I’ve written for a living long enough, that I can usually manage the must-do, on-deadline stuff. Some people dig ditches, I tell myself. I push letters on a keyboard.
Where I struggle is with personal, creative work. Sometimes I simply lose the will to write. Winter’s darkness depresses me. A demanding job saps my energy. My mind goes blank. It’s hard to believe in myself as a poet and storyteller when I am slogging through a mental swamp.
I’m not always ready to take on the world. Sometimes I have to use a sliding scale of activities, based on how much motivation I have in the tank. I hesitate to tell other writers what to do, but here’s what works for me:
When I can’t finish, I second draft.
I do most first drafts with pen and paper. When editing and finishing a piece is too intimidating, I go through my notebooks with highlighters and page flags. I look for poems and essays with potential and sit down at the keyboard to get them in the file. I end up doing some good revisions as I type.
When I can’t face the keyboard, I journal.
I wake up ludicrously early and will sit with a cup of coffee and a notebook to get words down on the page. Even if I am only grumbling about life or even making to-do lists, the act of putting pen to paper jars something loose. I often drift into an actual essay, poem, or story idea. Louis L’Amour famously said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
When journaling is overwhelming, I write letters.
Old-fashioned ones, handwritten, with a stamp and sent snail-mail. Why yes, I AM an anachronism. Letters are a great writing practice, because I write with one reader in mind, from my heart, in a natural voice. And who doesn’t enjoy receiving a letter? I know my words will bring one person joy.
Even a letter too much? I read.
I don’t even demand I useful read. I stupid read. I read what makes me happy. I try to read in my genres, but if the book doesn’t grab me, I don’t read it as “homework.” I don’t care how successful the book is – if I don’t want to read it, why would I want to write like it? I want examples to aspire to, not to avoid.
… then, it’s bad. At that point, I have to assess what’s going on in my life. I may need better self-care. I may even need to withdraw from the world for a limited amount of time and lick my wounds. Emphasis on the word “limited.” A woman I worked with used to say, “If you’re going to wallow, get in there and wallow good. Then GET OUT.” Sometimes a quick wallow is just the ticket.
I have a self-pep-talk.
These are the words I come back to when I’m sucked down an unproductive vortex. Feel free to try them and use them as you see fit:
I believe in you. I have no doubts you’ve accomplished something in your writing, even if you’ve only scribbled five words you love in a journal no one else will see. Stop listing all the things you haven’t done, and pat yourself on the back for the things you have done. Don’t you dare beat yourself up with the word “excuses.” Maybe I’m naive, but I truly believe you are doing the best you can with what you have in the tank at that moment.
A writing life doesn’t always have to speed down the road at a breakneck pace. Find your own fallback positions. Find ways to keep words alive in your life when inertia grabs you by the ankles.
And always have faith: your stories matter.
Know that, and keep going.