Shining On When the World Is Dark

How to unstall, unstick, and keep on creating even when youíre not feeling it.

This essay is part of CONQUERING THE WRITING BLUES, a free online writing conference! To hear the interview that goes with it, click here!

The worldís a pretty stressed place right now. Corona virus is everywhere, people are losing their jobs, the news is even more insane than usual, and thereís no end in sight for any of it. If youíre trying to write--either working on an existing project or struggling to start a new one--the noise from outside can feel like a hammer smashing your creative concentration to bits. 

If your output is suffering during this crisis, youíre not alone. Staying productive, let alone creative in an environment like the one weíre living through right now can seem pretty hopeless. Fortunately for all of us, this feeling is exactly that: a feeling. 

Iíve been writing regularly since 2004. This is my first global pandemic, but Iím no stranger to pushing through hard times. Iíve kept chugging on novels through a new baby, financial difficulties, the loss of my father, and all the other millions of hardships that make life life. Writing through these circumstances wasnít easy, but that doesnít really mean much since writing is never easy. Itís always hard. Thereís always something in the way, stealing your time your time or sapping your creativity, which is why successful writers learn how to protect their writing, even in dire straits.

Just as there is no perfect time to write, there is no circumstance so bleak that creativity cannot thrive. Humans are storytelling animals. We can be distracted and dragged down and exhausted, but no matter how low we get, the stories are always there. The trick is figuring out how to create an environment where those stories can grow and shine.

To be clear: this is not easy. You canít expect yourself to be writing at 100% when family, work, and stress are all taking bites out of you. But you can keep going and create great things, it just takes a bit of extra effort. 

When I was dealing with my toughest times, these are the strategies I used to keep myself going. Iím not saying theyíre the only path, or even the best--every writer writes differently, so your mileage may vary. But if youíre having trouble keeping your words flowing right now, hereís Iíve discovered works to keep me writing. Fingers crossed itíll keep you writing, too!

1) Build a Castle

This is probably the most obvious bit of advice, but when real life is overwhelming fiction, your first and best line of defense is distance. No matter how much you love your story, itís always harder to write in an environment where youíre being constantly interrupted, or where youíre constantly interrupting yourself by checking your phone/email/social media.

My normal solution to this problem is to physically leave my house and go to a coffee shop or somewhere else thatís quiet and internetless, but relocation isnít practical or responsible in this time of social distancing. Fortunately, itís also not necessary. Physical distance is nice, but all you really need is a mental division: a space that is set aside only for writing and nothing else is allowed.

This can be as lavish as a writing office or as simple as a chair at the kitchen table with a sign taped to your back that says no one is allowed to disturb you for the next two hours. Even just a timeblock thatís always set aside for writing no matter what else is going on can be enough. Anything works so long as you feel protected when youíre inside, because when you feel safe is when the words come back.

Caveat: this method requires setting and enforcing boundaries. I realize thatís not always possible, and if youíre in a situation where you truly canít get a single hour to yourself for writing, thatís fine. Itís okay to not write all the time. Weíre human, life happens. But if you do have writing time/space, you owe it to yourself to make that time count. Donít squander your precious writing hours on worries and problems that writing canít fix, and donít let others take them from you either.

This is harder than it sounds. Non-writers, especially children, have a very hard time understanding that writing is work that canít be interrupted. Thatís why I call this ďbuilding a castle.Ē Youíre going to have to set a hard line, and then youíre going to have to defend it. Youíre going to have to say no. Youíre going to have to say not now. Thatís tough, especially when the other person doesnít mean any harm, but if you canít say no, the world will just keep taking your time, and youíll always be stuck writing in the margins of your life.

The world has billions of people to worry about it, but your worlds only have you. You are the only person on the planet whoís going to put your writing first. Itís up to you to protect your dream, so build your castle, keep it safe, and you will always have a place where your creativity can thrive without someone stomping on it.

2) Remember the Fun

Building a castle is never a bad idea, but sometimes itís not enough. There have been plenty of moments when Iíve been alone in my writing office with no internet, phone, or needy family members and I still canít seem to concentrate on what Iím writing. When this happens, my first instinct is to beat myself up. Why arenít I working? Why am I being lazy? Why am I so bad at this?

This is a terrible knee-jerk reaction, because self-flagellating NEVER works. Itís true that you are the only person responsible for writing your books, but just as you canít shoot a worker to raise morale, and you canít make yourself write by telling yourself youíre a failure if you donít. Remember: writing should be fun. Youíre telling a story to entertain people, not getting a root canal.

So if youíre sitting in your castle and you still canít write, donít blame yourself. Engage yourself. Step back from whatever youíre beating your head against and get yourself re-excited about all the cool, fun, amazing things in this book that made you want to write it in the first place. Was it the character drama? The awesome world? The fun magical system? What scenes have you already written that were awesome? What scenes have you not written yet that youíre looking forward to?

As much as weíd like to pretend otherwise, writing isnít actually a magical process. Itís a project, a long one. Like any long project, it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees, particularly if life wonít stop interrupting you. When this happens, it can be tempting to think that the book is broken, and it might be a little. Most books are until the edit, and that can really be a speedbump. I know I have a hard time getting pumped to work on stories that are going to take a lot of fixing.

Itís totally natural to feel uninspired if the writing isnít going as smoothly as youíd hoped, but donít confuse reluctance to face a hard problem with inability to write. Sometimes you just have to psych yourself up to get over the hump, and for my money, the best way to do that is with the ideas that set me on fire to write the book in the first place. This is a creative art! Feelings matter. Just as bad times and feelings can make you feel like not writing, remembering the good stuff can get you going again even when the world seems to be conspiring against you.The power of positive thinking is legit in writing, so never be afraid to go back and roll around in the cool. Get excited again! Remember the fun, and youíll be amazed how fast the words kick back up.

3) Donít Be Afraid to Let Go

This one is the hardest. If Iíve built my castle, remembered the fun, and Iím still not feeling like writing, that means somethingís wrong with me

This is not a condemnation. Writers are humans, and when humans get put under too much stress for too long, we stop functioning properly. My life isnít nearly as hard as some peopleís, but Iíve still had times when Iíve been so tired I didnít even want to watch a movie. When this happens, the answer isnít some new creativity hack or writing method. The answer is rest.

Remember back at the top when I said you didnít need to write all the time to be a writer? This would be one of those times. If you are so tired and burned out that you canít write even under good conditions, then you just canít write. And that sucks, especially if writing is your job and you need to put out another book to keep your income flowing. 

Alas, these kind of thoughts will only make the problem worse. Burnout isnít something you can fix with more work or trying harder. Itís a wound, and the only way to get rid of a wound is to let it heal.

When I get burnout--and I do, I try not to but it still happens--the only way Iíve found to get my writing back again is to let go. I let go of my deadlines and my expectations and my schedule and just focus on restoring the part of me thatís damaged without judgement or guilt. If thatís my physical body, I sleep and loaf. If Iím dead mentally, I use my writing time to rehability my creativity. 

My favorite way to do this is to consume stories. I donít try to read in my genre or study writing books because thatís work. Healing requires rest, so if I want to rewatch all of Steven Universe, I rewatch all of Steven Universe. If I want to read Romance novels, I read Romance novels. I give myself the freedom to do whatever I want. The only limit I set is that I have to consume fiction. Not news, not YouTube, not Reality TV. Stories, written by other artists who work just as hard as I do. Other than that, skyís the limit. I reread old favorites, play with ridiculous ideas Iím never going to actually write, whatever makes me happy. 

Thatís the key. Happiness isnít a byproduct of goofing off, itís the point. Thereís this Romanticism about the depressed artist, but all the creators I know do their best work when theyíre happy. Joy, enthusiasm, excitement--these are the sparks that light the fire, and theyíre the only forces strong enough to lift you back up when youíve worked yourself into a creative slump. But you canít be happy if youíre flogging yourself, so if youíre doing everything right and the words still arenít coming, give yourself permission to let go. Donít give up, donít throw the book away. Just take a break. Read a story, watch a movie or a show, let yourself bask in the joy of those other creators' creations, and I promise, when you feel ready to go back to your own book, itís going to be a LOT easier.

And thatís how I do it!

Now you know the tactics Iíve used to get out of pretty much every writing slump Iíve had over the past fifteen years. There were a lot of other things I tried, too, but these were the only ones that worked well enough to recommend to others. Honestly though, one writer to another, thereís always going to be something. Creativity is just a bumpy road, and sometimes you end up in the ditch. 

Maybe there are writers who know how to avoid that, but Iíve never met one. Iíve been in the ditch plenty of times myself, but Iíve always pulled myself out again because the stories are worth it. Just as thereís nothing worse than staring at that blank page, there is no better feeling in the world than when the words are flying. Even if they arenít flying right now, so long as you never give up, theyíll always come back. The spark is always there, always inside you. You might not always be able to make it shine on demand, but it never goes out, and if you give it room and care, it will always, always, always come back.

Write on, my friends, and good luck.