I’ve been tussling with this one for a while. Some people are happy writing when the mood takes them and produce plenty of work they’re satisfied with. Others find weekly word quotas work for them. I thought I was one of those people. But if that’s the case, why did I struggle to get back into my manuscript after a weekend break?
Over the last two weeks I’ve attempted to write every day, which I largely managed except for one day. Here are the things I discovered:
- Writing is a committed relationship
When writing a story, whether fiction or creative non-fiction, it’s as though you’re in a long-term relationship with your characters and story. By dedicating daily time to spend with your work you’re remaining connected. That means it’s easier to pick up where you left off the previous day. Your work is fresh, alive and growing, like a plant you have to water daily for it to thrive. Also, the characters and story stay with you, which means you’re more likely to be working on them at a subconscious level. It’s all about maximising your flow.
The other point about writing being a committed relationship is that if you treat it well like you would a loved partner, your writing becomes less like work and more like fun. With your story and character connection strong, you’re happier to nurture and spend time with them. This has to be a productive thing.
- Set time aside, even if you don’t write
By setting time aside every day, be it half an hour or two, you’re allowing the possibility of writing to happen. You’re receptive and open to the possibility, like you’ve put the kettle on or wine bottle in the fridge in anticipation of a good friend’s visit. This is about giving your characters permission to speak and allowing your story to move forward as it needs. Perhaps they don’t turn up on the day, but by creating the space you’re extending a welcoming hand. You never know what might happen.
- Form the habit
There are loads of myths out there about how many days of repeating something it takes become you form a habit, but my research showed the correct number is sixty-six. If writing becomes a habit, you’re more likely to do it regardless of your mood or circumstances or other forms of resistance. Do first, think later.
- Write little and often
You’ve probably heard the maxim that goes something like, ‘Don’t write a lot, but write often’. I’ve been doing a lot of this—an hour’s writing, half and hour of something else, another half an hour of writing and so on. For me it takes the pressure off having to sit down for hours, taking on large chunks of work, big themes and major events etc.. I can attack my work in bite-sized pieces and come back refreshed and willing to write the next bit.
- It feels better
Writing is an outlet and a purpose, and on the days I write I simply feel better. I feel more me, more grounded, more satisfied. I’m not sure I’ll write every day, but most days seems to work well for me at the moment. Try it for yourself.
Keep writing anyway. If you can’t write, read a writing book, do some writing exercises or read a good book.
Recently I began doing morning pages again. Morning pages are Julie Cameron’s idea from her book The Artist’s Way on how to improve creativity. They involve doing three longhand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing (or even drawing) about anything top of mind each morning. Usually this takes me 20-30 minutes.
I read Cameron’s book years ago and tried them but didn’t find them particularly useful. Recently I saw her give a lecture and was reminded about them so I thought I’d try them for a few days.
Well, I’m a convert. I do them on most working days now and they’ve been quite remarkable. These are the things I’ve found they help me with:
- Setting daily priorities.
- This includes setting writing goals and not letting them disappear amid other life demands.
- Coming up with ideas on how to overcome writing problems. Later, when I attack them on the page, they don’t seem nearly as daunting.
- Venting and get things off your mind so you can focus better without such annoying distractions.
- Other things that have been bothering me suddenly come up on the page, usually with a resolution. Afterwards I feel a sense of clarity and lightness.
- They just make everything deeper, no matter how irritated I feel about doing them.
I find if I don’t do my morning pages, I’m less focused, my goals are less defined and I achieve less. My time fritters away and I end up feeling a diminished sense of achievement and even frustration compared to when I do them.
Maybe you don’t need them right now, but they’re a good thing to bear in mind should you find writing becomes more challenging. Happy writing.
This big picture book goes beyond writing by focusing on creativity. It de-romanticises the creative process but also uplifts by bringing it under your control. It is strategic or big picture rather than tactical or practical. Specifically, Gilbert discusses the realities of writing; the hard work, need for courage and tenacity, difficulty of breaking through, daily frustrations, discipline required, pursuit of inquisitiveness and how to trick yourself into enjoying the process etc..
1. Frustration is not an interruption of the process; frustration is the process.
2. The outcome cannot matter.
3. A lighthearted process does not necessarily need to result in a lighthearted product.
Score: 8/10 = Inspiring
Perhaps you’re disappointed at not being published, or you self-published but the sales weren’t great, or you’ve been plugging away for so long without ‘success’ that you’re having doubts about this writing thing, or the words that come out on the page aren’t the ones you feel inside, or you’ve simply lost sight of why you’re writing.
The result is that you can’t seem to find your enthusiasm for writing anymore. It used to excite you to sit down at a blank page, it was fun. But now all you feel is dread. You start avoiding it or you procrastinate or you talk yourself out of it. Maybe you’ve given up entirely, or if you do manage to force yourself to write it feels like a chore, another obligation in your long list for the day.
What’s happened to make you feel this way?
Writing has become a negative experience
Whatever the reason, the end result is that writing makes you feel bad. Most likely, you’ve also lost confidence in yourself and your writing along the way. So why would you write if that’s how it makes you feel?
You need to get back to what you enjoy about writing to shift it back into a positive experience. Here are some ideas on how to do this.
- Let go of your expectations
Did you set some goals, perhaps secretly, such as a deadline for when you’d finish your book, or when you’d have an agent or get published, or when you’d win your first writing prize, or when you’d be able to write like James Joyce?
If you did and you haven’t met your goal, then no wonder you feel like a failure. You’ve set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. Need I remind you that writing is hard, really hard.
Let go or detach from your goals and become zen about your writing. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the writing or the process rather than focusing on the outcome. The result is a side benefit, not the primary aim of writing. Loving doing your best writing is the only true goal. See what happens.
- Revisit the reasons why you write
There were reasons why you first stepped onto the unpredictable path of being a writer. What were they? Write them down. Do they still apply? If not, are there new reasons? Write them down on the other side of the page. Be honest with yourself, but be careful push aside those doubting voices that counteract everything positive you come up with.
On the other hand, if you’ve dug deep and can’t find any reasons why you should continue to write, perhaps it is time to give it up. But if that thought fills you with horror and a list of ‘buts I can’t because…’, then you have your answer. Read your list of why you want to write every time you meet the blank page, and watch your self-belief slowly return.
- Stop the negative self talk
We all do it. It’s a fact that around eighty per cent of our thoughts are negative for reasons of survival. But how can we expect to create when we’re in a negative, fearful state of mind? Putting it simply, we can’t. The brain doesn’t work that way.
When we write, we’re not in a life or death situation. So next time that doubting, fearful, critical voice tells you something bad about you and your writing, try acknowledging what it has to say, thanking it for its concern and then telling it you’re not going to follow its advice today as there really isn’t any need. Then get on with your work. Remember, you control your thoughts. Don’t let them take control of you.
- Get help
Join a writing group (one that’s supportive and is going to give you positive, constructive feedback), hire an editor, read a writing book, work with a trusted fellow writer or beta reader, or do a course to help you get some perspective about what’s working and what could be improved in your work. There’s a lot of free and paid advice out there. Use it to keep moving forward. We all like to be challenged. We all need to grow. And believe it or not, we all like the rewards of hard work. Create a growth mindset, not a reward mindset.
- Create a positive writing environment
I’ve talked about how to create a writing routine here. Schedule quality time, meditate or walk beforehand, go to your favourite writing place (physically and/or mentally) etc. so that you feel optimistic and excited about writing. In other words, make your writing experience as enjoyable as possible by setting yourself up for success. By doing that you’re showing yourself some respect and taking yourself seriously.
This seems like a lot of hard work for something you once believed would flow easily from you via some muse. For most of us such a muse is a myth. The muse is really you delving deep into yourself without fear of consequence or expectation of reward and creating (more on how to do that here). Set up the best writing environment possible and you might be surprised at what turns up on your page.
- Perseverance – breakdown, breakthrough, breakout
I heard Beatte Chelette talk recently about the challenges she faced before succeeding in business. (I do that a lot, listen to inspiring people to keep my enthusiasm fire stoked and remind me how much hard work is involved.) This involved a lot of failing. She said ‘success’ has a pattern: Breakdown, breakthrough, breakout.
Perhaps you’re at breakdown, at crisis point? Perhaps a breakthrough is just around the corner. Success (meaning growth) depends on perseverance, which is resilience in the face of failure and adversity. If you give up now, you may never know. You have a choice. Over to you and the best of luck.
The creative, writing life can be isolating. Remember this when you’re feeling like that.
Writing routines are great (see this post about how to create one), but what about those times when you’ve done everything right (have you, really?) and you still don’t feel like writing? Perhaps you get annoyed at yourself for not using your time optimally, which makes you feel worse and even less like writing. So you decide not to write today but rather to wait for inspiration.
Only it doesn’t come next time you sit down to write, nor does it come the next time or the time after that. At this rate it’ll be years before you’ve completed your first draft. Surely there’s a better way.
- Know that it’s normal
Not feeling like writing is normal. Feelings are indicators. Acknowledge them, which is all they want, and write anyway. Writing is an action and requires doing. Sometimes by starting your brain complies.
- Ask yourself: What is it I’m resisting?
Writing is a relationship you’re having with deep bits of your mind. Not feeling like writing might mean you’re resisting. Perhaps you’re trying to avoid the pain of writing because it leaves you feeling vulnerable and exposed? Perhaps you’re scared of that pain?Yet, the days when you don’t feel like writing are the days when you must break through this resistance because these are the days when a breakthrough is most possible. If you’re a true writer—if you must write—such days that will define you. Do some deep breathing (in 4, hold 4, out 8, hold 2), cast your feelings aside and write.
- De-romanticise the process
Know that the professionals—those who make a living from writing—sit down and write whether they feel like it or not. Exorcise all romantic ideals from your head about the inspired artist, the elusive muse or whatever, and move ahead despite your mood or the circumstances of your life. As one writer said, the writing life may be colourful but the writing career is not a romantic one as the work itself is rather drab. Remember, this is something you have chosen to do.
- Write badly
Fake it till you make it. Writing something is better than nothing and it might lead you to a breakthrough or some inspired writing or even just bad writing. But at least you’ll have the self-respect that comes from trying your best.
- Read something inspiring, then write
We all know that we learn from reading, often subconsciously, so read work that’s going to life and inspire you. Then wait for words to flow out of you. As writers we all need to read regularly. It’s part of the job.
- Copy out a couple of pages of inspiring writing
Copy out a few pages from one of favourite books or pieces and then write. Perhaps you’ll produce the best two paragraphs ever, or two pages of dribble. Do it anyway.
- Free write
Write for ten minutes or two pages letting whatever comes out fall onto your page. Again, anything to get your juices flowing.
- Outline rather than write
Perhaps you’re daunted by the blank page. Consider where you’ve been in your story and where you need to go next (just not too far ahead). I have a kind of knowing in my gut about this; when it’s time for a character to come back or for some serious action etc.. Go with that and begin. The next day won’t be nearly as daunting.
- If you’re enjoying your story, but not the words
Write the story and don’t worry about the words. Who said everything had to be perfect first time around? You can go back and fill in the words later. This is the vomit draft, also known as the creative fun part of the process before the editor in you steps in.
- If you’re enjoying the words, but not the story
The story is annoying you perhaps but you’re loving a character or what they have to say. Indulge in those words and let the story fall out.Alternatively, there could be something wrong with the story, which means you need to fix it before you can write again.
- Reward yourself
Now that you’ve resisted the temptation to give in to your mood, reward yourself. Best not with food, I think, as it has too many connotations. Have a bath, take a walk, sit in the sun, watch your favourite TV show, do some yoga, meet a friend for coffee. Just make it something that’s positive for you.