When the Thrill is Gone

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats Writer's Block II by Drew Coffmanupon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”Ray Bradbury

In recent weeks, I have had conversations with a genuinely startling number of writers who confess that they have lost their hunger to write. One says he is weary of the struggle to publish; another says she’s lost her motivation; another just shrugs. “It’s hard.”

Some wonder if they ever had any talent to begin with, or maybe they did and it has dried up like last year’s clover. Some have lost hope of ever landing that longed-for contract or agent to help with the overwhelming business of publishing. Others have dived into indie publishing with great hope only to discover it’s a lot of work for little return.

The thrill is gone. Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel, get a divorce from this ridiculous passion, call it quits on a marriage no one but you ever thought was going to amount to anything.

What help is there for the weary writer? What words of wisdom might help you hold on a little longer?

Here is the truth: it isn’t the writing.  Whatever else it might be, it isn’t the work. Over and over I have said to you that writing requires such a weird combination of gifts and faults that anyone who has written a novel hasn’t done it by accident. The work called you, made you insane for it, and you followed.  The world might not understand that, but I do. So does everyone else here. You might not be a brilliant writer, but you are a writer, and so you must write.

What is the problem then? What causes a writer to lose heart?            

Our society is always pushing harder, asking more and more and more of us. This can be especially true in a high pressure marketplace like commercial fiction.

But it’s no easy thing to come up with a whole new world, complete with communities, landscapes, clothing, foods, etc. when you can’t even keep your eyes open.  If you’re balancing a family, an outside job, a sick parent, and all those other things that make our lives rich and round, you might experience the life-weariness probably get tired sometimes.

Exhaustion also occurs from writing too much without enough time to refill the well. If you push the muses too hard, eventually they fall to their knees like a weary horse, and will not rise no matter what you don.

Too much of the same kind of work can also lead to exhaustion.  Maybe you have developed a long series and have written three or six or ten parts.  Maybe you write only long novels about space or terrorists and they’ve suddenly started to sound exactly the same.

Internal and External Pressure
Sometimes writers set themselves up for failure—if I cannot write x number of pages in x amount of time, if I can’t sell a book by x date, if I don’t make the New York Times or the top 100 on Amazon, I am a failure.  Professional jealousy and professional longing (that wish to have your books show well) both fall in this category.  I want….unfulfilled…followed by “I am a failure and must give up” is in this category. Anger, bitterness, despair—all of those emotions are part of the internal category. So is fear of any kind. Anything that rouses emotions about your gifts or abilities.

Sometimes, however, the pressure comes from without.  A publisher or agent wants a particular thing you can’t deliver, or a book that is expected to do well does not. Or a book has done well and the next one doesn’t.  Perhaps the readership you have established only wants a particular book from you and is not interested in the other thing you might write.

For aspiring writers, the expectations might come from a teacher or a critique group or even a writing organization. Maybe you started in the Romance Writers of America and now all of your writing friends are romance writers, but you’ve discovered you really want to write high fantasy. How can you be true to yourself and to your friends?

I bet you can find yourself in one or more of those scenarios. How, then, do you get your mojo back?

1. Be honest with yourself
Are you trying to write more than is comfortable? Are you sick of that series? Do you want to write something else, try a new genre, act out of character?  Are you trying to juggle too much in an already overcrowded life?

Come to terms with whatever your tee answers are. Most of the time, a good answer is to simplify—pull the weeds in your life and toss them in the compost heap. Whatever you discover, even if it is uncomfortable, will lead you to more joy in the work.

2. Fill the well
It is quite possible you are only very tired or have used up all the material your subconscious and heart have stored.  Go out and get some more. Wander motorcycle shops or craft stores; go to festivals around your town; go for a road trip (it doesn’t have to be long to be helpful).  Take some time to indulge your other hobbies, photography or bird watching or hiking, even if that means you are not writing for awhile.

3. Read
We all arrived at the longing to write by reading. Go back to the source and drink deeply. Become your twelve-year-old self gulping down everything you can get your hands on, discarding anything that isn’t interesting, anything that starts to bore you. Don’t read what you think you should or what your friend wrote or to catch up in your genre. Read whatever looks really great and then read something else that looks great, and so on and so on and so on. Often this single step will heal a broken writing heart all by itself.

4. Write in secret, only for yourself
If it is the business that’s broken you, on whatever level that might have happened, go back to writing for yourself.  Give yourself permission to write whatever is exciting and interesting. Write in secret—don’t tell your critique partners or your agent or anyone else who might want to give you an opinion. This is only for you.  (I have done this three times in my career and the resulting books have been some of my best.)  Write a whole book without showing it to anyone. Trust yourself to get it right all by yourself, or at least get it on the page by yourself.  You might be astonished at the result.  And if you are not, at least you have a whole book to work with and rewrite and revise.

5. Go mad with writing
Nearly everyone who has lost the thrill is in some way suffering the cruelty of a world that values something other than the zest of writing with a full heart.  I leave you with another quote, the closing bookend of a master:

If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: “It’s gonna go wrong.” Or “She’s going to hurt me.” Or,”I’ve had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore . . .” Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.” Ray Bradbury

Have you ever recovered from a broken writing heart? What did you do to get the magic back?  What tips have I missed? 


About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.