Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
December 2017

When a Writer Doesn't Write

There are times when you have nothing to say. You’ve just finished a big project or you’re smarting from a series of rejections. You’ve run dry.

This is perfectly normal. Even if you’re a writer, you have permission not to write for a while, to live life and to refill your soul. It’s also a reminder that you shouldn’t panic if you feel like this goes on for “too long.” Other people may need less time than you do to process. You shouldn’t be looking around, watching other people to determine how much time you need to fill up the creative well again.

If you’ve been doing it right, you should feel like you put everything of yourself into your last book or project. You should feel like you want to hide yourself because you’ve revealed so much. You may feel like you’ve given everything to the project and you’re going to have to reinvent yourself before you have anything new to write. This is all normal and good.

Yes, there are writers who never take a day off. Yes, there are writers who manage to write six books every year. Yes, there are writers who seem to publish like clockwork, never skipping a beat.

There are also wonderful writers who need ten years between books. There are writers who write a book a year for twenty years and then suddenly face a dry spell and don’t know how to deal with it because it never happened before. I imagine most of us fall somewhere in between.

Your editor or agent may try to pressure you to produce something new, but if they’re good, they probably won’t. They’ve seen lots of writers who experience lots of reactions to publication. Even if you have a contract for your next book, the best thing to do is to let your heart decide when to start writing again.

Creativity isn’t a widget. As much as our capitalistic world wants to pretend that it is, a book isn’t a commodity in the way that other things are. For one thing, if a book from author A isn’t available, it can’t just be replaced with a book from author B. Your fans will be waiting for you.

You can’t pressure your creativity into producing the next great book. You can nudge it and maybe you can learn some tricks to get it going again, but it’s also all right to just say no.

And then there is the problem of not writing regularly. You may not always have time to fit writing into your daily schedule. You may be on tour or working on something that isn’t writing for a week or month or even years. Some writers never write on a regular, daily schedule. They go on writing trips, away from home and regular responsibilities. They work on outlines or character sketches in the meantime, storing up in their minds, consciously or not, scenes and chapters that will eventually make their way to publication.

Other writers work only on weekends or holidays because they don’t have time or energy after their day job or because they have family, church and social obligations. Some of these writers are best sellers. Some aren’t. It’s unfair to make assumptions about how seriously a writer takes their work based on their work schedule. (And I say this as someone who tends to work daily, even if I’m not always working on something for someone else).

Here’s the truth: Only you can decide if you’re writing enough. Only you know what you have inside you that needs to come out in words. If you feel like you’re not writing enough, you probably aren’t.

But I will put in a caveat here because you may discover eventually that your sense of being incomplete isn’t about the number of words written on your current project. Sometimes you feeling a niggling sense of being incomplete because you’re not working on the right thing or because you’re not giving yourself time to play with words instead of doing “work.” You may even find out that your writing self needs you to experience the world in a different way in order to write about life with all those words that are bubbling up inside.

Being a writer isn’t about writing every day (at least not for everyone). It isn’t about producing a word count. I know, I know! I wish it was about those things. I’m great at checking boxes off on lists.

I’ve seen writer friends dealing with cancer, mental illness, job loss, death of a spouse or child, political terror (recently), and caretaking for a family member who has a disability. I’ve seen writers deal with being overwhelmed with their day job, dealing with publisher disasters, changing agents, frenemy implosions, home transition, and theft and its subsequent emotional trauma. Some writers seem able to write through just about anything. Most of the rest of us, though, can’t.

If you’re in a situation where you can’t write, please remember that this doesn’t mean that you’ll always be there. It may feel like it will take forever, and it may indeed take years, but at some point, things will change and you will be able to write again. It’s also possible that you may decide that you need to make some significant life changes in order to get back to writing. But that isn’t always possible, and I want to make sure that any writers out there understand that. Life gets in the way sometimes. We are people before we are writers.

So don’t give up hope in your writing. There will be time for it. I promise you will have your chance, even if it feels so very distant.

For right now, may I suggest that you try some of the following:

  1. Get a notebook and keep it with you. You may not be able to write more than a sentence or a word or two, but think of this as a chance to build up ideas. You can also become an excellent observer. Practice describing things incisively with just a word or two. Jot down emotions and how they feel physically. Practice distilling your plot to a “pitch.” Tinker with your character motivations.

  2. Work on shorter pieces. I’m more naturally a novel writer and I only get ideas for short stories once or twice a year. Having less time now might mean a focus on those short pieces and waiting for the longer ones.

  3. Give yourself a day to write now and then, if you can, and prepare for that day by being one hundred percent ready to work during that time. In one day, you might be able to get four or five chapters written. Even if it only happens once or twice a year, it can still feel like you’re making real progress (because you are).

  4. Do other things. This may sound unhelpful, but sometimes the pressure of wanting and needing to write in small chunks of time can make it even worse. You may need to find something that isn’t stressful to do. I personally do a lot of knitting and crocheting when stressed. It doesn’t have to be good because it’s not my profession, and that’s really blissful to my soul.

  5. Connect with writer friends who remind you how good you are and that this is worth it. It won’t fix everything, but it can give you needed steam to keep moving forward.

So what is being a writer about? Well, let me suggest that this isn’t a question that anyone can answer for you. There aren’t any clear rules. But not writing isn’t going to kick you off the list, any more than writing something bad will. If you can sit with that for a while and accept that not writing and just living is also part of being a writer, I think you (and I) will be better writers for it.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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