Today’s post comes from Julie Duffy of StoryADay May. Thanks for sharing these tips, Julie!
It’s one thing to find time for your writing. It’s quite another to find space in your brain.
Sure you could have run to your desk and tried to write during the 20 minutes in which the baby actually slept this morning…but your brain was going:
So much to do, so little time, so foggy. I’m exhausted; can I nap? What about the laundry? Wait, was that a cry? No? Wonder how long the baby’s going to stay down. I should be writing. Guilt, guilt, guilt. What are we having for dinner tonight? Take out again? Am I ever going to be able to finish a …what was that noise?
Maybe it’s not a baby. Maybe it’s your work, your mother, your children, your professor, your deadlines, your finances.
The voices in our heads make finding time for writing just the first of our problems. Now we need energy for writing.
What Can You Do When You Can’t Find The Mental Space To Write?
If you are struggling to write, consider this radical step:
Take a small break from your larger writing projects. Free yourself from the guilt. Take some time to feed your brain rather than trying to squeeze more out of it.
Use these six tactics to help:
Writing out all the thoughts in your head can help clear it. Use 750words.com if you don’t want to write on paper or your computer where it might be found. Write in fragments—bullet points if you have to. Or write a description of what you can see from your window and call it a writing exercise. Make it as good as you can. Use writing prompts if you like.
2. Set Tiny Goals
Tell yourself you will write 50 words, that’s all. Many writers set tiny, attainable goals like this. If you can get to 50 words, you can usually do more. Your goal will be different at different times (if you sign up for NaNoWriMo it’ll be 1667 words a day and you might find that if you can get there, you’re regularly writing 2000. If you commit to 50 you might find yourself writing 150.
- If you think you can manage at least 250 words a day, check out Inkygirl’s wordcount challenges—complete with pretty badges.
- If you just need a quick hit, pop over to OneWord.com. You get a one-word prompt and 60 seconds.
- If you respond well to threats, check out WriteOrDie!
Meditating is a simple exercise you can do throughout the day. Even two minutes will help clear a space in your head. Stand or sit as still as possible. Breathe deeply. Concentrate on your breathing and every time your thoughts intrude, shut them out, and focus on your breathing (setting a timer for this helps). Try really hard to think about nothing at all and you should come out feeling refreshed.
4. Read Something
Put down the cereal box and turn away from the blogs. Read something really good. Read a book that inspired you when you were a kid. Read your guilty-pleasure book. Every piece of reading you do influences how you write. If you don’t want to write like an advertiser, then stop reading your junk mail and promotional emails, and pick up a poetry book.
5. Look At Something Beautiful
Look at a piece of art or craft and try to see it as the artist saw it at its various stages of creation: when it was a blank canvas and a view; when it was sketched out but not yet painted; when it was almost finished but unframed. Or that vase: what did the artist see in the lump of clay? How did it become the beautiful vase? How would that have felt?
Take a minute or two to really focus on the beautiful object and enjoy it.
Training your brain to see things as an artist is a valuable skill — and something you absolutely can do in the minutes between other obligations. It will refresh your brain.
6. Give Yourself The Day Off
I know, it’s controversial, but sometimes you just need a day off—from the guilt, from pushing yourself. Sometimes it’s OK to allow your imagination to rest. Fill up the creative well by hanging out with someone you love, and focusing completely on them. Taking time today to do something that feeds your brain will leave you less frazzled and more likely to be able to get into the writing space tomorrow.
A Note Of Caution
Just don’t go more than two days without writing. Take a lesson from basic physics: overcoming inertia (i.e. getting started) takes a lot more effort than speeding up if you already have momentum (if you are already moving).
What about you? What do you do when you just can’t summon the mental energy for your writing projects?
JULIE DUFFY is the host of StoryADay May an annual creative writing challenge designed to help writers learn how to write every day, not “some day”. She is also the author of several workbooks for writers.
Join the discussion
Every day I read on two different novels (50 pages on each). I always say to myself: “All the words you write in the morning leave your body, so fill up your body again with new words by reading”.
Syleste Hoskins says
Rene, I like that idea, and I’m definitely going to set a reading goal starting today.
jennifer blanchard says
I’ve been doing the same! Every morning on the bus ride to work (or for 10-15 minutes before I go to bed) I’ve been reading about a chapter or two on my Kindle and it’s really helping me stick with a writing mindset and helps fuel my day in a positive way. So much so that when I get to work in the mornings, my co-workers can literally tell by my attitude if I read fiction on the bus that morning or not. haha…
I am love-love-loving my Kindle, Jennifer! I take it with me everywhere.
Lol, I just got all frustrated with my paperback copy of “on writing” because I lost my page and had to riffle through them to find my place. I am a Kindle junkie!
All you readers, feel justified: I just checked and the “Great Commandment” in Stephen King’s book “On Writing” is: Read a lot, write a lot.
You’re in good company!
Syleste Hoskins says
I actually find that setting lofty goals actually helps me write more. I always hope to write 2,000 words per day, so when I sit down to write, I say: “Okay Syleste. Let’s do at the very least 3,000 words.” I don’t usually make that. I usually get to 2,000 and I’m spent. But when I do make 3,000, it feels awesome.
Also, going back a few pages and editing my current work sometimes sparks my imagination.
Syleste, I’m so envious of you and your lofty goals 😉 I always feel like such a wimp setting small goals, but for now it’s working. I love that such different methods end up with the same result!
Oh, and I like your suggestion about going back and editing a bit. It is usually encouraging.
Andrew Toynbee says
Reading a chapter of a novel definitely helps to purge the majority of niggles from my mind – and there’s always the bonus of a new idea that might creep in whilst reading that novel!
Cathy Yardley says
I love this! Especially the part about keeping momentum up. I psych myself out too easily… find every excuse to avoid the page for days at a time. When I have a regular writing schedule, it’s so much easier to keep writing. Also, I read every day… I’ve discovered I need to read something NEW, rather than just recycling comfort reads.
How do you find your new reads? Recommendations from friends? An online reader’s community? (I keep a list in a couple but. Haven’t delved too deeply into the community side of them)
Do you tend to read exclusively in the genre you write in/ vice versa?
Cathy Yardley says
Generally, I get new reads from friends — I am wading into the online reader community, but haven’t really connected yet, as well. Sometimes I’ve discovered new authors from their favorites or from reader polls especially. (Like “ten best paranormal romances from 2010”)
I don’t read exclusively in the genre I write in, although I am starting to write more of my favorite comfort read — paranormal. I read more mystery than I write, as well!
We sound quite alike! I read a lot of mysteries too, but haven’t really delved into writing them fully. I like a little twist in my tales though.
Andrea Di Salvo says
Thanks so much for this! As a toddler mom–and expecting another–I find myself short on brainpower even more than time. I’ve had to drastically shrink my daily goals, from 1,000 words a day to more like 50. It’s nice to have confirmation that, for now, it’s okay to do that. (It’s also nice to give myself permission to read for fun, though I usually don’t have a problem with THAT….) Thanks again.
Andrea, you have my complete understanding! I’m just moving out of that stage myself (both kids in school, woo-hoo!). Do enough writing to keep yourself semi-sane, but enjoy the babies. In a few years you’ll look back and be glad you did!
Thanks Julie, those are very good tips. I’ve used each of them at different times. It can get sticky when you are doing the fourth rewrite of one thing, editing something and needing to get something fresh on the page. Reading and music are the best for clearing my head and re-setting the muse.
Thanks again 🙂
jennifer blanchard says
I like the idea of “giving up” for a short period of time. I “gave up” on my blog and blog newsletter for the last 3 weeks because I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and uninspired. I’ve been berating myself for it ever since. But reading this post has made me realize that it’s better for me to give up and write nothing then to write some crappy post that won’t be useful to any of my readers. I hope they can forgive me for my absence. I plan to get back to my regular blogging/newsletter schedule this week. Hopefully.
Jennifer, thanks for saying this. I’m glad it helped.
Stacey Wiedower says
Man, do I ever struggle with this. I’m juggling not just two jobs, but two careers, and writing fiction on the side (though sometimes it feels like it’s the other way around). I also have a 4-year-old and a social/civic schedule that’s somewhat masochistic. I’m revising my first novel right now to get it ready to query so I can start the second novel that’s percolating in my brain. And, yeah, sometimes when I sit down to edit, I’ve nearly run out of time before I’m able to focus hard enough to get any real work done.
I really wish life had a pause button. I keep saying that and blogging that and blog-commenting that. If only repeating it could make it come true….
Good advice. Sometimes you need to cut yourself a little slack- take a vacation from everything. The break can inspire you if the pressure is off.
Christi Craig says
These are great tips! I often journal when my brain is too full. And, I have taken the day off. I appreciate your reminder, though, not to take more than two days off. I need breaks now and then, but I also have to keep moving forward.
Great post! I love the 750 Words concept. I’ve been having trouble writing blog entries lately and I think that will help me clear the haze of random thoughts so I can focus on one topic and write.
Something that always inspires me to get back into my documents to work on my fiction is, incidentally, reading writer advice blogs and books. Eventually I will run across this really great new technique or tip and be instantly inspired to apply it to my writing. Next thing I know, I’ve added another 2000 words to my draft.
Currently I’m working my way through Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Not only am I inspired to write more purposefully and artfully but I’m also inspired to read attentively and I gain so much more from the fiction I’m enjoying reading right now.
One thing I notice in that vein is that the more I read, particularly of writers who are gifted with description, the greater my vocabulary seems and the easier it is to make scenes flow effortlessly.