Monday, June 2, 2014

Surviving the Writing Life 5

What do you do when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you?

Sometimes writer’s block is really just a form of exhaustion. This is a hard business, and it can seem to take forever to get anywhere. There’s so much to learn, so many decisions to make, so much to keep track of, and of course far too much to do. And unfortunately, success doesn’t lighten the load. Whether you are not-yet-published, a debut novelist with 1001 “must do” publicity tasks, a midlist writer juggling work-for-hire jobs with your own fiction, or an award winner suddenly in so much demand that you don’t have time to write, the writing life can get overwhelming.

Sometimes we need to take a break from all the pressure and reconnect with the reasons we fell in love with writing in the first place. You may find it hard to give yourself permission to take a vacation, but research has shown that people get less effective if they work too hard for too long. In the 19th century, when companies gave in to union demands for a 40-hour workweek, productivity climbed despite the shorter hours. And office workers may have even fewer “good” hours than manual laborers, on average about six per day.

In the short term, working long hours can help you achieve goals, but an extra 50% of work time may only produce 25% more work. Fatigue sets in and productivity drops. Even more important, after eight 60-hour weeks, productivity has dropped so low that most groups would be better off if they’d stuck with a 40-hour workweek the whole time.

Fortunately, for many people writing feels like a break from their full-time job, so it’s more like a hobby than extra work. And in some cases, that loopy state of exhaustion may free up creativity. This can be helpful for rough drafts or brainstorming sessions. I’ve gotten some of my most creative ideas during 2 AM bouts of insomnia. Still, if you are feeling burned out, consider whether it’s time to take a break, rework your schedule, or try something new.

Here are some more specific tips:

– Get enough sleep. I know, it’s often harder than it sounds, but studies have shown that losing an hour of sleep each night for a week causes cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood-alcohol level. People in that state typically don’t recognize that they are impaired, so people who can survive on six hours sleep a night may not thrive on it.

“Get enough sleep” may go against advice you’ll find elsewhere, such as get up early or stay up late to write. Individuals must find their own balance. If you can’t eliminate some other task from your life to free up time, you may need to snatch a few minutes here and there to write, or block out time on weekends and vacations. (See part 4, “How Do You Find Time to Write?”)

– Write something just for fun with no worries about marketability. Play! This can help you remember why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. Even better, it takes off the pressure, which may help counteract perfectionist tendencies or fear of failure.

– Take yourself on regular “artist dates” – trips to museums, zoo, or art galleries, walks in the park, thrift store shopping. Plan a goofy craft party with friends or your family. Read great books just for enjoyment. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls this filling the well. If you don’t take enough in, you won’t have anything to give out through your writing.

– Take a writing class that may get you fired up again. For the time being, don’t worry about what you “should” learn next (say, how to find an agent.) Instead, try something that sounds like fun (poetry, memoir, paranormal fiction?), even if you’re sure you’ll never try to publish in that area. Many classes are offered online. You can also check your local community college or community center, combining learning with socialization. Even reading books or magazines on writing could help you feel inspired.

An action fantasy inspired by 
the Arabian Nights, prepared for 
publication while juggling other projects.

– Take a class in something completely different, just to stretch your mind. Art classes are good for exploring creativity, while a course in history or politics may give you topic ideas. Studying a foreign language or music might tap into different parts of the brain.

– Brainstorm new ideas. After a strenuous year where I wrote a novel, several nonfiction books, and multiple articles, plus edited an older manuscript and took two books through the self-publishing process, I found myself not wanting to start a new fiction project. I stopped worrying about the book I was “supposed” to do next and reread some of my favorite innovative novels by other authors. I came up with a completely new idea – yet one that drew on many of my interests – and I started to feel hopeful about fiction again.

Need help with your craft?
Check out Advanced Plotting.
– Keep perspective. I remind students who want to be professional writers that they are trying to switch careers, which normally would mean going back to college for four or more years, and then maybe doing an internship or starting at the bottom and working their way up. So why do people think their first manuscript should be a bestseller? It's not like writing is easy!

It would be nice if we didn’t have to think about projects as study and homework. However, I know lots of my “dead files” are not worthy of publication. They were part of learning the craft and finding my voice. Realistically, it can take years to find success. Just because you’re not there yet doesn’t mean you can’t get there.

Most importantly, remember that you deserve a break sometimes, and your writing may be better for it.

How do you balance writing with the rest of your life? Have you taken a vacation from writing? Did it help or hurt your progress in the long run?

This post was originally published on the Project Mayhem blog. 

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

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