Perhaps you would like to write, for pleasure and art, every day. Perhaps you used to, but have fallen out of the habit. In my popular piece on writing funks, several commenters asked for suggestions on how to write more regularly, and I thought I would share the little I know.
The difficulty with trying to write more, of course, is that the creative imagination is not directly available to the conscious mind. One cannot, I think, simply decide to come up with a brilliant idea for a novel. The conscious mind’s relationship with the imagination is a bit like being a fine lord or lady, full of clever ideas, but utterly reliant on the driver of your coach to get anywhere. The hour is late and the night is rainy; the coachman can barely hear your instructions, and whatever abstract ideas you have about the destination, he still has to do the actual driving.
For most of us, that coach driver sometimes refuses to show up for work, and when he does, we’re stuck. We can all read a famously prolific writer like Joyce Carol Oates explain how she doesn’t allow “mood” to affect her daily output, how she simply makes sure that words are always produced, but we read and, tragically, we are not transformed:
Do you find emotional stability is necessary in order to write? Or can you get to work whatever your state of mind? Is your mood reflected in what you write? How do you describe that perfect state in which you can write from early morning into the afternoon?
One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.
Of course, we know what blessed state of being Oates is referring to. But when that state doesn’t occur naturally, we can’t order ourselves into it.
In my writing funks post, a lot of people seemed moved by Michelene Wandor’s suggestion that writing is meant to be a social activity, embedded in our real lives and the wider world. Because it is a social activity, it interacts with other social activities, with the other demands and pleasures of life. And as those demands and pleasures fluctuate in intensity, and as the human brain has a physical limit of how much it can do each day, we experience a slow cycle of writing highs and lows, of periods of higher and lower creativity.
Perhaps we enter a writing “funk” when, unknowingly, we announce to the creative part of our brain–the imagination, the coach driver–that this is not meant to be a highly creative period. Perhaps through stress, or deadlines, or alternative commitments, or self-destructive head-talk, we have convinced ourselves that creative energy is a luxury we can’t afford right now.
If so, to escape a funk, we have to perform the same operation in reverse. We have to create in our lives the appearance, or the reality, of a social need for our writing.
How to do that?
- Build up a writing habit. This is how I taught myself to write fiction regularly: I committed, for a couple of weeks at least, to write one 100-word piece every morning. I had heard about 100 Words, and while I didn’t join the actual site, I made time to go to a cafe each day and write until I had at least one 100-word story. After a period of editing, I would post a batch of them on my blog.
Now, for many people, 100 words is probably too much to start with. The point is to pick a target that, as long as you remember to do it, you can’t fail. I would suggest carrying around index cards, or stamped post cards addressed to yourself, and making sure to write something, even a sentence, on one card each day. If you can do that for a week, by the second week, you will find yourself needing bigger cards.
- Take the ego out. I’ve filled whole notebooks with sentences I’ve copied out of other writers’ books. I find it a great way to get a a writing session started: copy out a few lines or sentences of an author you admire. I think it’s so powerful because it cuts out that cruel self-talk, that worrying about being good. Plus, there’s no stress about being able to complete the project, because once you’ve copied out the sentence, the project is over. I also like, once I’ve written a big complex sentence out, to try to write my own version of it, imitating the structure, preparing myself to write my own stuff.
Pick a goal with a deadline. The opposite approach works, too–perhaps because it makes the urge to write seem a real and pressing part of life. Announce on Facebook, perhaps, that you will submit a short piece to a site like Six Sentences by the end of the month. I just read, in The Four Hour Chef, the brilliant idea of committing to give money, if you do not meet your goal, to a charity you HATE.
Suddenly, you’re not merely writing for yourself, you’re writing for a cause (to prevent that money getting to your political enemies).
- Go away. I suspect that a lot of the reason we stop writing is that we come to associate the sites of our daily lives with not writing. I’m doing a PhD: there’s so much brainwork to do–coursework, teaching, and administrative odds and ends–that it can be easy to have everything except writing on the brain, non-stop. But if you can get a cheap hotel room for a night, and get away from the usual demands, suddenly the things you love to do come racing back. That’s why retreats like the Winter Getaway work so well: you bring yourself to a place untouched by your work life, where writing is the most important thing.
Prep for the next day [updated]. Sometimes I suspect that the quality and quantity of what I write today is determined by what I did the day before. Probably, if today is being an impossible struggle, and you can’t will yourself to the chair anymore, the best thing is prepare the ground for the next session. Clear up your desk, tidy your writing room, answer a few pressing emails, check your calendar and plan out a specific time to get back to the blank page. Sometimes when a scene hard to write, that’s because I haven’t figured it out in my head, and I do actually need time to get it clear. Much of my best stuff has come out of sitting on the sofa with a pen and notepad, the day before.
Or, if these don’t work, do nothing and don’t worry about it. In some cases, maybe the best thing to do is just to go with the flow and see what happens. Maybe your imagination is busy at work and you don’t know it. If you read between the lines of a lot of famous writers’ personal accounts and biographies, you’ll notice that they take breaks, too, sometimes very long ones. Even Joyce Carol Oates allows herself time off, once in a while.