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Writing on Days When You Feel Drained

If you feel drained of ideas and motivation, that could be a sign that you need to take a writing break and let yourself entirely off the hook. Spend the day reading a book, catching up on TV, or actually, you know, interacting with people. I find that having conversations with other writers and creators is often the best way to find inspiration again.

But let’s assume for a moment that you can’t take a break and you have to write no matter what (ahem, like when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo). What do you do on those days when you have to force yourself to write?

Maintaining a Streak

If you’re writing to maintain a streak and it doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you write, it may be a day to shelve the current work in progress and try something new.

Shift over to your ideas notebook, grab a random prompt from the internet (there are a jillion, so if you don’t have a favorite site bookmarked, Google “creative writing prompts” or “writing prompt generator”), or ask your friends if there’s a story they’d like to be told. I’ve written some fun one-offs about my original characters inspired by things my friends prompted me or scenes they wish they’d read.

If you’re still struggling to get any words on the page, or are generally finding yourself uninspired, it’s time for some free writing. This free writing could eventually evolve into a blog post or story, but it might just be an activity to get you writing again.

Start with a question about what’s bugging you. This could be anything from, “Why am I so tired today?” to “How am I so uninspired?” Once you have that question nailed down, twist it into a question you can analyze and/or give advice about. “Why am I so tired today?” might become “How can you write when you’re tired?” or “What’s the greatest obstacle between a writer and a nap?” or “Why is sleep so important to the creative process?” Once you have a question, and one that is built on a topic that’s currently bugging you, you have something to write about. And turning it into a question that you can either analyze or give advice about lets you turn free writing about your problems into a positive exercise. Too often free writing about problems can turn into negative thoughts and self-immolation, but turning it into a question to be answered lets you think about the same topic in a completely different way and hopefully can inspire you to help yourself!

Writing to a Deadline

If you’re writing for a deadline and you must work on a specific piece, the real problem is that you have to find inspiration in a specific work, so jumping to other pieces isn’t always an option.

But it’s still where I would start.

When feeling totally uninspired on one story, I start by writing on something else. If you have another project in progress, spending some time on that might reinvigorate your motivation for the deadline project. If no other project is available, you can take any of the suggestions above and apply them here—prompts, free writing with a question, etc.

No matter what you’re writing, set a timer to limit how much time you spend working on other activities or projects. I recommend 10–15 minutes for warm-up writing before trying to get back to the project you’re supposed to be working on.

Or, instead of writing something different, you can use prompts that allow you to work with the same characters or the same world, essentially approaching your deadline project from the side instead of head-on. Try posing what-if situations for your characters, alternate scenes/endings, or writing something from the perspective of someone else in your world.

You can use a similar strategy as the suggested free writing activity by answering a question related to the thing you’re stuck on—”How can my character get out of this situation?” or “Who should my character partner with for this mission?” or “How does the world’s society/laws limit my character?” Using the free writing format as an opportunity to organize your thoughts can help you work through the problem in a different way than just thinking about it. (This is why so often solutions might come when we’re talking to someone else, rather than when we’re just thinking to ourselves. Different ways of communication allow us to organize our thoughts differently, so if you don’t have a friend on hand, have a conversation with a blank page!)

If you absolutely must be working on your deadline-driven project and don’t have time for warm-up activities, try reading the last 1-2 pages you’ve written and allow yourself to revise and edit them. One of the best ways for me to get back into a story is by working to flesh out the last thing I wrote. If the last thing I wrote is literally what stumped me—and I had difficulty figuring out where the story goes next—I rewrite from where the story started to derail. Sometimes I might keep all the action and description, but change the dialogue. Sometimes I might move the setting. Sometimes I might scrap the entire idea, or even shift who is in the scene and take the whole thing in a completely different direction! It may not feel like you’re getting anywhere (especially if you end up trashing that version and starting again), but what you’re doing is eliminating the ideas that aren’t working and helping find the idea that does work.

 

No matter what’s going on with you creatively, there are ways to dig deep on those days when you’re feeling drained. And the more often you practice digging deep, the easier it can get. I still sometimes hit days when I’m totally worn out and need a break, and on those days I write my minimum word count using one of the strategies above and call it a day. But because I’ve put in so much effort, it’s easy for me to use one of those strategies and see success. So even if it’s hard now, know that putting in the hard work will help train you as a writer and eventually you’ll be able to sail past those inspiration-less days with no trouble.

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(Not) Writing With Depression

Today I’m a daily writer. Even on sick days or very busy days I make sure to write at least 150 words. This is my third year of this schedule and it’s still working for me. There are days when it’s tough, and days when I write my 150 words and then erase them. There are days when I write in 10-minute bursts throughout the day or have to force myself to sit down and spend time writing something. But every day I write is a day when I don’t forget how to write.

That wasn’t the case for me in 2012.

In September of 2012 I started treatment for situational depression. Over the previous year I had lost the ability to feel emotions, to care for myself, and to pay attention to conversations, but the loss that hurt the most was related to writing.

I tried many times during 2012 and 2013 to sit down and write. Every time was an exercise in self-hate and improving my ability to berate myself. I went from writing 150,000 words in 2011 to 60,000 words in 2012 to 15,000 words in 2013. It was a clear—trackable—symptom of my depression, and one of the most frustrating ones.

Before I was depressed, writing was easy and I took it for granted. I would listen to a song, read an article, have a silly conversation with a friend, and—BAM—there I went, fingers flying across the keyboard, 2,000 words plopped out in an hour or so. There were days when I would write 5,000 or 6,000 words. Words were easy and plentiful. I didn’t understand how someone could be completely blocked. Writer’s block was an easy obstacle for me to overcome. If one idea was giving me trouble, I’d jump to another. Being unable to write? When I wanted to? Not me.

While I was depressed, even if I decided to come to the writing watering hole, I could not get my horse to drink. The times I tried to write, I would sit and stare at a blank page. I might ask a friend for a prompt, mull it over, struggle over 200 words, and then delete all of them. Between January 2013 and October 2013 I wrote on a total of 9 days. In November and December, after I’d decided to apply to an MFA program and was starting to feel better, I kicked into “high-gear” and wrote 10 days out of those two months. I wrote 19 days total in 2013 and now in 2018 I’m currently on a run of having written 942 consecutive days. That’s—obviously—a huge change.

Writing was not something that automatically came back after I started feeling better. I struggled in 2014, even after I started UCF’s MFA program. (Let me tell you, starting a writing intensive program while you’re still recovering from depression? Not recommended.) This time when I forced myself to write, I had a different attitude about it. I shut down the negative thinking and pushed forward, continuing to plunk down words. It wasn’t the best writing—oh boy, adverbs ahoy and the longest dialogue tags you ever did see—but it was writing. And it got easier the more I pushed myself to practice and the more I forced myself to keep what I wrote.

Part of the reason I applied for the MFA program was because I knew it would provide structure that would force me to write. With grades as a motivator, I knew I could propel myself to get past the hump and write something because I couldn’t turn in a blank page. I feared all my writing might be crap. I feared the depression might have stripped away whatever talent I may have started with. I feared I was forever changed. But I knew that an MFA program was going to force me to confront those things and either figure out how to write again or discover I was done.

In the Spring semester, the start of 2015, I felt something come alive again. I revisited some crazy prompts I’d seen in the last year. I wrote about sentient robots in an alternate history World War II and about a house that possesses a girl. I wrote short assignments that explored my divorce and reconnected with characters created pre-depression. I started working on my novel in earnest. By the end of 2015, I had written 83,000 words and I was invested in my stories again.

Do I still love what I wrote then? Not really. But it gave me a foundation for stories and, most importantly, for my confidence. In 2016 when I realized I had written every day the first week of the year, it was an easy decision to continue writing every day until the end of the month, and then the next month, and the next. I made daily writing part of my routine, and that routine has helped me get through grief-related depression and anxiety. Since 2016 I’ve written over a half million words. I’ve come a long way.

In my experience, there was no writing with depression, not really. There was writing while fighting to not be depressed. There was writing for recovery, writing to unload negative feelings and trying to find something positive. There was struggling to write and hating myself and trying not to hate myself. There were moments when I was me again and when I could find joy and when it felt like I might be out of the woods. There was writing after depression.

Writing after depression hasn’t been all happily ever after. There are still days when writing is a struggle, when depression rears its ugly head, when life doles out extra helpings of anxiety and grief. On those days I set a timer for 10 minutes and I peck out 100 words. Then I set another timer and peck out 100 more. I check in with myself and ask, “Are you done? Do you have anything else in you?” Most days I do. Most days I can hit 500 words, but some days I can’t and I have learned to say, “That’s okay. This is enough.”

I Don’t Feel Like It

Even in the middle of a multi-year streak of writing daily, I sometimes hit walls. The walls aren’t as thick as they used to be, and frequently they’ll appear after I’ve written 100 words (so technically I’ve already written for the day), but there they are, blocking my progress. Sometimes those walls come in the form of being unable to fill in a plot hole, or in difficulty articulating a thought, but often all of those walls manifest in the feeling of not feeling like writing. It’s the ultimate avoidance tactic! I don’t have to deal with my writing problem if I just don’t write.

So, how do you deal with not feeling like writing but needing to write?


Write Something Different

I frequently circumvent this wall by stepping away from what I was planning to write and working on something else. That’s how I started this blog post. I had been struggling to draft a chapter (not “feeling” like working on that novel), so I opened up a new document and asked a question: Do you ever not feel like writing? Suddenly I was on my way writing again.

Switching focus can unclog my brain and give myself the mental boost of having written. Generally if I’ve put some easy words into something else, I’ll be past the hurdle of feeling like I wasn’t performing, and then have the confidence to tackle the task that blocked me. (I may not have resolved the block, but I can start working on the problem again.)


Make Some Tea

Getting up and doing something with a time limit can sometimes unblock my brain. Making a cup of tea takes me seven minutes, which means I can devote seven minutes to thinking about what was blocking me, why it was blocking me, and how I can get around that block. Seven minutes isn’t long, but often by the time I have a cup of hot tea, I have a solution for how I can keep writing. (Even if that solution is figuring out a different, unblocked part of the story I can write.)


Give Up

This may sound counter-intuitive as a strategy to start writing again, but sometimes the only solution is to stop fighting. I have many times gotten so frustrated that I marched away from the keyboard, only to suddenly be slapped with the solution. Walking away was key to my discovery. It wasn’t until I had become so frustrated that I was ready to give up that my brain presented the answer so plainly. Sometimes walking away from your writing is a good thing!

 

Feeling like you don’t want to write doesn’t have to stop you from writing. Lean into the feeling a bit, give yourself a break, and once you come back to it, you just may feel like writing again.