Writing can at one point be the most giving, nourishing kind of work there is — and at other points, it can feel like the cruelest way to make a living or enjoy a hobby. If you’re a writer, I don’t have to tell you that nothing feels better when it’s going well … and nothing feels worse if it’s not.
I believe ardently in creating a daily writing routine and putting some words on the page regardless of the “muse.” In my experience, writing has never worked unless I work on it every day. However, there are times when external and internal life forces seem determined to tear us away from the page. This is what I do when life gets in the way of my writing.
When Emotions Cloud Your Brain …
You can always tell when someone isn’t a writer when they see you going through something emotional and tell you to “use it” for your work. The idea that you can create at the peak of emotional disruption probably stems from the glorified artist trope we all grew up seeing (you know, the painter furiously covering the canvas in colors and strokes that represent his passion). However, I’ve never seen that be a remote possibility for me or any of my writer friends.
When I’m in the midst of emotional upheaval, the last thing I can think about is “using” that emotion for anything productive. It takes clarity of thought to write productively. Emotional disruption throws your thoughts up in the air while you wait to see how they land. I don’t see how anyone can be productive in that.
But still, we labor through. We know we need to produce, so we sit at our desk and wonder why we can’t seem to write a decent word. We can’t figure out what’s wrong with us, why our writing is letting us down at a time like this, and why we suddenly can’t be productive when we’ve always been able to before.
It’s a little crazy if you think about it.
Would you tell someone in the middle of a panic attack to do a math problem? Would you tell someone who just got dumped to present their life’s work to an audience the next day? No, right? So why would you tell yourself that you have to write at your top level when your brain is hard at work dealing with your recent emotional upheaval?
… Take a Beat
This is where some writers who are reading this might say, “but I need to write to think, so it’s even more important that I write at a time like this.” I agree! A lot of writers need to put words to the page to puzzle out what they’re going through — but that page isn’t the computer screen, and it certainly isn’t that book or blog post you’ve been working on.
The page you need in the midst of emotional upheaval is a page in your journal. The tool is a pen or pencil. You need to be able to sit down and get messy with your thoughts. The writing, in this case, can’t be something that the world has to see. It needs to be just for you.
Once you’ve journaled for a day or two or maybe even a week, hopefully, your thoughts will start to make more sense, and help you feel like you have more of a grasp on your emotions. At that point, clarity has entered, and productive writing can begin again — but probably not any sooner than that.
In other words, give yourself a break and allow yourself to feel and process whatever you’re going through. Trying to force great writing in the middle of this will only make you feel about ten thousand times worse. Trust that your writing will come back — and that it’ll come back faster if you process your emotions first.
When Scheduling Disruptions Destroy Your Flow …
Sometimes life’s disruptions to your writing flow aren’t emotional at all, but just plain logistical. This can be somewhat easier to deal with since you have more control over your schedule than your emotions. But it can also feel downright impossible when your schedule is nothing more than a house of cards.
I’m going to go ahead and start off this section by saying that I’m not currently a parent and I am currently a freelance writer. This means I have far more control over my schedule than most, and that I’ve had more control over my schedule than I had when I was working as a full-time employee. This puts me in a position to rearrange my schedule however I please, and I understand that might not be the position you’re in.
That said, the longer external circumstances take us away from our writing, the harder it will be to get back into the groove. So, if you find that your writing time is being disrupted week after week, then it’s time to make a change.
… Create a Pocket of Time for Writing
Here’s the really great thing about writing: It doesn’t take that much time to create momentum.
In fact, you can create momentum in as little as 15 minutes per day— as long as it’s at the same time and place every day. As much as this goes against popular culture’s portrayal of art, nothing will fortify your creativity more than routine.
Fifteen minutes per day might not help you finish three blog posts per week or a novel in three months, but it will get you out of crisis mode when your schedule won’t allow time for writing. Once your schedule stabilizes, you can always lengthen the amount of time on days that allow for it.
I tried 15 minutes per day when I was working full-time. I even bribed myself, saying I could only have my favorite mocha before work (instead of buying a cup of brew at a cheap coffee truck) if I showed up to the coffee shop in time to write for 15 straight minutes.
Here’s what happened next:
I became happier at work because I gave myself a reason to get out of bed in the morning that had nothing to do with my job
I started to think about my writing all the time, and began to work for hours on it on weekends without telling myself I would.
But I never would have gotten to that point if I didn’t give myself a goal I could achieve no matter how crazy things got.
Yes, there are sacrifices to be made when we create these time pockets. For most, it’s getting up early or staying up late to write when spouses and kids are asleep. But the result will be your happiness since we all know writers gotta write.
It’s All Material in the End
The truth is, writers can use it when they’re going through something — but not while it’s happening.
Whatever you’re going through will inevitably work your way into your writing. After all, everything we experience in life does. But the problem is when we try to make that happen while we’re in the middle of the storm. It doesn’t work and, worse, it just makes us feel like failures on top of everything else.
So, take a beat and turn your productive writing into journaling when your brain needs to process emotional distress. And remember to protect your pocket of time for writing with all your might. Do these two things, and you can be sure the words will come back.