Writing and Life: What to do when you just can’t

When my youngest child of four started school in September I thought that I would blog about that. After all this blog is called Head above Water, it’s about the years of juggling life and writing when the kids were very small. After almost twelve years, with all the children now in school I’ve entered a new era and perhaps I will blog about that in the future.

Blocked

But for a number of reasons (lack of a clear holiday downtime during the summer, the effort that goes along with getting the children settled back into their routine and other things) rather than having a new lease of life I’ve felt worn down and came to the point where I was unable to blog, to write very much, tweet, market my self-published books or any of the the things that I’d previously thought important both because I enjoyed them and because I was building a career.

I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Not the kind where you stare out the window and wait for the muse to come and can’t think of anything. I’ve used writing prompts to help me get started, walking always makes new ideas come, focused effort has worked for me: I’ve completed NaNoWriMo (the 50,000 words in a month challenge) three times.

But the air sometimes gets thin when you’re running and running and don’t take the time to figure out why or where. We talk about fitting writing into our busy lives, eking out the hours around our work but we talk less about doing nothing, about enjoying ourselves, having fun, exploring the passions and interests we have for their own sake.

Vapour

There’s a lot of talk now about marketing, building platforms, social networking, raising your profile, unlocking Amazon’s algorithms to gain visibility. But again, these activities can become vapourous when we are doing them just for the sake of keeping up, because it’s the done thing, because everyone else is running faster and faster now and we have to keep up.

Too much in the head

We know too much. We are aware of almost every tragedy and every success. We try to assimilate, to compare, to see where the world fits in relation to us and where we fit in relation to it. As writers we hear of the publishing deals, the advances, the runaway self-published successes, the wonderful word counts and so on. We are happy for others but anxious for ourselves, wondering if we’re doing things right. And publishing is changing so much, from week to week both on the traditional and self-publishing fronts that authors don’t always know if they are doing the right thing, making the right choices.

So what can we do if we have lost our way with writing and with fitting writing into a life that is rich and varied outside of our daily wordcount

What to do if you have lost your way

Don’t

Stop writing, have some time off altogether, rest, don’t even think. Just stop.
Some people say we should write everyday to keep the writing muscle going, to keep in the story. Yes, yes if you are enjoying it. Yes if you love writing your book. But if you have lost your way in general or in the project you are working on, just stop.

Read.

But only if you can stand it. Sometimes being a writer can ruin reading. But if you can find books that carry you away, that make you feel like you did when you had no authorly ambition and you were just reading because you loved it.

Refill the well

Do the things you would do if you weren’t trying to be a writer. Watch the telly, play table tennis, tie conkers with string and smash them against each other with a friend, waste time, go out, chat, dig a hole in the garden, paint a picture, watch football, go to the library for non-research purposes. These are ways of being a writer when you’re not writing but do things to that have absolutely nothing to do with being a writer at all. Why do I even have to say that? Sometimes we develop tunnel vision.

Read Karen Rivers’ blog

Karen Rivers’ blog is about the experience of living. She shines a light on how we are in the world and the odd things we do and how we get through things. She makes us stop in the middle of a tornado and find quiet in the eye of the storm.

Remember it’s okay to take time out for yourself

This post from Barbara Scully is very apt for me as a mother in the home, life is very full on from 1.30 onwards to late at night, there is little time to recuperate. This applies to everyone, male or female, particularly those who spend much of their day tending to or sorting out the needs of others. How can you write and know what you want to write and why when you are still in the headset/mindset of a clamour of voices other than your own.

Listen to all the rubbish you are telling yourself and talk yourself out of it

When there is too much noise, when we know too much, when we compare ourselves, when we are giving to other people without taking time to reestablish our equilibrium we are wearing ourselves out with everything that is in our heads. Chris Brogan gives an example of how we can listen to what we our inner critic is telling us and how it is making us feel. We can learn to talk back and stop confusing ourselves and losing the focus of what we really want to do, not just think we should.

I’ll write a related post about how we need to stay in love with our novels or learn to love them when the spark goes out but if it’s gone further than that and you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything you are trying to achieve then I hope this post shows you are not alone and that there are things you can try to help.

Related posts: 5 New year resolutions for writing parents

To the social media anxious: It’s okay

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25 comments

  1. Great insightful post. I really hear you. This is exactly where I am with mother-load, information swamping and a throttled desire to continue writing. It’s hard work!

    1. Yes, throttled is a good word. It’s true that generally we need to try to create spaces for ourselves to write those few words to make us feel we’re moving forward and achieving but there may be times when life is too full on and we can’t simply move from the clamour to the heart of our novels.

  2. Nice, down-to-earth advice. I have a set time each day for social media socializing, then I have to cut myself off. Otherwise, it sucks you in like a vortex of distraction, smothering that precious writing time. And, reading books. I went through a few months when I couldn’t–I was analyzing sentence structure, word choices, you name it–but somehow turned a corner. Suddenly, I’m enjoying them again…thank goodness!

    1. Hi Britt, yes that’s what I’m getting at…if we aren’t enjoying the things we should be enjoying because we’ve got ourselves on this treadmill of trying for writing success then there is something wrong. I’ve just read a few books in a row and really enjoyed them. But sometimes I feel that I can’t read a book because I’ll be annoyed at how good it is and won’t be able to enjoy it for it’s own sake. It just doesn’t seem right.

  3. Thanks so much for saying that Darlene. I think feeling this way is a more common phenomenon than people are willing to say. We try to appear successful and with it all the time.

  4. This was really, really good to read. I’ve been feeling this way for a while now. It’s been ages since I wrote anything half substantial and I’ve just been overloaded. Also feeling guilty because surely if you’re a writer you want to do that more than anything and you WILL write no matter what so obviously if I don’t feel like that all the time I must be a fraud. It’s lovely to hear someone as talented as you feeling the same way.

    1. Hi Becca, yes I remember visiting your blog when you were saying something similar. We’ve all subscribed to this culture of dedication, of being able to succeed if we just keep at it, keep trying but we are losing the balance and losing the joy. Only today I read an interview with Sebastian Faulks who is going to have a break from writing from now till January. Constant immersion in writing alone isn’t enough, we have to live and enjoy both for it’s own sake and also to inject life and reality into our books. Instead of doing, doing, doing, perhaps occasionally through life, especially at points when there has been a big change, event, transition, we need to take a chunk of time to assimilate and reassess.

  5. Excellent post, Alison – and it will probably resonate with most, if not all, of your blog readers and visitors. It certainly does with me! 🙂

    I’d also like to throw in a comment about living with sub-par health, and still trying to ‘do it all’. It’s been a hard lesson for me, learning that some weeks I just won’t write at all, because my body and mind need extra rest or a change of focus.The list of marketing and networking tasks will wait. My readers won’t forget me just because I blog a little less often. And the writing? That’ll always be there, waiting patiently, for when I feel better.

    It’s a fine balancing act, is life. 🙂

    1. Hello Joanna, thanks so much for sharing your experience. You’ve made such a good point. Why do we think we can keep going at the same level no matter what? Sometimes we keep on going through the most trying of circumstances as if they aren’t affecting us, we get to a point where we no longer even know we are tired or in need of refocus. I think there is a pressure on men never to admit that they can’t do it all, women often put the pressure on themselves and try to keep the world intact by keeping up with everything and never dropping one of the balls we are juggling. I really appreciate you explaining to us how you’ve learned to tell yourself to stop and take your time.

  6. Wise words, Alison. It rings very true for me. I also enjoyed the links to the other blogs you mentioned. Downtime is essential as is giving yourself permission to be idle.

  7. What a great post Alison, thanks! Like many others, I find myself in need of this kind of message right now. It is such a fallacy that when all children are in school it’s suddenly easy to find time to write. My sons are 10 and 14 and I am (happy to be) still very busy supporting them in all they do. Maybe I’ll have a little more headspace when the youngest goes to secondary next year, maybe not. Dealing with teenagers can be very emotionally draining! I’ ve had 3 months away from my 2nd manuscript over the summer and have been struggling to get back into it for several reasons, not least having the submission process for the first one ongoing. It’s hard to carry two books in your head at once, let alone keeping the faith that you can write whilst getting rejections. So thank you for giving us permission to stop beating ourselves up quite so much!

    1. Yes, I know what you mean. It’s the emotional exertion to of making sure our kids are okay in the world, and the teenage stage is by all accounts as taxing as any other in that respect. I understand as well about having several projects. I’m guilty of having several projects on the go at one time, resulting in further feeling of confusion and an inability to focus and really get into one at a time, giving it my all. I want to be further ahead than I am. Not sure about the headspace for you when your second boy goes to secondary. My eldest will start next year too and he finds transitions difficult so I know it will be more of a challenge to guide him through his new experience. I’ve heard friends say that they worry even more about their teenagers. What this post is really about is how all the worry, anxiety and confusion we generate by trying to do everything results in us being less than effective and makes us feel we’re not doing anything right. Social media etc (or how we see it) can make us feel we are failing if we are not keeping up, so yes, it is so important to acknowledge that circumstances do not always allow us to be able to do it all.

  8. Hiya, good post — I took time out over the summer to spend with family and have still not got back into the fray, for similar reasons no doubt — I’m tired. Just plain tired, because raising a family is very tiring, sometimes. However, as of yesterday, I’ve just signed up to do NaNoWriMo again. I read Mr Uku’s blog last night at 8:30pm and decided to join in, but this time it’s not a commercial/literary novel; instead I’m writing a fun thing for my kids, just to get back into the swing of it. Something for them to have at Christmas, to keep, ‘from Mum’. I’m hoping it will be a bit of fun they can share (and may result in a publication of some description) but if not, at least I’ll have written something fun for the family.

  9. Thank you so much. This is exactly what I needed to read right now – heading into another year now determined to cut myself some slack and try to hear myself think again. So lovely to read this now, and all the comments, and know I’m not the only writing parent feeling squeezed. When the bells go tonight I’ll be raising my glass to doing less and enjoying it more!

    1. Hi Vicki, Yes sometimes we try too hard and suck the life and good out of things we should enjoy. There’s a kind of anxiety built in to modern society. I hope you get more satisfaction out of things in 2013.

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