I told the world I would write every day. Then I stopped for a week. And now writing is scary again.
Here’s what happened: my aunt came over, and then my friend came over. My aunt wanted me to eat and be merry. I couldn’t argue with that. My friend wanted—and I also wanted—to have unforgettable experiences together around town.
Now, writing is arguably a solitary act. There’s tons of exceptions—writer’s rooms exist, and not just for television, and of course there are also editors, beta readers, and so on—but our classic image of writing is a person at a desk with no distractions bigger than a lapdog.
I knew that it would be hard for me to keep writing during this time. If I had wanted to be a hermit, though, I wouldn’t have had my friend over in the first place! As long as I had time and space alone now and then, I knew I would be alright.
I filled this alone time with writing.
Ha ha! How silly of you to assume I would say that.
No, I actually spent it reading. And that was a horrible mistake.
Why Didn’t I Write?
Writing is stressful! Sometimes, when you’re writing a weighty pronouncement or a scene or character that is near and dear to your heart, it totally deserves to be. But sometimes I’m just writing corny jokes. Why should that be so hard? There are no stakes! I don’t even expect a corny joke to be laughed at!
Anyway, let’s start by acknowledging that: writing is stressful.
The first reason I read is because writing is stressful. No matter what, you’re putting yourself on the page. No matter how hard you outline, or how formulaic you dare to be, there is some element of unpredictability. You just have to let yourself be caught up in the tide. And you have to remind yourself that it’s fine to go with the flow, not knowing what rapids lie ahead.
When there’s even one point of resistance in your way and you know it, that can be surprisingly effective at stopping you from writing at all. The second reason I read is because I didn’t feel confident that the scene I was in the middle of was any good. When I lack confidence, I become ever so slightly afraid of moving forward. That fear is a point of resistance.
But with the second reason comes a second adage: you can edit drafts.
Let’s say it again. You can edit drafts!
And yet it’s still painful, sometimes, to type out a first draft I don’t like. Why? Why??
The third reason I read is because for me, reading is not time-bounded. That’s a fancy way of saying that I don’t mind when it gets interrupted. You interrupt me when I’m watching a pivotal scene in a movie and I feel annoyed, but somehow leaping back into a written scene is just easier for me. I can read for a tiny pocket of time and be satisfied.
Picking a non-time-bounded task was important this week in particular because with friends and family over, you don’t always know what everyone’s schedule is. Sometimes I got ready early. Sometimes I got ready really early. I expected this, so I picked a task that was simple, straightforward, very predictable, and easy to start and stop.
I’m not sad that I read great books and went on great adventures. I’m sad that I didn’t keep writing alongside peeking at books, going on adventures.
And the fourth reason I read instead of choosing to write is because writing would take rigor. How could I do something rigorous with friends and family over, on a week that basically felt like vacation?
Well, here’s my attempted answer to that last problem: I shouldn’t have been approaching writing as “rigorous.” I should have remembered that it is fun. (Well, at least I find it fun. Basically.)
One thing I told my friend during this time is, I haven’t always been reading as much as I do now. And the process of getting here has taken me reminding myself, again and again, that I find reading not just rewarding and useful, but above all of that fun. If I were approaching books as work or as a quota to hit, I wouldn’t be reading half as often as I do.
In the book Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that maybe a key reason why many Americans don’t like work is simply because they approach it as “work”—AKA drudgery, AKA a huge and serious effort, AKA dull. Yet if the work is truly satisfying, it will give us the heightened pleasure we call the flow state. And whether or not you believe this or take it at face value, it seems to me like redefining “work” in a more positive way is an interesting, even an important thing to try. It’s not unlike replacing “I have to” with “I get to,” in the situations where you really can see an opportunity before you. If I practice these habits of thought, I can see myself feeling less stressed out about little hurdles, both more relaxed and more confident. And maybe you too?
I Jump Back In (And Miss the Pool By About Three Feet)
The “vacation” is over. Sadly, that doesn’t mean I’ve removed all points of resistance. In fact, another has become all too clear to me: I’ve gone for so long without writing.
The streak is broken.
“How will I ever start it up again?” wailed my irrational mind.
“Eh, I’m the same person I was last week. I should be able to hit the same target word goal I usually have,” said my cool rational mind.
Listening to the rational mind, I immediately got to work. Just kidding, I was persuaded by my aunt to eat and be merry for another day.
But then I buckled down. I got out my planner and wrote a new to-do item: “Cat: 1500 Words.”
It “worked,” if by “worked” you mean “made me feel even more intimidated.”
1500 was not actually my daily wordcount before the vacation-week. My average was more like 1900. Therefore, I was lowballing. But not even lowballing that much.
Which made me more intimidated.
It’s going to be kinda hard to return to that scene. I’m gonna get tired of writing halfway through. And then I’ll be performing worse than ever. I just hate the idea of coming back to that scene…
This had turned out to be a recipe for disaster.
I’ll just do something else that’s less scary, I decided, without fail.
So How Did I Start Writing Again?
Last night I wrote about 100 words.
I didn’t even try looking at my planner with the big intimidating goal on it. I didn’t pay it any heed. I just wrote as much stuff as I felt like writing in the moment.
Then I stopped.
This was a failure in the sense of sheer wordcount, but in terms of getting me to commit words to the page, it was a success. And in terms of mitigating my stress over That One Scene, it was a roaring success. Because it turned out that the snag I had hit could be resolved in, oh, about five sentences.
I didn’t guilt or shame myself over this, though. I just kinda put the writing down and went back to other things.
Sometimes I really do thrive on setting a high writing goal and fighting my way there. More often, though, it seems that I can get back in the groove of writing with micro-goals, or writing in little chunks of spare time. If I had kept that in mind last week, I would’ve been a whole lot more comfortable, say, setting a timer now and then throughout the day, just rattling out what I could.
Here are my tips for you, fellow writer—for taking out the points of resistance keeping you from rebuilding your writing streak:
- Write in timed “sprints,” and don’t be afraid to make them obscenely short. A five-minute writing sprint is still writing.
- Take time not to write, but to think about the next scene. This can help you get through snags like tough scenes, and it can be less intimidating than leaping straight into a writing session. Plus, it can remind you where the real excitement in your story lies, and how you can get to the next piece of that excitement.
- Sleep on it. You may feel fear today, but answering your fears with some good old logic and spending eight hours away from consciousness might change your perspective more than you’d expect.
- Sure, set a huge goal—when you can handle it. Yesterday I wrote 100 words, but today I walked to the library and, in between unrelated-yet-important research, did however much writing I could. That turned out to be more like 500 words. 500 words in a day wouldn’t have been a huge goal for me two weeks ago, but it is for me right now. There’s no shame in that. If we could do these things consistently, we’d be robots.
- Consider outlining. Now, there are some people who get so caught up in outlining, and refining their outlines, that they never start writing. I know I’m not one of these people—and in fact, I usually outline once I’m already 80% of the way through a draft of a story or story-chunk. For me, jotting down quick outlines helps me regain focus and reminds me of the key plot points coming up—plot points to get excited about all over again.
- Cut short—or liven up—your next scene. If your future self continues hating the scene you’re writing, you can either get through it as fast as possible (remember, you can edit this later!) or make a major change. Would you prefer this dialogue if it took place somewhere else, had zero dialogue tags, were way shorter? Is a change you thought would be pointlessly experimental actually deeply interesting, now that you look at it on the page?
- Most of all, be brave. The fear is natural, but the fear can always be overcome.
I often get intimidated by the idea of exercising, even for just five minutes. I know it will be tough, it will be an exertion, and it may even kinda hurt. But then I remind myself that a few minutes afterward, my mind will be on something else. An hour afterward, I’ll no longer feel the fatigue of a brief run. And that night, I will be glad that I did it.
And if I may compare you writing your next great novel to me lifting two-pound weights, that’s kind of how I feel about writing. I’m scared to go into the water but I’m always, always glad I did it.
My Progress Writing Catgirl System
If you’ve been following my blog for the past month-plus, you know that I’ve been trying to blaze through the first draft of a cute little LitRPG series that was never supposed to take more than about twelve, sixteen months tops.
As you might expect, the needle has not moved much since my last update. But hey, it has moved!
I wrote about five more chapters. Not writing for so long has opened my mind up to thinking about other story ideas, but that is, of course, a dangerous path indeed for someone who’s vowed to continue with a single story until that story is done.
You know how many chapters most people wrote last week, though? Zero. They wrote zero more chapters. Any progress is progress. These are the kinds of phrases I use to motivate myself, and if you like the cut of their jib, I encourage you to do the same too.
I do have a terrifying confession to make, though.
I promised I’d make these update posts biweekly. I could have sworn my updating day was every other Tuesday, but, in fact, it was Sunday.
I missed my deadline AND broke the streak.
Truly a nightmare! How will I ever recover!?
…Probably just by calmly getting back in the saddle. Well, see you next-next Sunday!
Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.
Click around! Stay a while! Learn about why I decided to write a cozier, smaller-scale story, why Blondie is such a great stupendous film franchise (yeah it’s the one with the comic strip), why BlazBlue’s character writing stinks and we can’t have nice things, or even why I do not really feel that strongly about gender TBH WTF BBQ.