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Survival Pack or How to Keep Writing No Matter What

By Jenny Tañedo, Flickr’s CC

What if life never got in the way of writing? What if I told you there was a way to guarantee you’d always be able to write? (Even if you have “writer’s block.” Even when you don’t feel like it. Even on those days you can’t get out of your own way.)

Clearly I can’t guarantee anything, but I can tell you WRITING IS A CHOICE. (So is everything else you do.) To make that choice, you may have to make other tough choices. It’s all about making writing a priority. And to do that, you need to be prepared.

What is a survival pack?

One morning I was texting my friend Dede Nesbitt (also an Admin Assistant here at WU) about my writing productivity woes. I was distracted by everything. Everything. Everything. It was one of those days I didn’t feel like writing. I was “stuck” on a difficult scene I wasn’t sure how to resolve. I’d been dragging around the house and hadn’t gotten around to exercising or showering. She was having a similar day (although to be fair, her problems seemed much more pressing: her two young kids and dog were energetically running around the house because it was a teacher in-service day. She was equally frustrated, though, that writing was often taking a back seat to… well, lots of things.).

Anyway. You get the point.

We texted back and forth about what to do about it. During the course of the conversation we came up with the idea. We needed something, some way to protect our writing, to make our writing top priority, to make sure we were able to write everyday. In short, we needed a way to survive. Survive as writers. To rescue our writing. And that’s when we came up with the—wait for it—survival pack.

You Are Not Alone

I know what you’re thinking. Come on. A survival pack? What does that even mean?

Think of it.

You’re stuck on a particular character or scene and you avoid your work in progress. Or your kids are sick. Or you’re not feeling well, but you’re not so sick that your life is on hold. Or you don’t feel like you have time to write—just that hour between dropping your car off at the mechanic and making dinner. Or you really don’t have time to write: you work full-time and after you put your kids to bed when you usually write, you just want to sit down with a glass of wine.

Maybe it’s even worse… maybe you’re so far out of the writing life, so off your writing game you can’t imagine finding a way back to your work in progress.

Or even to writing—at all.

Here’s a Case Study (hint: this is me): I have a manuscript in the middle of revision, but I was not making great progress because I have an overly-active and reactive rescue dog who needs (or thinks she needs) to go out every five minutes. I was flying by the seat of my pants for meals, going to the grocery store every day. I wasn’t exercising regularly, and every morning I meandered to my writing, visiting several social media sites before I even started writing (Instagram is my drug of choice so that also entailed going out and getting the best photo possible for the most likes possible). After I sat down to work, if I got stuck on a scene, I’d go back on Instagram (gotta check those likes, right?) OR I’d do something even more embarrassing to admit: I’d play Two Dots on my phone.

Before survival pack, I would panic or give up. That’s it. The day is shot. I can’t overcome inertia. I can’t write. Why even bother? The day would be a total loss.

Survival Pack in Action

I have an old green Army rucksack; Dede has a high-tech ice climber’s backpack. The secret to survival pack isn’t what’s on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside: pre-planning, anticipation, prediction of what could go wrong. Life gives us all challenges, but these are obstacles and not dead end/road block/turn back now signs. You can make a plan—a survival plan—for (almost) every eventuality that can get in the way of your writing.

This is the heart of the survival pack.

1. Plan Ahead. Look at your calendar a day or week in advance. (If you don’t have a planning calendar, this is a good time to get one.) Is there a time that won’t be good to write? Are you a first thing in the morning writer like me? But maybe one day you won’t have time? Then plan for another time. CHOOSE.

Real life problem: I’m a morning writer but my friend Renee can only get together for coffee in the morning (she has a kindergartener). If I get together with Renee, it interrupts my flow and I “can’t write.”

Survival pack: When I can’t write from 7-11 as usual, I’ll write later. Yes. I will. If I meet Renee at 9, I’ll come home at 11, and I’ll write until 1. If I feel like I can’t, I’ll text Dede and she’ll “encourage me.” Accountability partners [1] are game changers.

2. Create an optimal work environment—physical, emotional, and mental. Exercise everyday. This is critical for me before I even sit down to write which means getting up a little or a lot earlier. Practice mindfulness. Acknowledge the things that are going on in your life that you can’t control and then let them go. Acknowledge what you can’t control and plan for what you can. If you know you need a snack or cup of coffee in the middle of a planned writing session, keep a bag of almonds next to your station and keep your coffee in a to-go cup by your desk.

Real life problem: I’m up against a deadline and I don’t have time to exercise first thing in the morning. Later in the day it’s too hot or I’m too tired.

Survival pack: I will exercise after I finish or I will take a break and exercise because my physical health is a top priority. Not to break into song, but… there is only one me.

3. Predictable Problem—make a plan. You don’t feel like writing and you already didn’t write yesterday so what’s the point? Your dog wants to go out for the third time in an hour. Assess. Is she sick or just bored? Your in-laws are coming to visit for a week. You know you’ll be entertaining them all day long or even just in the morning. What will you do to make sure you can still get writing time? Make a plan in advance.

Real life problem #1: My daughter’s rescue dog lives with us, and she is the most energetic dog I’ve ever seen (think leaping over furniture in a single bound), and she wants me to take her out all the time. This is distracting.

Survival pack #1: Give Milo the pup a Kong toy. Put in time (away from writing time) to train her. Determine her nap schedule.

Real life problem #1: You’ve got too much going on in the morning to write (and you won’t have much time later). What can you do?

Survival pack #2: Read what you’ve most-recently written the night before you go to bed so when you do have time to write, you can hit the ground running.

4. Disaster Planning—plan for the truly unexpected. Okay, this is arguably your toughest challenge (it is mine). Your kids are sick. Your dishwasher is on the fritz and you need to call a repair person. You sleep through your alarm. Your car breaks down. You wake up sick. A friend needs some help. In advance of anything like this ever happening, you have a plan. You put it in your survival pack.

Real life problem #1: My computer loses a blog post due Monday (yes this happened with this post and it ate into my fiction and exercise time).

Survival pack #1: I go back to exercising and writing my WIP after I finish the post… more about this later.

Real life problem #2: Your kid throws up at 5:30 a.m., and now he’s home sick from school.

Survival pack #2: You step away from your pen and paper or computer and turn your attentions towards your child—assessing their needs, and making them comfortable. You then print out the chapter you’re editing or grab notes you’ve brainstormed and do the best work you can right where you’re at.

A Word about Tough Choices

Sometimes small fixes aren’t enough. You’re starting a new job. You’re moving across country. Even worse. An important relationship ends. Someone in your family is seriously ill (or you’re seriously ill). Things are really tough—really tough—and the pressure is on. Writing is truly last on your mind (or maybe not on your mind at all).

A few months ago I wrote a blog about adaptation [2], specifically how my husband’s depression was affecting my writing. When things got tough (for him and consequently for me) I tried all the smaller fixes I’ve mentioned above. Unfortunately, I was still distracted and not very productive. Finally, when doing my survival pack assessment, I realized smaller, incremental steps just weren’t enough. I realized I needed an overhaul. I needed more time and emotional energy. I made the tough choice to stop writing for a book review blog I’d contributed to for two years. A week ago, when that didn’t feel like enough, I made the even tougher choice to step down from being an assistant editor here at Writer Unboxed, something I’ve loved doing for three years.

I want to write fiction. Bottom line. I want to get published. It’s the highest priority in my life behind my family. And I need to give it the respect it deserves. I owe that to myself and to my writing.

Sometimes you might even choose to take a break. That’s more than okay. Life sometimes requires breaks. Remember. Survival pack is all about choice. Making those sometimes-very-tough choices. Not letting life happen to us, but actively making choices about what will happen, how something will go.

Case Study (this is still me): My computer ate the first draft of this post. I thought about writing to Therese (all things Writer Unboxed) and telling her I couldn’t do it. But I didn’t. I chose. First I texted Dede, and with a little nudging from her (she told me I had to do it), I re-wrote the blog, I exercised, and then I revised ten pages of my WIP. It wasn’t easy, and I had to own up to myself and to Dede that I was thinking of skipping both the exercise and the fiction, but I didn’t skip anything. I exercised. I worked on my WIP. I chose. #survivalpack

It’s all about choice. I can choose and you can choose, too. We can do this.

What are your biggest challenges? What does your survival pack look like? What’s in it to deal with your challenges?

About Julia Munroe Martin [3]

Julia Munroe Martin [4] (@jmunroemartin [5]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.