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 Put short, you’re unpublished, but you want to make it in the biz¹.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.