“Just sit down and write.”
It’s the simplest of advice. It’s pragmatic, to the point, and in most cases, all many writers need to hear if they’ve lost focus or are just having a bad writing day. But much like Nike’s “Just do it” campaign, the most obvious solution is not always the simplest. Sometimes it’s not about just sitting down. Sometimes our inability to “just write” comes from too many or too intense interruptions, worries, fears, and even distractions.
Much like writer’s block (or the notion of it), temporarily losing our will to write is usually something that happens in our own brains. Maybe we’ve given ourselves permission to slack off or not fully commit to our book, or we tell ourselves a story of hardship that we feel justifies our disinclination to sit our butts down and hammer out a new chapter or four. “That’s just an excuse” is something I grew up hearing from my parents, challenging me to decide whether my reluctance to do something was genuinely justifiable.
In adulthood, I see this every day when someone faces fear, real or imagined.
But what happens when you are facing genuinely trying circumstances? How are you supposed to write even when you’re walking through various versions of hell? Heartbreak, divorce, grief, illness, care-taking for children or ill/elderly parents, worrisome current events, or even (because at the time I’m writing this, it is relevant) a worldwide pandemic. The world feels like it’s collapsing around you, and there’s nowhere you can escape the rubble or noise of reality. You’ve had a cry (or eighty), mashed chocolate cake into your mouth, likely screamed at someone or something who didn’t deserve it, curled up in a ball under your blankets, and even taken a few personal days. Maybe you’ve taken a week or two off work, or longer.
But major crises rarely work themselves out over the course of a weekend, or even months.
Eventually, we have to get back to work.
There are huge benefits to being a writer during tense or disastrous times. The very nature of our work allows us to dive into another place in our brains; to wander along dark, shadowy hallways; to occasionally open a particularly inviting—or forbidding—door. Sometimes, we find ourselves facing our worst fears. At other times, we recognize the warring forces of defeat and triumph that are happening deep within our own psyches. When we succeed, we get lost for hours and sometimes even days into another life and existence where we have the ability to change and shape the events around us … even when real life is much less compliant.
So here’s the deal. For whatever reason, your life is a hot, trashy mess. But you need to write. So how do you go from “Leave me alone while I face-dive into a bucket of wine” to being blissfully lost in writing?
Well, it starts with these tricks:
1. Lower your expectations.
Unusual times require unusual responses. Expecting yourself to be 100 percent on your game when you are exhausted, upset, and stressed out isn’t just unrealistic—it’s also unreasonable. Sure, we all know someone who rallied during the Covid-19 pandemic and was baking fresh bread, teaching their seventeen kids, planting a sustainable vegetable garden, keeping house, writing their book, submitting their taxes early, and still managed stylish, sexy selfies of their best bloody life every day.
Remind yourself that people tell lies on social media, and then go ahead and wrap yourself head to toe in flannel, dipping stale cookies in lukewarm (and possibly Irish) coffee and listening to slow jams from the ’90s. Whatever it takes. You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to plot out a violent death scene involving said perfect individual and freshly baked loaves of homicidal bread.
2. Ask yourself why you don’t want to write.
“I just don’t want to write” is an honest response when we’re struggling. It’s also pretty vague. Have a loving, non-judgy conversation with yourself about what’s stopping you from writing. Is it because you’re tired? Does your current project require more emotional investment than you’re capable of having? Maybe you just don’t want to work on the Big Project right now. And that’s OK.
Consider tackling a smaller project, such as a short story, an essay, or even a poem. Maybe switch gears altogether and write something for someone who isn’t your audience, or has the least amount in common with the situation you’re facing.
3. Hide all your distractions.
When we want reasons to avoid our work, everything is a beautiful distraction. Leave your phone in another room or even turn it off completely. Think about closing your browser windows, unplugging your internet, and anything else that might discourage you from checking social media, the news, and even messages from friends. No TV or video games. Have chores you could be doing instead? Set a time to do them later. If you can, isolate yourself in a quiet part of your home—and ideally, a place where you can close the door.
4. Make your workspace inviting.
It’s a dirty trick, but sometimes changing up your work area can feel like it’s freshened up the whole space and made room for new ideas. This doesn’t need to be expensive. Start by rearranging your work environment so that you’re not feeling crammed in. Pick up a cute vintage lamp, buy a plant, and most of all, clear your desk of as much clutter as possible. Find some art or photos that inspire you. Set up a bookshelf of your favorite authors nearby. Have a little extra cash? Treat yourself to a new desk or chair.
A lot of people make the mistake of trying to shove a desk into a dark basement. Don’t do it. Make your writing space a priority in your home, whether you rent a tidy studio or own a multistoried house. If it’s warm outside, pick up an umbrella and some comfy outdoor furniture and work alfresco. The idea is to want to be in your office. And if you have to bribe yourself a little bit … well, drastic measures, right?
5. Manage your emotional distress as best as you can.
Depending on your circumstances, you may likely be balancing a heavy load. If you also struggle with managing your mental health and/or are neurodivergent, you’ll need to be even more vigilant about protecting your brain space. Some tips:
- don’t beat yourself up for not being as productive as you’d like
- avoid comparing yourself and your situation to others, especially if it increases your stress
- take social media breaks (for days or weeks at a time, if need be)
- stay active
- go for a walk if you feel antsy or restless
- make sure you have mental health support from a licensed therapist
- explore calming practices such as meditation, yoga, etc.
6. Set deadlines for yourself.
If you have any tendency towards procrastination, it’s worth trying to set firm deadlines with yourself to complete tasks. An accountability buddy can help, as can setting lovely rewards for achieved milestones, or—depending on what you respond best to—consequences for failing to meet any deadlines. Nothing gives a reluctant writer a kick in the bum quite like a deadline.
And if you work with an editor or agent, encourage them early on to move your deadline up without telling you the real date. This way you can ensure that your work is done on time, and if you need an extra emergency day or two, there is a buffer already built in.
7. Remember that a thousand pages begins with one sentence.
One of the fastest ways to talk yourself out of doing anything is to step back and constantly agonize over everything that still needs to be done—whether that’s writing a book or tackling that closet in your home with the eternally closed door because it keeps the chaos in.
Start with tiny steps. Don’t pick up where you left off if that isn’t working for you. Instead, write an entirely new scene that maybe you haven’t even plotted out yet. Whether it’s injecting some humor, a flight of whimsy, or even a peaceful interlude into your story, just go with it. You don’t need to keep it, nor do you need to cast it aside. Just consider it. Keep in mind that if you choose to draw upon your current situation—and all it’s conflicting emotions—you will find raw, honest work … even if your emotions run over.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.