sometimes more writing isn’t the answer
Pascal van de Vendel on Unsplash
You’re a writer. You gave yourself permission, put your bum in the seat, and started cranking out words. They’re not perfect yet but that’s okay because you read advice articles that tell you how to do it better. You’re on your way.
Then you stumble. No matter how much advice you read and try to apply, the words don’t get any better. You’ve tried it all, and when you read your piece back you cringe. It’s dull, it’s bad, and it’s all yours.
Impostor syndrome sneaks up behind you like a cheap horror movie monster. It breathes down your neck. “I knew it. You’ve been found out, and not even the best advice can save you now. You’re no good. And you never will be.”
You stop trying.
Writing is too hard and you’re just not good enough. It’s enough to drive you to drink. Or back to Facebook and Netflix.
Invisible Growth — What You Don’t Understand About Practice
When something isn’t working, it’s tempting to give up. But you need to think about the way growth happens.
I used to plant sunflower seeds every spring with my young children. They were so excited, pushing seeds into the earth and imagining sunflowers higher than their heads. They looked at the picture on the packet, and they wanted all the flowers right now.
But the seed needed time to absorb water, develop roots, and grow a stem. On the surface, nothing was happening. The kids got impatient because progress was less than they expected. Under the surface, growth was already proceeding unseen. One day the shoot popped up, apparently overnight.
Then it grew really fast.
This type of progress in students as described by Thomas P Seager, PhD fits with my own experiences in the garden or the classroom.
Some students (black line) show linear growth at a steady rate. Others (green line) take instruction with little apparent effect until one day it clicks, and they take off. Soon they leave the others behind, despite being slower to start.
The move to higher levels of skill is often preceded by a stage in which nothing much appears to be happening. In fact a number of sub-skills are developing. When those skills reach critical mass they combine to produce a leap forward, followed by accelerated development.
In the early days of building a skill, a following, or a plant, progress seems slow. Patience and persistence are essential.
That means you must have faith and keep going. But although creativity is endless, it needs to be replenished.
Sometimes the best way to keep going is to stop.
Just Don’t Do It
You’ve read many articles about establishing a writing habit. You might know that Stephen King writes 2000 words every single day. All the advice says sit and write daily.
I suggest you do the exact opposite. Step away from the keyboard.
Just like any other human, a writer is the sum of many parts. The healthiest writers get out of their rooms and out of their heads regularly, and those experiences enlarge their characters and inform their writing. The more they see and hear of people, and the more things they do, the bigger their repertoire of subjects, characters, and situations to write about.
If you’ve been pushing harder but not seeing results, it’s time to change your approach. Staring at the blank screen for hours isn’t working. Rewriting the same paragraph isn’t working.
You need to move on and concentrate on another part of your skill set. Writing is more than butt in chair, just as soccer is more than kicking a ball. Stop writing and you’ll write better.
Three types of not-writing can help you reach the visible growth stage faster.
Mens sana in corpore sano
A sound mind in a healthy body
The brain weighs about 2% of body mass but needs 20% of energy intake to function well. In addition, we can concentrate fully for around 90–120 minutes. After that, we need a break to maintain focus.
You need to build two types of break into your writing routine.
One is a short break after ninety minutes. Get up, stretch, move around. Look into the distance to rest your eye muscles which have been working hard to focus on the screen. Take five slow deep breaths, allowing your belly to relax. Your brain needs extra oxygen.
Research has shown that thirst is a poor predictor of dehydration and that dehydration reduces performance. Consider setting an alarm to remind you to drink more water.
Move your body
The second type of break is regular exercise. The type of exercise doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you engage regularly, which is more likely if you enjoy it. Some activities have a social element built in, which is very good if you sit alone all day to write.
Sitting for extended periods is known to increase your risks of premature death. That alone should motivate you to get moving. Walking, running, gym work, and yoga are all beneficial. Vigorous gardening and housework are alternatives.
Get enough sleep
Insomnia is a problem for many of us that tends to increase with age. However, finding and keeping good sleep habits is essential to mental and physical health. If you have problems start your search for help here or here.
Simple measures like regular sleep and wake times, keeping your bedroom dark and the bed only for rest or sex, and writing a to-do list for the next day can all help. Cut back on the nightcap because although alcohol might help you nod off, it then causes broken sleep.
My one best tip, gleaned from personal experience and professional practice as a family physician is this;
if you wake in the night, never check the time.
Your brain immediately starts working, calculating the time you’ve been awake, the time left before the alarm goes, and so on. Turn the clock away. Do not look at your phone. Slow deep breaths can help.
It’s natural to wake during the night and it will happen more often as the years go by, so have realistic expectations. Learning to go back to sleep is the skill you need.
Whatever your health status, you can improve fitness levels and give your brain what it needs to function more effectively.
Staying mentally fit and well needs to be a priority. It’s certain that you will have to navigate personal or professional difficulties at some time, while continuing to meet your obligations. It’s all too easy to withdraw from people, but if you write you already spend a lot of time with your own thoughts. Balance that with positive contact.
Humans are social creatures. We all need different amounts of interaction to feel our best, but looking at the same walls every day can drag you down, especially if you live where winters are long and dark. Figure out how much social interaction you need to be energised, not depleted. Then make sure you schedule time to get it.
Combine social contact with exercise by going to the gym or taking a class. Dog walkers know that pets can be a great icebreaker.
Stay in contact with friends and family. Avoid being hijacked by Facebook and Twitter by setting a time limit on checking updates.
Sit in a cafe and listen to people talking for clues on dialogue and people’s current concerns. You might hear a character or a problem for your next piece.
Join a writers’ group and interact with people who understand the struggle. Even difficult interactions can be a source of material for your writing.
Writers are often introverts who find being in groups more or less difficult. Online connections can be as real and nurturing as real-life ones, if not more so. Don’t let extroverts mock you for not going out all the time.
Part Of The Fabric
Maybe you’re a religious person. In that case, honouring your faith will be key to your wellbeing. Even if you’re not religious, feeding your spirit is essential to wholeness. Finding meaning, a reason to go on with life, is a matter of realising that you are part of something larger than yourself.
There’s more than one way to tap into a sense of awe and wonder that enlarges your sense of being. Prayer works for some, while contemplating the natural world or spending time with a child or pet is preferred by others. Quieting the endless chatter in your mind can be achieved by gardening or stargazing or knitting.
Concentration on a single thing is the essence of meditation. It doesn’t have to mean chanting and impossible poses. Find the thing that absorbs your attention to the exclusion of external stimulus. Do that regularly.
Feeding your spirit might come from watching the ocean, singing along at a concert, or volunteering. It can come from seeing art or listening to music, or sending a supportive message to someone who’s struggling.
Don’t underestimate the value of laughter.
We smile and laugh much less as we grow up, and who can blame us? Adult life is tough. Share a joke with your server or your partner. Watch a comedy show before bed rather than depressing news. Humour is essentially linking familiar things in an unexpected way. It’s one of the most creative activities around and it’s calorie free, so indulge.
Connecting with people has an element of looking outward and giving rather than receiving. Altruism makes us happier by focusing attention outside our selves while making a positive contribution. Even though each one of us is a tiny part of the fabric of life, we can still make a difference.
And as writers, isn’t connection and making a difference all we want?
Burn Bright, Don’t Burn Out
Nobody can be ‘on’ all the time. Balancing work, rest, and recreation is the key to a healthy life for everyone. Sometimes before we can push forward we need to stop and catch our breath a moment.
Solutions often bubble to the surface after a period of letting problems percolate unseen. While you’re occupied in another activity, your subconscious is busy figuring out the questions you’ve been stuck on.
Your body will benefit from the improved physical health that comes from being strong, well rested and well hydrated. A healthy brain is more flexible and resilient, able to think faster and process the many different things it sees and feels. And creativity is about making new connections.
Creativity is just connecting things.
Now you have more material and a better machine to work with. Come back to your screen refreshed, and get growing.