One of the mystery lists I belong to had a lively discussion about not writing; about how life sometimes brings writing to a screeching halt. At one time or another, I’ve stopped writing temporarily for all of the usual reasons: a move, an illness, a family crisis, too hard a day job, ran out of energy, had to make Christmas presents, computer was down, even because the sun was shining when it should be raining or vice versa.
Going from not writing back to writing is darn hard to do flat-footed. It’s like an athlete trying to clear the high jump from a standing still position. She needs to take a running leap at the high bar if she wants to get over it.
We need to build two kinds of ramps. The first is the small, I don’t feel like writing TODAY ramp. Some days are not good for writing. Some days we can talk ourselves into doing it anyway; some days we can’t.
Here’s how to build that small ramp.
It helps to pay attention to the days when we easily slide into and out of the writing.
- Did we get enough restful sleep last night?
- Have we exercised and/or meditated?
- Do we know what comes next in what we’re writing?
- Are we excited about what we’re writing?
- Are we writing to a deadline?
- Are we unusually free of responsibilities: the kids are at camp, we’ve just finished exams, or our partner is out-of-town?
If we’re fortunate, we will identify a pattern. Write down that pattern. Even a sticky note will do, but if we’re artistic, or know someone who is, send a postcard — or several postcards — to ourselves. “I write more easily when . . .” Put those cards in our work area.
If we don’t feel like writing today, try creating those conditions that seem to make it easier to write. Drink water. Meditate. Write lots of dialog. Maybe even take a nap. If nothing works, go do something else for today.
The second kind of ramp is the BIG, STEEP, we’ve been away from writing far too long incline.
Allow at least one day — three days are better if we can arrange it — between a major event and seriously getting back to writing.
Fly to a convention Friday afternoon. Work hard at the convention all week-end. Fly back late Sunday night. Be at our computer first thing Monday morning. I don’t think so. Aim for the computer on Wednesday morning.
But, I’m sooooooo far behind!
- We are likely not as far behind as we think.
- Staring unproductively at our computer on Monday morning isn’t likely to make us any less behind.
Athletes who come back from an injury don’t start with a full-workout their first week back. They build their strength gradually. Writers need to do the same thing. Set aside a writing time every day for a week. Day 1: 5 minutes; day 2: 7 minutes; day 3: 10 minutes, then increase by 5 minutes a day until, by day 7, we’re up to 30 minutes. The important thing is to convince ourself that this isn’t a “I’ll write if I get the chance or if I’m inspired” time. It’s a commitment to put everything else in the world aside for somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes.
Gather our favorite writing tools. Even treat ourself to a new tool, like a spiffy notebook or a wonderful gel pen. Turn off the phone and the TV, get a babysitter or send the kids to the library. Music is optional, depending on whether we work best with music or in silence, but stay away from commercial radio stations. Do not sort our buttons by size and color. Do not decide the walls need washing. Do not Google our five best friends from high school to see if we can find them. In short, stop the world and sit there, with our eyes closed, breathing rhythmically. Somewhere out there a writing fairy calls to us, but we must be very, very still in order to hear her or his voice.
When we feel like it, pick up our pen or pencil or rest our fingers on the key board. Write something, even if it, “I’m sitting here in the stillness and this is a really stupid idea and I should be picking up the dog at the vet. Is my five minutes up yet? I don’t want to do this any more.”
Write. One word. Another word. Another. Spelling, punctuation and grammar do not count. Plotting and character development and raising the stakes and goal, motivation, and conflict and all of those other things writers stew about do not count. All we’re doing is practicing words. We’re the high jumper taking a running jump at the bar.
Ever watch a high jumper practice? They don’t go over the bar every time. Many times they start the run and pull up short because the approach doesn’t feel right. They know they aren’t ready to jump yet, so they veer off, circle back and take another run at the thing.
It’s okay if we go through several days without writing a single word. By day seven, if we’re sitting in the stillness for 30 minutes without writing, we can be pretty sure that it’s not the right time in our life to put words on paper. If this happens, give ourself permission not to be a writer. At one time in my life, I thought I might be a bagpiper. As it turned out, I wasn’t. But I had a great time finding that out. I met some wonderful people and I learned to appreciate pipe music in all of its glory. The journey was the fun part, and that’s the way it should be with writing, too.