A Cruise Through the Emotional Valleys and Peaks of Writing

Writing is hard work, but there’s lots to be said for what it offers: flexible hours, creative freedom, a vehicle for expression and communication. A book marks our spot in the world, reflecting our passage long after we’re gone, and even if only one person reads it, the act of leaving a tangible part of our creative spirit behind provides a hazy promise of immortality.

Whatever our reasons for spending hours alone each day stringing words together, once we’re done, we face the daunting prospect of getting our work out into the world. The process seems endless. We find beta readers, engage editors, rewriterewriterewrite, navigate the marketing options and stagger under the weight of all the hats we have to wear and roles we must play.

It’s fair to say therefore that writing doesn’t only require physical commitment and focus, it also challenges us emotionally. We’re happiest when ideas flow and words spill; when our minds teem with creative energy and time slips away unnoticed as we immerse ourselves in what we love most; when we tap into a rush of productivity that seems to come from recesses deeper than those we’re consciously aware of.

Those days are blissful, but they aren’t always the norm. There are other days when we find ourselves besieged by struggle and even depression, convinced of our ineptitude and unable to write. Maybe the stuff of our lives gets in the way of our work, and stress or anxiety makes it hard to get out of bed, let alone sit at a desk. On days when we’re in a slump, writing can feel like a grinding slog.

We might think of these uneasy times as hitting a wall, or label the impasse as writer’s block, but whatever the enemy, it helps to recognize and understand what’s slowing us down.

  • Lack of motivation. Writing’s solitary nature necessitates hours spent immersed in our heads. Given the brain’s complexity, dozens of distracting thoughts roam around in that limitless space without an anchor. We have trouble focusing. The road ahead looks long and intimidating, and it’s hard to make sense of why we’d want to put ourselves through the ordeal. Heather offers some great ways to practically alleviate this lack in her post How to Stay Motivated Without Deadlines or Money. On an emotional level this is one time when the panoramic view needs to be broken up into small, manageable close-ups. Rather than focusing on getting through the novel, or the year, or even the month, tackle the paragraph and the next few minutes. Become short-sighted, diminish giant-sized ambitions and expectations, and if you can’t congratulate yourself after every page, do it after a sentence. It won’t take long before you’ll only have to cheerlead yourself after a paragraph, then a page, then a chapter.
  • Lack of inspiration. Some days are dull. Ideas fall flat and everything feels stale. This is when it pays to remember that writing can transform the seriously mundane into the magical. Go back to basics. Take a banana, peel it, and put it on a plate beside its skin. Write what you see, without trying to turn it into a unicorn or a weapon. If what I’m telling you makes no sense, take a look at Van Gogh’s Still Life Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, and begin to wrestle with the words that will do to your banana what Vincent did to plants.
  • Lack of confidence. This is a biggie. It’s either in short- or over-supply. As writers, we thrive on and recoil from criticism. Criticism can provide the impetus for growth and improvement, but it can also debilitate. And inevitably, we are our own worst and best critics. Try to avoid judgment when you write. There’ll be plenty of time for it later. When the words are just beginning to take shape, let them breathe and roam, and try to refrain from evaluating them. Don’t watch yourself too closely. Don’t shoot for perfection. Make mistakes. Try to have fun. Forget yourself–sometimes the best we can do is get out of our own way.

The author’s path, long and uncertain, is the same as that of history’s explorers and inventors who, driven by curiosity, plunged into the unknown. Our lives today are complex and demanding, infiltrated by and at the mercy of multiple stimuli and imperatives. Tossed about on choppy waves of how to think and how to feel, what to say, how much to earn, what to do and how to behave, overload can seem inevitable. The best rule to fall back on when things get tough, is to always, always be kind to ourselves. There’s creative energy in tenderness, and the refusal to succumb to castigating or judging ourselves harshly can transform a perilous journey into a voyage of discovery.


Next up from Jenn…Something to mull over during the holidays.


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