Nathan here! Over the next few months I’ll be joined by some fantastic guest contributors who will offer some new perspectives on writing and publishing. First up: Lindsay Syhakhom!
On to the post!
“Writing is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” – Flannery O’Connor
Writing a novel is rarely fun. Like most writers, I usually rely on love for my characters, daily word count goals, and pure determination to make it through.
But in the middle of the pandemic, I couldn’t muster up the energy to get through anything. The usual ups and downs of the writing process left me feeling drained and irritable. I wasn’t even interested in whether my characters lived or died! Eventually I stopped writing altogether.
This month, I tried to reconnect with my passion for writing. My goal wasn’t just to write again. It was to remember why I wrote in the first place, and build a healthier relationship with myself in the process.
Make time for loafing
One of the most joyful parts about the writing process is surprise.
Have you ever looked back at something you’ve written and thought, Wow, did I write that? That’s amazing. Where did that come from?
Call it imagination or God or the muses or the collective unconscious, but when it comes, it feels like a gift. Your intuition was in the driver’s seat and you were in touch with a limitless trove of images and ideas. It’s this interplay between a writer and this unseen image-making world — a place that’s simultaneously “me” and “not me” — that keeps us hooked.
When writing gets difficult, this place can feel impossibly far away. You might forget this place even exists when you’re caught up in the grind of finishing a novel, frustrated that your plot’s timeline is broken, your tone keeps shifting, or a million things are wrong.
So as a first step towards rediscovering my love for writing, I tried to find it again.
I went outside, lay down in my backyard, and just watched my thoughts. I loafed and invited my soul. I gave myself no agenda or project.
I suddenly got a very vivid image of a girl sitting on a transmission tower, watching an old rickety plane go by. Like most scenes that come intuitively, it was already whole. I felt who that girl was, where she was, what time of day it was. For some reason, just thinking about this image got me excited. So I didn’t pressure it to go anywhere or be anything, just watched it.
Sitting with this image was joyful, and the more I sat with it, the more I felt the urge to pick up a pen and play around with that image.
I think we often get so wrapped up in trying to artificially motivate ourselves that we forget that this urge to write down our intuition’s images is the most natural thing in the world. Artists and researchers wiser than me have all talked about flow and the origins of creativity. But for me, a couple of hour-long daydreaming sessions reignited a tiny spark.
Talk to writer friends
“You are alone and sad down there, I am the same here.” – Gustav Flaubert in a letter to George Sand
Writing down that first image was fun, but writing the sentence after that still felt hard. I never would have picked up the pen again had it not been for conversations with some great writing friends, like Shalene Gupta and Nathan Bransford.
I’d start out these conversations by complaining about my novel-in-progress. A thousand words a day for eighteen months, and my characters were still lifeless! My plot was infantile! I’d already sunk too many thousands of hours into it, and wasn’t going to give it another second of my time.
That’s when one of my friends turned on her screenshare, pulled up her current novel-in-progress, and showed me a folder containing over a hundred drafts that she’d written over the course of five years. Her characters were lifeless until at least draft thirty, she told me. So if I wrote twenty more drafts and my characters were still dead, then she’d let me give up on my novel.
My friend’s folder full of novel drafts is burned into my memory. A hundred drafts! I’d given up on draft nine or ten.
This is why it’s so important to have writer friends. Yes, it can be embarrassing to admit that you’ve stopped writing. Or that you hate writing or your novel is terrible. But a good writer friend will tell you they can’t wait to read your book, and will prod you into action.
Beware the last judgment
You didn’t meet your word count total today. You’ll never finish.
Your plot is so predictable.
No one will ever want to read this $*%&!!
These are thoughts that occurred to me almost daily in my writing process. Over time, they eroded my passion for writing and made it feel more and more like torture.
Unfortunately, as soon as I started writing again, they were the first thoughts to reappear.
Isn’t it interesting how each of these judgments is final, as a Definitely True Last Judgment, the final score on my abilities as a writer? Pay attention to the words you choose to say to yourself. They tend to include words like never. That’s because your inner critic has a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. It only sees things as they are, not as they will be.
There are plenty of mindfulness methodologies and self-help books to quell the inner critic. But honestly, I don’t think shutting down or ignoring the critic has been helpful for me. It feels like a war that I don’t have the energy to fight. Instead, I visualize her as a child throwing a tantrum on the kitchen floor, and I’m the adult standing at the sink listening, nodding, but still washing the dishes. I hear you, but I’ve got a job to finish.
When she says something that hits home, I rephrase her critique by using the same phrase Shalene used. Rather than, “Your plot is boring,” I say, “My plot is not that interesting…yet. But I trust myself as a writer to get there.”
There was finally an adult in the room who trusted me to grow at my own pace, even if my writing wasn’t stellar right now.
Talk to a professional
Talking to friends, consciously re-engaging my intuition, and watching my negative thoughts were all enormously helpful in restarting my writing habit.
But the biggest help of all was seeing a therapist.
No matter how much I tried, my thoughts were spinning in circles, whirring and worrying and driving me nuts. Soon those feelings spilled over into other areas of my life, wreaking havoc on everything from sleep to relationships to my job. A therapist helped me focus on what I really wanted.
It can be hard to admit you need help, and even harder to feel like you deserve to spend the money it takes to get help (thanks, mediocre insurance!). But I’m so grateful I did.
Take the first step
Once you rekindle your passion for writing, the next step is, of course, to write.
After a long writing hiatus, it might not make sense to immediately jump into a long-term project. Start with something small. Low pressure. A couple of scenes featuring the same character. A short story. A blog post.
I’ll admit, I haven’t gone back to my novel-in-progress yet. As I described above, I’m writing a couple of scenes based on that image of a girl watching a plane. I haven’t set word count totals. I don’t write every day. But a couple times a week, I sit with a pen and notebook at my desk and write.
Don’t expect every second of writing to be fun all of a sudden. But I’m finding myself looking forward to writing for the first time in years. Feeling hopeful again. And for now, that’s enough.
Art: Springtime by Claude Monet
Neil E Larkins says
Thanks, Lindsay, for your article. Knowing an accomplished, professional writer has the same problems that I do is encouraging.
My problem right now is not working on my story or crafting a new one. No, my problem is writing a query for each of them. I have two memoirs finished and want to present them to an agent but am having a dog of a time getting the job done. On both of them I have written and discarded at least a dozen iterations. I’ll lay off for a few days or weeks, then get an inspiration. I open my PC to write it down…and soon discover that I am writing what I have already discarded. Bummer! But, it has to be done and so I’ll keep on reading what others have done when they’ve found themselves in a similar situation.
Lindsay Syhakhom says
Oof, I can definitely relate to the feeling of sitting down to write a new draft, and finding you’ve already written it before (or worse, what you wrote before is better than your new draft). But congrats on finishing your memoirs. That’s huge.
Sometimes when you’re SO CLOSE to being “done” with the project, it feels like your brain fights you on the last few inches. Stages a revolt. Doesn’t want you to be done. Wants you to suffer forever, ha. But our stubbornness will win out in the end!
Phil W says
Guess I’m lucky to find writing “fun.”
I’ve always found reading to ignite my desire to write. Reading shit inspires confidence in my ability. Reading gold works my imagination–Melville has a transmission-pole-girl on every page. Wow! Can I do that?
Go read some classics. Or some smut. See what happens.
Lindsay Syhakhom says
That’s awesome! And definitely great point about reading to reignite your enthusiasm for writing. In some stages of the writing process, reading other people’s writing makes me depressed (“I could never write like this!” and other traitorous thoughts), and at many stages it makes me feel energized to dive back in.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Many thanks for this! My Inner Critic is of course aided and abetted by the Outer Critics, which include almost any writing critic of any kind, though nearly all of them are not aiming their criticism at me, and in fact have never even heard of me! Borrowing trouble from such critics is one of my worst temptations. My favorite form of self-flaggelation is numbered lists of things I should do but did not, or did do but should not have.
Thanks for this.
Deanna Parenti says
Great advice! I especially love the idea of loafing and reconnecting with one’s thoughts. I get such a rush of creativity and motivation after a solid loafing session.
Rae Longest says
I am not a writer, but I am a professor of writing and I appreciate good writing, which I observed in this post. You rock, dear!
Marlene Cullen says
Yes! I find inspiration in your writing, Linsay. Your opening drew me right in, “Have you ever looked back at something you’ve written and thought, Wow, did I write that? That’s amazing. Where did that come from?”
That is such a joy-filled experience. I think the Summer of 2020 and into 2021 was/is such a difficult time for so many people as lethargy settled and took hold.
Thanks for your suggestions. Feeling hopeful is the best feeling!