No matter how dedicated, disciplined, or in love with our stories we may be, there comes a point when we drift away from our daily habit of writing. How do we make ourselves return? And what is it about stepping off our writerly path that makes it so hard to step back on?
About six weeks ago I was blindsided by illness (a topic I’m sure many of you can relate to lately). The ensuing fatigue, as well as the piling up of work at my day job, understandably derailed me. The worst part was that once I set aside my WIP and my marketing efforts for my published novels, I started to fear I couldn’t begin again. I doubted my talent. I dreaded the empty page. I stalled. I dug my heels in and balked, coming up with any and every excuse despite feeling absolutely miserable about not writing. This period of sulking reminded me of all the times I’ve neglected my guitar, watched the callouses fade from my fingertips and thought, “I can’t pick that up again now. I can’t bear to play so poorly. Plus, it will really hurt!”
In my experience, procrastination is not as much about discipline or time management as it is fear. In the spirit of the Halloween season, I’ll offer that I view our fears as zombies, inexorably driven to rip us apart and devour our creative juices. The saving grace is that we can outsmart and outrun these creatures. When we’re achieving forward motion on our WIP, we can gain distance on the herd lurching along behind. But as soon as we pause, our doubts swarm us. So here are some suggestions for getting back on our feet before we’re outflanked by our fears.
Find safety in numbers: rely on your allies and ask for help. Make a pact with a trusted friend to check up on you. That’s what your writing buddies are for, and they’ve been where you are right now. Follow through by checking in on their progress, also. Regain forward momentum however it takes. Remember that small steps are enough. It’s more important that you begin again than that you write anything brilliant or undertake that elusive lifelong project. Make your goals achievable so that you’re not too daunted or overwhelmed to start. Most likely, part of the reason you stepped off track is because you were feeling unsure of your skills. Give yourself permission to revisit a success: perhaps a stellar review from years ago or a scene you’re still impressed that you wrote. (Sorry, no zombie analogy here… feel free to offer one through comments!)Don’t force yourself to start exactly where you left off, especially if you felt stuck there. You’re not walking the Yellow Brick Road or the Appalachian Trail. You’re allowed to skip ahead and fill in those footsteps later.Visualize yourself surviving this apocalypse of self doubt. Allow yourself to sketch out that amazing ending that you’ve been longing to write for your WIP. Basically, eat dessert first. Just get your appetite back.
When we get off track, we often feel like the only solution is a strict schedule and a return to discipline. That might be true in some instances. But that same rigidity might be half the reason we’re stalling. If you weren’t ever jazzed to get up at five a.m. every day and write with the birds — if that never made you feel like Anne Lamott no matter how many times you tried — then it’s probably not going to happen for you now that you’re disheartened. So if all else fails, ditch the discipline. Bribe yourself if you have to. One cappuccino per page.
Here’s my last note of encouragement to get you to pick up the pen or open that file again — each time we return, we strengthen our confidence that we can return.
Photo used by permission of Tony Park.