They happen. Some days, you just can’t squeeze out a sentence.
Maybe you just don’t have a clue what to say or how to say it today.
Maybe your brain is fried. “It’s December first,” I heard a bunch of NaNoWriMo participants say during a quiet post-November meeting. “We’re all out of words!”
Or maybe life smacks you upside the head, and we react in different ways. A few months ago, when my dog Shakespeare was diagnosed and given weeks to live, I pounded out a short story that afternoon (and it promptly sold). Last month, when I learned my dog Laev was probably coming out of remission even before her final scheduled chemo treatment, my NaNoWriMo graph flat-lined for nearly a week. It’s hard to say how things will affect us or our writing.
But we need to recover and write on. So today we have a guest post from Bryan Cohen, whose new book 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, Volume 2: More Ideas for Blogs, Scripts, Stories and More is now available on Amazon (and yes, he had a Volume 1 of 1,000 other prompts). Also, there’s a writing contest with big money, details at the bottom.
How to Salvage a Bad Writing Day
Writers block. The resistance. Burnout. Whatever you call the thing that keeps you from writing, it’s easy to tell when it’s coming on. Maybe it always hits you at the same time of day or when you’ve been off your schedule from the time you rolled out of bed. Perhaps it rears its procrastinatory head when you reach a certain word count. While there are plenty of factors that can bring on this sensation, sometimes it comes out of nowhere. Some days, the feeling blindsides you mid-paragraph and you don’t know what to do to salvage your day of writing.
Here are some things you can do when writers block throws you for a loop in the middle of a planned writing session.
Step 1: Close Your Eyes, Breathe and Slow Down
Staring at a screen all day can overstimulate your eyes. When I’ve been looking at the screen too long, I get easily distracted and tend to zone out. The best way I’ve found to counteract this sensation is to close my eyes. During this minute of rest, I let myself breathe deeply, almost as if I’m trying to get more oxygen to my tired peepers. I may even start typing with my eyes closed to jumpstart my writing. If that doesn’t work, I’ll keep my eyes closed for another 30 seconds, and upon opening them, I’ll start looking around and pretend things are moving in slow motion. It’s funny how often that will make me feel more mindful and aware of my surroundings.
Step 2: Get Better Air and Sunshine and Get Your Blood Flowing
If step 1 isn’t successful, it often means I’ve been sitting for too long. I’ve started to build in a 15-20 minute walk everyday between my apartment and my favorite coffee shop. If I hit my breaking point before then, a walk up and down the block is just what the writing doctor ordered. This allows me to get better air than the stuffy surroundings of my office. In addition, a little bit of sunshine tends to brighten my mood. The walk gets the blood moving from my firmly planted posterior up to my brain where it’s supposed to be. Between the new oxygen, the sunshine and the blood flow, I’m often ready to get back in the groove.
Step 3: Go Analog and Elsewhere
I know I’m firmly in the grasp of the resistance when I can’t stop clicking on links that take me from website to website in a never ending spiral. Around the time I’m getting to my third Buzzfeed article, I usually realize that my wheels are spinning. Once I’ve gotten out of free fall, I shut down my computer and switch to either pencil and paper or my internet-free electronic keyboard. I also head over to the nearby Whole Foods, my favorite coffee shop or the laundry room. The lack of a computer keeps me from wasting time. The new location helps me to focus on the task at hand.
Step 4: Push Down Negative Thoughts and Fire Myself Up
The first three steps are typically enough to get me back on track. If I’m having an especially dreadful day, I move onto the big guns of steps 4 and 5. Step 4 involves the use of music, books on tape and other audio stimulation to keep me from thinking too much about my writing. When I need a boost, I make sure the audio books are positive and full of inspirational thoughts. I may even branch out from the books and instrumental music to try pumping myself up with an affirmation or two. Out loud, I remind myself of all that I’ve achieved and what I’m setting out to do. I tell myself not to give up, and more often than not, my fingers begin to listen to my heartfelt words.
Step 5: Road to Nowhere
If I’m sunk after trying steps 1 through 4, I have one last push available. It’s my Hail Mary pass. To make sure I meet my writing goals for the day, I will get on a bus or train with nothing but my computer, my electronic keyboard or my pencil and paper. It helps when I have a good reason to take public transportation, such as picking up a new Brita filter from the grocery store, but there’s nothing wrong with choosing a direction and going. This step may not work as well for me when I move out of the big city, as my public transportation options will be limited. I still believe a regional rail, a $1 Greyhound bus far or even a taxi would work in a pinch to help me punch out the last few hundreds words on the roughest of rough days.
What worked for me may not work for you. But I’ll tell you what will never work: giving up. Even good writers have bad days. It’s unacceptable to let the bad days win for weeks at a time. Fight the anti-writing demons and you’re bound to finish that book, with or without a train ticket.
About the Author
In honor of his new book, Cohen is hosting the “1,000 Prompts, 1,000 Dollars” Writing Contest on his website. Click the link to find out how to enter!
Bryan Cohen is an author, a creativity coach and an actor. His new book, 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, Volume 2: More Ideas for Blogs, Scripts, Stories and More is now available on Amazon in digital and paperback format. His other books include 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, The Post-College Guide to Happiness, and Ted Saves the World. He has published over 30 books, which have sold more than 20,000 copies in total. Connect with him on his website, Build Creative Writing Ideas, on Facebook or on Twitter.
Thank you, Laura, for tackling the Bad Writing Day. I have a deadline for a scientific paper and was planning to devote the entire weekend to finishing the tough part. But. Yesterday, Saturday, I Could. Not. Write. Felt as if that would be true from now on, forever.
Well, it wasn’t. Now, Sunday morning, despite a late night (sang in a choral concert) I jumped up and wrote a different but equally overdue piece, delivered it, and now I am ready to roll on the science thing. Nice to know I am not alone in this kind of event.
Ah, yes – the classic left-brain/right-brain reversal! That’s something I do a lot, just walk away and do something completely opposite. (One of my most productive writing periods ever was during three weeks of chicken training, when I spent 8-9 hours a day writing training plans and logging data, and then went back to an empty hotel room and wrote epic second-world fantasy for 6-8 hours a night. The focused opposites worked really well!
Good work, Karen. Sometimes a good night of sleep (even a truncated one) can be all you need.
Thanks so much, Laura, for having me on the blog today!