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How to Write When Life Sucks

Photo by Sam D.
Photo by Sam D.

“Writers write.”  It’s the action that defines us.

What do you do, then, when you feel like you can’t write?

Maybe something horrible has happened: illness (your own, or someone you care about), financial issues, break-ups. Any number of physical and emotional stressors.

Or it could be the result of a gradual build up.  You’ve tried being too strong, for too long, and now the gradual accumulation of life’s indignities has made you brittle as sugar glass.

Looking at the world around you, you feel hopeless.  Looking at the page, you feel panic.

Whether it’s topical or gradual, sometimes life feels overwhelming and terrifying.

For some, that is exactly when they bow their heads down and bull through, taking solace in their fictional worlds, living someone else’s life as they compose it on the page.  They replenish through the writing itself.

Alas, I am not one of these people.

If you’re not either, then here are some tips and tricks that can help you write when, for whatever reason, life sucks and you’re having a tough time of it.

First question:  do you really have to write?

If you find that you don’t have the reserves to write, think about taking a hiatus.  It doesn’t make you less of a writer.  It means you’re making your mental health a priority.

If you’re worried that by “taking a break” you might chuck it all and never write again, or it “will be years” before you go back to your project, or you’ll lose your inspiration, address your fears logically and compassionately.

For example, get a support group to give you accountability. Tell them that you’re taking a break until a certain date (not indefinitely!) and then have them check back with you on that date to see how you’re feeling.

Taking a break does not mean simply abandoning writing and otherwise making no change in your life. It means consciously choosing self-care, to replenish until you’re ready to write again.

Self-care: what it is, what it isn’t.

People tend to think of “self-care” in one of two ways: boring, vaguely unpleasant pursuits (i.e., kale and jogging) or utterly hedonistic delights (i.e., full bag of candy while binge watching Netflix for seven days straight.)

The former approach is daunting when you’re already burned out.  If you can barely keep it together, suddenly going on an exercise and “healthy eating” kick – especially one that demands extra time, money, and energy expenditure – isn’t going to happen. Worse, it tends to make you feel guilty, since not only are you feeling like crap, you don’t even have the wherewithal to stop feeling like crap.  Which compounds the problem.

The latter approach is temporarily helpful, since it can give you a quick hit of euphoria. However, like a sugar rush, the boost is short-lived and is usually followed by a crash. The last thing you need is to dip lower in your reserves than you already are.

How to strike a balance and get results.

As with so many other writing-related things, the key here is to study yourself: your process, your boosts, your triggers.  You’re not going to cure all your stressors at once.  What you want is to halt the downward spiral, and slowly build your reserves.

Here are some quick ways to stop the spin.

  1. Get grounded. If you’re in emotional distress, the biggest sources of pain tend to rooted in things you can’t control, things that either happened in the past or might happen in the future.  The quickest way to get out of that pain is to focus on the present.  A friend of mine used to yank me back with the question: “Where are your feet?” It was her way of saying, look at where you are in this moment.  Don’t live in the potential pain of future disasters or the past pains of previous grievances. Don’t focus on big problems that you literally cannot do anything about in this specific moment.One of the easiest way to get grounded:    meditate.  Never done it before?  Focus on your breathing.  Or look up a meditation app, or a five or ten minute video on “meditation for stress relief” on Youtube.   Remember: we’re not talking go on a silent meditation retreat for a week.  Ten minutes a day. Five if that seems like too much.  One minute if you’re in the middle of a panic episode and you don’t think you can last five.  Start slow, and work your way up.
  2. Look at what truly relaxes you. There’s usually a point where something goes from helpful to harmful.  A glass of wine mellows you – a bottle knocks you out.  What you want to do is find pursuits that replenish you, rather than temporarily numbing you out.  You’ll know when you feel somewhat refreshed afterward, as opposed to sandy-eyed, tense-shouldered, and still stressed.  That said – do things that you feel are indulgent, if they make you feel good.  Moderation, again (I’m sure a trip to Paris would probably do wonders for my psyche if not my credit card bills), but lavishing attention on yourself with small indulgences is probably just what you need.  A really good chocolate.  A book you’ve been meaning to read (or re-read.)  Bubble bath.  Just one great steak.  A movie you’ve been dying to see.  Give yourself a pick me up.  And constantly check that your choices are truly helping you feel better.
  3. The trinity of self-care: water, light exercise, and sleep. These basic steps can make a huge difference in helping you keep the “suckitude” of life manageable.  Increase how much water you drink.  Take a walk, if you can… preferably in nature.  (If walking is painful, see if you can get to a pool, perhaps.  If you don’t want to leave your house, maybe you can have a five-minute dance party in the privacy of your home. Trust me, it’s a mood elevator.)  Do what you can to get sleep.  Your body and your psyche need it.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, the exercise and meditation (tip #1) should help.
  4. Get a “support” group. This is perhaps the most crucial element.  I don’t mean a therapy group, or even a critique group. I mean get a group of people who believe in you, and ideally, who understand what it means to be a writer.  Even though all you may feel like doing is curling up in a ball, and you may fear that you’re “bothering” someone, or that you may be judged – drawing on the energy, guidance, and support of people who care about you and who get what you’re going through will tide you over.  They can provide both accountability, encouragement, and a “crazy check” for when you lose perspective.  This can be as simple as posting a little “I’m feeling overwhelmed” post on the Writer Unboxed Facebook page.  Don’t overlook online sources of support!

These probably seem self-evident, but when your life is in the dumps, very few things are obvious.

When do you start writing again?

The other trick to writing when life sucks:  start small, start slow, and set the bar low.

What I’ve seen happen, with many coaching clients I work with:  they start to feel a bit better, and then they plunge right back, expecting to be fully charged… only to flare up and fizzle out.  They then berate themselves for being “useless.”  (Writers, I’ve noticed, tend to be extremists.)

Even if you have a track record of writing 5000 words a day, when life sucks and you’re hitting a wall, treat it the way you would an injury.  If an Olympian sprained his ankle, you wouldn’t have him drink some water and then put him back in the starting blocks.  There’s a recovery time.

The best way to do this:  set a small goal to start.  Ridiculously small.  For some, this may be as small as one paragraph.  “How am I going to get a book written if I’m just writing a paragraph?” some of you may ask.  The thing is, you’re not trying to boost your productivity. You’re trying to train your brain. You’re reminding yourself that yes, you set goals and achieve them.  That you can do this.  Once you start getting victories under your belt, you can start to increase your goals, but always within reason.  Slow and low.

What if you are under deadline and you “don’t have time” for self-care?

If you are at that red-line, truly burned out breaking point, then you may need to contact your publisher or fans, let them know what’s going on, and come up with alternative plans.  We may live for our writing, but we shouldn’t die for it.  Be aware of just how dire your circumstance is.

If you’re not at that point – if the going’s rough, but you’re functioning, albeit poorly – then your stakes may be high to actually get the writing done, no matter what.

I have publishers who, while sympathetic, simply can’t hold a publishing slot while I have an existential crisis. I don’t publish, I don’t get paid. If I don’t get paid, I will get more stressed, and there will be a cascading effect financially, physically and emotionally. In this case, it’s in my best interest to publish on time – which means writing, even if my life sucks and if my reserves are low.

The answer:  get a game plan, triage non-essentials, do intensive self-care, and rely on your support group.

  1. Game plan. Calculate how much you have left to do on your project.  Then see how much time you have until your deadline.  Divide the pages or word count by the days you have to work.  That gives you the rough necessary output goal.  (Make sure this is in the realm of possibility.)
  2. Triage non-essentials. During NaNo, a lot of people put writing first at the expense of other things.  A lot of laundry gets ignored, for example.  People order a lot more take-out food.  If you’re under a crushing deadline, automate and/or ignore whatever isn’t essential to getting the writing done.  This is a short-term solution.  If that means piling up dishes, having cereal for dinner for a week, or avoiding your extended family, then do so.  You’ve got limited reserves, and they’ve all got to go towards writing.
  3. Do intensive self-care. That said, if you’re finding that you can’t work because the house is a disaster, and you’ve been living on pizza and soda and feel somewhat sick, take a (limited) chunk of time to set up your environment and your self-care to make it as conducive to work as possible.  Choose the simplest solution possible.  For example:  make one huge pot of healthy soup, and plan on eating it all week.
  4. Rely on your support group. Tell them your deadline.  Touch base with them to help overcome your starting friction (reluctance to start writing.)  Ask for help and encouragement.  Check in daily until the deadline is over.  This much contact is a temporary measure – let them know that.  You’ll pay it forward one day.

Bonus tip:  write down why you wanted to write in the first place.

When you’re truly feeling hopeless, it can be easy to ask yourself “Why should I bother?”  Even questions like Don Maass’ “how do you want your novel to change the world?” can seem intimidating.  Try going inward, rather than outward.  Why were you attracted to this in the first place?  What appealed?  What do you still like about the project?  Once you’ve answered, post what you’ve written near where you write. It will be your north star, reminding you of where you’re going (and why you’re going there.)

We’re all in this together.

Sometimes, the world seems like a hard place.  As writers, we can help in times of trouble.  Novels can change the world. Novelists can change the world.

But before we can change the world, we must take care of ourselves, so we can have the strength to provide the change.

What keeps you going?  What truly replenishes you? How do you take care of yourself as a writer?


About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]