramps on top of that is a hectic demand on your system, and you don’t have to leap back into the fray the instant you feel marginally less than awful. Enjoy some recovery; life isn’t a sprint. Everyone takes time off and the rest of the month is now fabulously productive, so it’s fine to take the time off when you need to. I get exceptionally bad cramps (because of endometriosis) so I usually retreat to the sofa and if I can work at all, I do purely objective work, as for PMT. The second and third days are usually the worst, for me; by the fourth day, I’m back up and about, and moving (mentally at least) back into Stage 1.

Superpower

  • Blanket Forts

Also good for

  • typing up work you’ve already written or typing up edits you’ve made by hand (unless you’re too sore to sit at a desk – typing up while you’re on the sofa will give you a crick in the neck)
  • spell-checking
  • formatting the document properly
  • proofreading (not editing – just proofreading for punctuation and for misspelt words that a spell-checker misses)
  • any other completely “left-brain” writing work in your skillset – for me, Photoshopping graphics or working on my website’s CSS

What’s happening hormonally

Your oestrogen and progesterone levels have bottomed out. The other three hormones aren’t really in play yet. Your womb is shedding its lining (its endometrium), as it’s not needed this round for an egg to implant. As things start to lift, your various hormones creep back into play, and the cycle swings back round.

The full writing cycle


(click to enlarge)


Putting it into practice

That’s the theory – so how does this work in practice? I’ve been working and writing like this for 17 years (220 cycles, give or take) so I’m pretty au fait with the stages, by now. At first, in university, I drew out my cycle on the calendar and mapped out a precise plan of when to research, when to draft essay plans and structure, when to write up, when to edit, and when to proofread and file things. These days, I play it more loosely, because I’m used to rolling with this flow.

Not every month is equally pronounced: some months, I’ll continue writing first-draft or keep editing throughout and only notice the extremes – when my first draft turns to arguments during the dark stage, when I struggle to focus on meticulous editing during the joyful stage, when I’m struggling to start a new section during the dark stage and it feels like writer’s block. When that happens, I know why and I can change activities accordingly. Some months are very pronounced, and I shift around the activities like clockwork. When I plan my month in the calm stage, I check my cycle tracker and avoid scheduling writing days for the dark Peak PMT time, unless I have lots of typing up or proofreading to do. Depending on what my writing needs, I shift the bulk of my writing time to the first or second half of the month. (I always have some every week, though: it’s my sanity.) If I need to brainstorm for a Call For Submissions or a new seam of the story, I mark the golden joyful time for that, and in the meantime I can edit, research, continue writing something else, any of the dozens of other options as appropriate. If my writing day falls on an early-period day, I swap it around with a weekend day, so I can just rest and whimper when I need to. I’m often irregular, so I also play it by ear. If the part I’m currently writing isn’t “on schedule” for the next stage, I switch between parts of the novel: leap ahead to brainstorming or generative research, or edit / fact-check earlier parts. It all needs to happen; it all does happen.

It may seem disconcerting at first to consider writing like this – even inefficient. Surely a “serious” writer should just write all the time, every day? But for pity’s sake, think about who that advice comes from. Hemingway’s “write every morning”. Roald Dahl’s daily sessions with sharpened pencils. Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day, regardless. Stephen King’s ten pages a day. Khaled Housseni’s “You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.” Not one of them had or has a hormonal cycle. You wouldn’t follow their example on not using tampons, as if you didn’t have a cycle, so why follow their example on scheduling, as if you didn’t have a cycle? You do. They don’t. And none of them had or has the advantage of knowing exactly when they’d feel most creative and generative, or when would be best to edit dispassionately, or when it wouldn’t be a good writing day so best just to type up what’s already written. All of these things are part of writing; all of them need to happen. It’s not inefficient to shift your writing activities according to your cycle: doing each thing when you’re best suited to it is the most efficient way possible to work – and thanks to your cycle, you get to do that. Use your superpowers. Write around your cycle.

Incidentally, I wrote the rough draft of this post during the joyful stage, some time ago. I returned to it and pulled it together in the focused stage, then used the sharp stage to fact-check it and run it past people. During PMT I proofread it and added a few cross observations. When my period started, I was too sore to move around, so I spent much of the evenings and weekend building the graphics. I tried to add a bit more, but couldn’t get the words to flow, so just threw down some markers. I returned to it in the calm stage to give it a final once-over, add those extra bits, temper some of the cross bits, and evaluate it as a whole.


Acknowledgements

My very grateful thanks to Elizabeth Walker Harby, who explained in close detail exactly what was happening hormonally at each stage and how that related to the core moods I’d identified. I’m also forever grateful to Dr Fernando O Martinez Estrada, University of Oxford, for checking over my explanations and double-checking my facts, and then cleaning my house and mopping all the floors because I was too sore to! I have good taste in friends. Any remaining errors or inaccuracies are mine alone.

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