I recently wrote a friend saying that my writing “suddenly caught a gust of momentum and is flying along.” Her response: “fly that wind!” made me smile. It also made me contemplate something that writers struggle with – how do you keep up your enthusiasm for the work through the doubts and rewrites and the days when you just don’t have it in you – you know – the days you feel like a hack.
One of my Writers Circle students put a face onto the dilemma a couple of weeks ago: “I just feel so dry,” she said, “like I’m fooling myself and people are laughing at me. Maybe I’m just not a writer.”
Of course, we all rushed to assure her that she was, and that the doubts she was feeling are common. I can attest to the fact that even published authors have those dark days. The writing comes hard – I often compare it to chipping stone – and suddenly everyone else in the world has writing that just flows, words that seem to fall naturally into place, with wonderful plot twists and fantastic characters and sparkling dialogue that just jumps off the page. And you look at your own work and turn away from your computer or page in despair.
A day or so of this might be okay – we all have off days – but it doesn’t take much to tip this feeling into paralysis. The writing muscle is like any other: if you don’t use it consistently, it can betray you. Think of exercise routines you may have abandoned. It doesn’t take long for muscle to turn to flab.
And just as the only way back to an exercise routine is to lace up the gym sneakers, the only way to re-energize the writing muscle is through writing. It doesn’t have to be work on the project that is stymieing you. It can be “off the page” exercises, where you come at that project from a different angle. What’s the grandmother’s back story? What if you rewrote a scene from another character’s point of view? Can you take a scene that you’ve “told” and dramatize it? What does the room your protagonist sleep in really look like? The kitchen? The garden?
Or if you simply can’t stand the idea of penning another word on that project, consider writing anything else. Use prompts and exercises (we offer daily ideas on Twitter, at #TWCprompt). These may never go beyond the messy first draft stage, but they will exercise that writing muscle. Julia Cameron, in her acclaimed The Artists’ Way, suggests that everyone write three pages by hand when they first wake up in the morning. Her Morning Pages, she says, get rid of “all that stuff [that] distracts you from your creativity.” Kind of like sit ups, I guess.
Another of my students suggests actually embracing the words of other writers by taking passages you admire and typing them into your computer. There’s no question but the action of fingers on the keyboard can act as a stimulant to your own subconscious. And certainly, copying over the words of great writers is not unlike art students copying a masterpiece at a museum. You not only avoid the blank page syndrome; you can’t help but learn from the best.
And finally, the reason I’m feeling my own little “gust of momentum” these days is because of a recent resolution I took. Writing – particularly in the first draft stage – can suffer when you are away from it too long. With the new year, I decided that, despite my hectic schedule, I would actually work on my novel every single day – whether that be five minutes or five hours. What this seems to do is engage the active centers of the brain, so that the novel travels with me throughout the day, ready to be picked up at a moment’s notice. My enthusiasm for it grows instead of wanes. And while, just like a new exercise regime, I realize this heady sense of commitment may not last – I’m going to “flying that wind” for as long and as far as it will take me.