#69: Getting Unstuck from “Should”

Hi Story Nurse!

I’ve found your advice on getting back into writing after a long break really helpful, thanks! At this point I’m having what feels like a related problem. Earlier this year, I got back into a more regular writing habit after many years of not writing, or only writing very rarely and with extreme difficulty. I write mostly fanfiction, though recently I’ve come up with a couple ideas for original short stories that I’m excited to tackle. I still feel out of practice and kind of clunky, which is frustrating – but I want to stick with it and build my writing muscles to the point where the hard stuff is easier, and the fun parts are even more fun. Before that long hiatus, I had a real sense that I was getting better at getting stories out of my head and onto the page, and I want to get there again.

At first, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough ideas to keep writing consistently, but actually I’m having the opposite problem. It seems like as soon as I start writing one story, I’ll come up with an idea that feels even more important to get on the page as soon as possible, so I’ll put the first project aside and start working on the bright shiny new one. I’ll mean to get back to the first one, but a lot of the time the same thing happens again, and I’ll end up abandoning the first project.

I think a lot of this comes from wanting to avoid what’s harder for me right now – I love mapping out the bones of a story on notebook paper and planning how all the pieces might fit together, while finishing a first draft and revising feels like hard and confusing work. So it makes sense that the new thing would be that much more tempting to me! But I don’t just want practice at starting stories, I want to get better at the whole process. And the whole reason I love writing fanfic is the sense of collaboration – reading other people’s interpretations of the characters, worlds, etc, and sharing my own. But that isn’t really happening if all of my own are sitting half-written on my hard drive.

When I have a deadline (two of my three finished stories this year have been for fic exchanges) I can finish a story, but because I’m worried about the time pressure, I end up writing stories I know I can finish, not ones I’m very excited about or interested in. The answer seems to be stop doing exchanges for a while, but I’m afraid then I wouldn’t finish anything. Due to the finite nature of time, it’s not going to be possible to write every single idea I come up with, so it’s fine if some are abandoned – but how do I prioritize so that some of them do get finished?

What makes it worse is that in the background, I’m constantly afraid that I’ll abandon my current project and never start writing again (or at least have to re-learn a ton of stuff whenever I do start again). And it’s much easier to abandon a project when it gets boring, so it seems even more important to chase those super interesting new ones. But that’s no way to finish anything! I feel stuck in this pattern – any ideas for how to get unstuck?

Thanks!

—Unfinished Business (they/them)

Dear Unfinished Business,

It sounds like what you’re stuck in is a whole lot of pairs of competing urges and influences:

  • Wanting to push yourself to learn and get stronger but not wanting to do difficult things.
  • Wanting to finish anything at all but feeling that the things you do finish don’t count.
  • Understanding that not every story can be finished but trying to develop every new story idea.
  • Dropping projects when they get boring but dodging the challenges that keep projects exciting.

You need to have a good hard think about your priorities along each of these axes. Think about what you get out of them, what makes them appeal to you in the short and long terms. Also think about, for a lack of a better term, your values—the type of writer you want to be. Which choices are in line with those values? Which paths take you closer to your own personal definition of satisfaction and success?

A lot of this looks to me like conflicts between your inner desires and what you think you should be doing. For example, there’s a very strong cultural idea that you should finish things, and want to finish them. But it’s perfectly okay to write for other reasons besides generating a finished product. Rose Lemberg just wrote a magnificent piece about writing as stimming, and the shame that can accompany not finishing things even if you only want to write for the pleasure of writing. It’s perfectly okay to only do the parts of writing you find fun and easy and exciting; that’s called having a hobby. It’s also perfectly okay to make practical decisions on deadline, like finishing the story you know you can finish rather than the story that excites you; letting that pressure push you in directions you wouldn’t otherwise go in is an excellent way to build your skills. (I definitely don’t know how you got the idea that you should stop doing the only kind of writing that you finish, when finishing stories is what you want to do. You are doing the thing you want to do! Keep doing it! Everything you learn from doing it is absolutely applicable to your original fiction.) It’s perfectly okay to write playfully sometimes and push yourself hard at other times. Every single approach to writing is perfectly okay, as long as it’s in line with the kind of writer you want to be.

So if “should” is keeping you stuck, give yourself permission to let go of it. Let every choice be equally acceptable in the broader sense. If there were an easy decision to be made you would have made it already, so clearly there’s something to genuinely recommend each of these options. Now is also a good time to accept yourself for who you are right now, how you’re inclined to write, and where you are in the never-ending learning process.

Then figure out your values and commit to pursuing them. Whenever you feel stuck, use that commitment and those values as levers to unstick yourself. It may help to write up a series of statements beginning “I want to be a writer who…” and post them prominently in your writing space, always keeping in mind that you can add, change, and remove list items as you learn more about yourself and how you write.

(This technique is cribbed from a psychology approach called acceptance and commitment therapy, which is used to help people find healthy ways to interact with personal experiences that they fear or avoid. I’ve found it extremely useful for getting past inner roadblocks to writing and building better writing habits.)

Finally, a note on boredom. You know that you want to stop doing things when you get bored of doing them, so use that! Indulge your bad habits until you get bored of them and decide to try something else. Flit from idea to idea until you’re so tired of that that you actively want to commit to one and see it through, just for a change of pace. Whenever something challenges you, remind yourself that being challenged is better than being bored.

No one is born with the perfect writing mentality (because there’s no such thing). We all have to figure out our own combinations of carrots and sticks. Keep trying different ways to get yourself to do the things that are short-term difficult but long-term educational, or that feel embarrassing or unproductive but also deeply enjoyable and satisfying, or that make you anxious but also get you closer to your goals. If you sometimes need to give yourself a little kick in the pants or play the occasional mind game on yourself in order to get where you want to go, there’s no shame in that. We all do it. As you build your unique set of writing tools and habits, you’ll find that all these things get easier.

If you decide that a finisher of stories is who you want to be, then I have no doubt that you will finish many and many more stories. And if you decide that right now you just want to write for fun, then I have no doubt that you will have loads of fun. All these possible paths lead to the same place: the concretization of your writing dreams and goals, the maturity of your writing skills, the satisfaction that comes from finding ways to enjoy and achieve simultaneously. Just pick a direction—any direction you like—and go. You’ll be in the groove before you know it.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

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