Staying Motivated When You Can’t Write

Let’s say you’re a writer.  (I’m a writer.)  Let’s say you love to write; nay, you live to write.  Telling stories, it’s part of who you are.  You’ve been doing it since you can remember (I have), or maybe you’ve picked it up recently and it’s infected every fiber of your being.  Maybe you get the occasional recognition for your efforts – no major awards or publications, just the odd nod of the hat – or maybe you’ve yet to make a splash of any size.  Put short, you’re unpublished, but you want to make it in the biz¹.

But you’re in one of those spots in life where you can’t write.  Not because you don’t want to write, and not because you have nothing to write about.  You’ve got ideas you’re just itching to put down on paper.  But you’ve got other obligations, right now, other priorities in life.  You’ve got things you have to do.  And, at the end of the day, there isn’t much time left over for writing.

Last week, I gave you permission, as a writer, to put the pen down and focus on those other things.  Well, that’s a relief.  With all that advice out there thrumming in the background urging you to write, write now, keep writing dangit! – it’s good to know that, well, you don’t have to be writing right this minute, and every day, in order both to consider yourself a writer and to stay the course in your path toward developing a writing career.

Except for one little, niggling detail.  For you (at least it is for me) writing is an existential activity.  It defines you, it’s part of who you are, and you need to do it to feel fully yourself.

There is a lot out there providing motivation to writers.  There’s fellow aspiring author, writer and blogger Ollin Morales’ “Courage to Create“, for instance.  On his site he provides regular encouragement to writers who are in need of motivation to write.  It’s his schtick, the theme of his blog.  There’s also the aforementioned plethora of writing advice telling you to just write a little bit every day – even just a little bit, an hour, a half-hour, 250 words, anything, that’s all it takes!  Most published writers keep their own blogs, and often drop nuggets of wisdom and advice thereon to other aspiring authors.  The internet is virtually awash in advice for writers.

And yet, in all of this, there’s very little advice for those of us in that busy stage of life where we can’t write because other obligations demand our attention.  There’s very little to help a writer stay motivated when what they want to do is write, but what they must do is not write, but something else.

And I’ve been thinking about that a lot the past few days.  I have a half-dozen blog posts I want to write up: ideas for things that are meaningful to me.  I’ve been meaning to write about my choice of genre and the nuance I see in that choice.  There are tidbits and snapshots of my history as a writer that I’ve yet to share.  And, of course, there are these stories burning in my mind that I want to write: another short story that I hope to submit to that contest that I didn’t quite win, and a novel idea where I’ve figured out this awesome opening but hadn’t yet figured out the climax and ending, and of course that other novel project that I’ve been working on since forever.  If you’ve been a writer since forever, like me, you’ve no doubt got a similar supply of projects you want to work on.  Heck, even if you’re new to the game you probably still have a fair handful of ideas you want to write about.  (If you’re out of ideas to write about, well, that’s not the theme of today’s blog.  I’m long on ideas and short on time, so there you go.) 

Long story short: I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to be writing about.  But I don’t have time for the fiction.  And the blog entries?  I just keep coming back to this thought: I’m not actually writing any stories right now, so everything I might say about writing today is as a spectator, as an outsider looking in.  Basically, my thoughts keep boiling down to “what’s the point?”. 

And I realize this: I’m not motivated to write, in part, because I’m not writing.  I want to be writing.  I want to be writing prose fiction.   But I can’t.  I know I can’t, and I’ve accepted that I can’t.  Not right now, anyway.  And as much as I want to be able to focus my mind and energy on those other, important things that demand my time and energy with enthusiasm and interest… well, the fact that I’m not writing means I feel just a little less like myself.  And, slowly and inexorably, that saps my motivation to do much else.  Played to its logical conclusion, that’ll end up sapping even my will to write, even if and when life comes full circle and I have the time again.

Lately, I’ve grown increasingly anxious about those other obligations in my life.  With graduation looming in less than four months, I’m really feeling the pressure to justify my existence – that is to say, to justify the massive student debt I’ve just taken on.  This last class of my master’s degree program looks to be a tough course for the remainder of the semester.  And I’m looking every day to find ways to kick my non-writing career into high gear sooner rather than later.  With as much as that burden is already stressing me out, I know that I just don’t have the time or energy to give any of the fiction writing projects I want to work on their due justice.  But I can’t help but feel off because I’m not even trying.  Throughout all of this, in the back of my head, one small wheel keeps turning, going on about those writing projects.  Well, you have a great, captivating opening to this novel idea.  That’ll get you through a half-dozen chapters, and really pull your readers in.  But… what’s the point of it if you don’t know where it’s going?  How’s this story supposed to end?  What’s the logical conclusion of this tale; what’s the promise that you must fulfill, and how will  you fulfill it?

So, how do you stay motivated when you can’t write?  Where do you find the will to go on when going on means waiting a few months for life’s circumstances to change before you can sit down and write again?

One thing I do is allow myself a tiny indulgence.  I spend a few minutes each day thinking about my writing projects.  I mean a few.  Five, maybe ten minutes.  It’s not been enough time to really ruminate thoroughly on the problems in the stories I mean to work on; it’s not enough time to pick apart my ideas and flesh out the plots and figure out how it’s all going to go together.  It’s just enough time to give my brain a taste.  Enough to remind myself that I’ve got something good to look forward to.  I just need to make it through a few more months, resolve the challenges and questions life has posed me, and then I’ll have an opportunity to really dig into these projects again.

Sometimes life comes at you hard and fast.  And when that happens, maybe you’ll be like Jay Lake: you’ll hold down a day job, gracefully deal with trials of family life, and keep up a full-steam writing career… all while undergoing an intense chemotherapy regimen and beating cancer.  And if you can do that, then that’s awesome.  But sometimes you’ll be closer to my end of the spectrum: holding a day job, hitting evening classes, trying to manage the trials of family life, and working through near daily day-job-career-improvement-activities… and not writing because you can’t find the time in that schedule to make it work, and then whining about it on the internet because you’ve got to get that off your shoulders somehow. 

The point is, you can’t lose sight of who you are.  You’re a writer.  And maybe you’re not writing right now.  But keep your chin in the game… you’ll make it through this.

So… how do you keep yourself motivated?  What keeps you going when you’re working through those droughts, those periods when for whatever reason you can’t write?  If you’ve never had a dry spell, how do you find the time to balance everything and make room for writing in your life?


¹I can’t help you with that “breaking into the biz” part… I haven’t broken in myself, yet, so anything I say on the subject is worth a metric tonne of salt over the shoulder.

20 thoughts on “Staying Motivated When You Can’t Write

    • Thanks; you’ve hit on a major theme of my life right now: there are so many demands, so many obligations, so many “must-dos” on my “to-do” list, that it’s hard to keep everything in its proper place, get everything done, and find space to just be who I am… Which is why I just try to keep focused on the temporary nature of some of these challenges… like running a marathon where you’ve just got to stay focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I’ll leave a thought over on your post as soon as I’m able to… Thanks for stopping by!

  1. It’s funny you wrote this because I was just feeling the same way about a month ago. I spent the past four months studying abroad in France for a semester, and during that time, I simply could not continue revising the manuscript I had been working on for the rest of 2010. Not only were my binders at home, but I was inundated with pressing, real-life obligations that never seemed to end as I tried to run a life on two continents.

    Now that I am back at school at home, I really want to get back to revising, but with the start of a new semester, figuring out how much time everything else on my schedule will take has not made that easy. Even though I am only taking ten hours of classes (something I can afford to do because I worked my butt off the first two years of school), I’m also teaching a French lab as well as trying to be involved in some student activities.

    I’ve often thought that students have it harder trying to maintain a writing lifestyle because they are often pursuing their professional career through education, but I’m sure that once out in the “real world,” making time to write amongst familial obligations and financial responsibilities is not at all easy either.

    Usually, when I haven’t written for a long time, as much as I *want* to write, it’s more a sense of duty type of longing, and it is hard for me to get back into it. Once I do, though, the sensation of making progress is very rewarding, and I feel much better as a person. I have been trying to kick start that discipline through keeping a blog, but that obligation has left me that much less time to write.

    It’s hard! But we can do it!

    • Yes, exactly. Sometimes there are needs and obligations and situations in life that don’t just make it hard to keep up with writing – they make it almost impossible. And I don’t think we need to feel guilty about putting the pen down when this happens. But you’re right, it’s hard to pick it back up again when we’ve been away from the craft for a long time… that’s when we need all the advice about perserverence and dedication and motivation – that’s when we need something to remind us how wonderful this is, because after we start writing again, all that wonderful is going to flood back in pretty quickly.

      But no, it doesn’t get any easier when you get out of school. When I was a full-time undergrad in college, I was actually pretty productive (as compared to other times in my life). I came this close to finishing my first novel (which was close enough and long enough that for all practical purposes I consider myself to have written a novel, albeit an awful one). Sure, that’s over four-ish years of school, which is a long time to write a novel, but I didn’t have solid writing habits back then (technically I still don’t, but that’s a problem to address when I have time to devote to creating solid writing habits). My productivity slowed a bit when I graduated and full-time work-life took over, but I continued to make progress in my writing. But over time, life and her demands have increasingly intruded upon what little writing time I had, and my productivity has dropped such that I’ve had multiple droughts of extended non-writing time… Working full-time while going for a Masters in the evening? That’s a whole other level of pain inflicted on the writing time…

  2. Reading! It always helps me keep the creative juices going. There are few pleasures like getting lost in a good book. When those ideas do come, I always make sure to jot them down in my journal.

    • Reading is a great way to recharge! I wish I had more time for it these days… Next to writing, reading is definitely my next favorite way to spend a little free time; and it has the added benefit of being easy to pick up. Whereas writing is work, and takes time to gear up the mind to get into it, reading is relaxation that engages the mind meaningfully. Actually, you’ve touched on some ideas I had for posts later in this week.

  3. Thanks for the mention Stephen!

    You might want to read my post: “The 4 Essential Elements of A Writing Schedule That Works For You” {URL:}

    This isn’t easy for anyone, including me. You just have to keep asking yourself: “How can I find the time to write?”

    Note that I mention that there are times when you won’t find an answer to that question, and usually that means you are way too busy.

    At that point you might need to make huge sacrifices. Like cutting back on TV, internet, phone calls, whatever. I suggest writing down what you do every day and measure the amount of time it takes you to do it. With these exercises you might find spare time you didn’t know existed.

    Now, as for those times when you DON’T have any time no matter how many big sacrifices you make or how many times you ask the above question, that requires patience {} and a little bit of faith {}.

    Haha, don’t mean to plug my blog, I just think those posts might be of some help to you.

    Good luck! You are not alone with this struggle.

    • I’ll have to check out those specific posts you mention. But yeah, my free time is already pretty spare, as it is. I don’t watch TV (no time for TV), I haven’t played video games in ages except for spending a little time on the Wii with Dear Wife now and again (but that’s “Us” time, which is pretty non-negotiable). I occassionally get to spend a half hour here or there reading, which is a good thing for a writer to do. And I’ve done the sorts of time analysis you allude to here (and things have only gotten tighter on time since then, now that there’s a baby in the picture). That fact is what motivated me to rethink what it means to be a writer when you can’t actually follow the advice to “write everyday” – or even to write at all.

      • Hey Stephen,

        I got a complaint from one of my readers because I used her story in my last post. I just want to say I apologize if you felt uncomfortable being mentioned in the post. I was really trying to highlight a REAL issue writers had and I also wanted to highlight your blog so that more people can check you out. I’ve learned that I should ask your permission before I do that sort of thing. I assumed that since a person writes a public blog they don’t mind if someone mentions a post or their blog. But I assumed wrong.

        Next time I will forewarn you and better yet, as your permission. Again I apologize if this inconvenienced you in any way.

      • I saw the post you were referring to. But I understand the point of the post and I definitely am not offended by being used as an example – particularly as it dovetails with the current theme of my most recent posts, which has been to say “it’s okay if you can’t write right now, it’s okay if life has gotten in the way of writing; your current life situation will change (and partly, yes, this change has to be negotiated by each individual writer) and then the opportunity to write will come.” And of course, that’s been my theme because that’s where I am in life right now… So, I actually appreciate the mention.

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  8. I’m very much a “focus” person. My coworkers are amazed that I can multitask, but it isn’t that I can multitask its that I can focus on a specific task very intently. This works at both the low-level of specific activities and high-level different aspects of my life. I’ve always wanted to write, but really couldn’t balance things until recently and so would do more reading (although, I wasn’t even necessarily good at that doing more re-reading than fresh reading) than writing. However, it can be temporary and I’m now focusing on my writing at the tradeoff of other areas of my life.

    • A lot of my fellow writer-bloggers like you seem to have been through similar situations. Actually, that’s a big part of why I started writing my blog… I was in a position where I couldn’t do much writing; but I wanted to be writing. The blog allowed me to write without needing to focus on story and structure and character and everything else that you need when you write fiction. I could just write about whatever came to mind, and at least I’d be writing. It’s sort of a low-pressure form of writing.

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