GYWO: How to Write When You Don’t Wanna

GYWO is Get Your Words Out, a wonderful writing accountability community. I joined this year and I’m really enjoying it. I wrote this post for the GYWO community, and the moderators have kindly allowed me to mirror it on Story Hospital.

I have a cold. When I have a cold, I feel extremely sorry for myself. I am the worst, whiniest patient; I just want to sit in bed, play phone games, and have everything done for me. This is not conducive to writing. But I said I would make a post for GYWO today, so here I am. And the topic couldn’t be more apropos!

So there you are, a writer with writing to do, but… you don’t want to.

If you don’t want to write, the obvious solution is not to write. The vast majority of people go through life this way and do perfectly fine. Those of us who think of ourselves as writers don’t tend to remember that not writing is an option, but it is! We get to choose how we spend our time, and we can choose to spend it doing other things. Give yourself a moment to consider this option.

You may find yourself thinking of all the reasons you do want to write: you enjoy it, you’re in the middle of something you want to finish, you’re under contract or have some other obligation, you get so much satisfaction out of filling out those tracking spreadsheets, you want readers to have the story you’re creating, and so on. Sometimes, just remembering those reasons is enough to help you get past a bout of the don’t-wannas.

You may feel a wave of relief. “I don’t have to write? HOORAY.” If that’s how you feel, and if your obligations permit, give yourself a little time off from writing—or a lot of time off, if that’s what you need. We got into this gig because we enjoy it, but over time, that enjoyment can fade. If your daily routine is making writing feel more like a grind than a delight, take a break.

If you’re still stuck in the conflict between wanting to write (for some reasons) and also not wanting to (for other reasons), think about what kind of reluctance you’re experiencing, because different ailments require different treatments. Here are some examples of don’t-wannas that writers experience.

“I don’t want to write because my body or brain isn’t up for it.” If you have an acute condition (something like a cold or a bruised finger that will go away in a short period of time), give yourself “sick leave” until it gets better, unless you have a deadline you just can’t miss. If you have a chronic condition, make sure your plan for your writing is based on your actual capabilities, not your ideal capabilities or someone else’s ideal capabilities.

Right now my GYWO spreadsheet thinks I can make my wordcount goal by the middle of the year, but the spreadsheet doesn’t take into account my chronic conditions, any of which might flare up and eat a month of productivity. When I was a freelance writer and editor, my standard practice was to quote 50% more time than I thought I needed for a project. If I finished it early, my client was overjoyed! If I hit a snag, I had time to work through it. Pad your own writing goals the same way.

Everyone with a chronic ailment has to learn—with many false steps—how to identify the difference between “today this is hard” and “today this is impossible”. Be gentle with yourself as you figure out when and whether you can write through the pain or brain fog or depression. And while you’re here, make sure your workspace is set up to make writing as easy as possible: good ergonomics, music or silence, fidget toys, time free from interruption.

“I don’t want to write because something’s going on in my personal or non-writing professional life.” I think the acute/chronic framing applies here too. If I have to do an unexpected day of childcare because my kid’s daycare is closed for a snow day, that might mean taking a day off from writing but wouldn’t generally interrupt my groove. If I were starting three months of working overtime or doing a major volunteering project, I’d have to make more serious adjustments to my writing schedule and goals.

“I don’t want to write because I don’t know what comes next in my story.” Sounds like it’s time to do some planning. No need to throw together a full outline if you don’t want to; just sketch out the next scene. Some writers find it helps to retype or rewrite the last paragraph they wrote before taking a break, as a warm-up and a reminder of what’s going on in the story.

“I don’t want to write because I don’t have faith in myself as a writer.” There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for this, but if you take a moment to think about times in the past when you’ve felt this way, you can probably identify things that have helped you. Talk with friends who love your writing, reread fan mail, reread your favorite piece of your own work, and remember that everyone hits a slump now and then, and it doesn’t reflect badly on you as a writer or as a person that you’re having a hard time right now. Do non-writing-related self-care while you’re there: eat something, drink something, get some sleep, do things that feel good and help you unwind a bit.

“I don’t want to write because I just know that as soon as I get into it, I’ll be interrupted.” Maybe it’s time to make a DO NOT DISTURB sign for your door, turn off your phone, and make sure the people around you know that your writing time is an important thing that needs to be respected. To make this stick, you need to value your own time so that you can convincingly tell others they need to value it too. Or you can practice writing for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, if that’s all that your demanding life affords you.

“I do want to write, but I don’t want to write the thing I’m supposed to be writing.” Go ahead and dabble in something else! Unless you’re on the tightest of tight deadlines, it’s more practical to try something else for a few minutes than to keep forcing yourself to hammer away on a project that you’re feeling averse to. Do come back to the original project—unless you realize that it’s just not a good project (for you) (right now) and needs to be shelved—but don’t feel that you need to make yourself miserable. Rediscovering the joy of writing by indulging in a quick little detour can reinvigorate you and make your primary project feel much easier and more fun. This technique also works when you have a stressful assignment or deadline and are feeling avoidant; let yourself indulge the procrastination urge for a little bit before you get back to your obligatory writing.

These situations can be complicated, so consider a two-column exercise: on one side, list all the reasons you don’t want to write, and on the other side, list all the reasons you do want to. That can help you weigh them out and decide whether to push through or to give yourself a pass. I encourage you to be kind with yourself and try to make that decision without bullying or shaming yourself. Everyone hits a patch of don’t-wanna now and then. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or a bad person. It just means you’re human.

What are some don’t-wannas you’ve felt when sitting down to write? How did you handle them?

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#64: Kicking the Procrastination Habit

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m having trouble buckling down and writing. It seems like this happens in a few, related ways:

1) When I come home from work, I’m exhausted and can’t muster the energy to write. On the weekends, I have a million things to do and don’t manage to devote time to writing.

2) I’m waiting for the “perfect time” to write—when the sun’s up, and my brain is clear, and I’m not in too much pain/too exhausted.

3) When I do have time and energy to write, I frequently don’t prioritize writing, even though I know I enjoy it and it makes me feel productive and happy.

This is all complicated by the fact that I don’t often have time and energy at the same time, due to the fact that I work full-time and am chronically ill. I struggle with figuring out what the “right” balance (or at least, a good balance) of self-indulgent/happy-making things (writing, video games, reading fic) and Responsible Adult things (financial stuff, laundry, etc).

Do you have suggestions of how to get yourself to write besides just sit in the effing chair, block social media, and stare at your word doc until writing happens? Do you have any thoughts on how to get yourself to not feel guilty when you don’t write, but also to not feel guilty when you do prioritize writing (guilty that you’re not doing “actually important” i.e. Adulting things)?

For context, I write fanfiction, almost entirely for exchanges (my inability to write without a deadline/fic exchange is a separate, possibly related issue). The longest fic I’ve ever written was almost 5k, but most have been in the ~2k range.

I generally find dialogue, character relationships, and emulating the source material to be the easiest part of writing; I struggle with coming up with plots/keeping tension (and your posts have been very helpful with that!). I’m getting better at describing things other than body language (scenery, smells, etc). Also for context, I’m Autistic and queer.

Thank you for all your enormously helpful advice!!

—mlraven (she/her)

Dear mlraven,

Thanks for writing in with a challenge that a lot of writers face. Procrastination is endemic among writers, and it’s hard to know how much of waiting for inspiration or the right circumstances is legitimate and how much is just finding another excuse to not be doing what you feel you ought to be doing.

Continue reading

#55: Writing for Five Minutes at a Time

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I almost always work in short little bursts of a few minutes. Even when I clear out my schedule and sit down to have a long writing session I get the most done if I work in bursts on a few different works at a time. And, I also tend to have a lot of little 2–5 minute breaks in my day while I’m between tasks at work, or waiting for things. I’ve been frustrated with my lack of writing time lately, so it seemed totally natural that the obvious solution would be to try and write during the breaks I usually waste on the internet.

And for some reason I can’t.

My attempts at writing during my downtime currently just involve me staring blankly at an open document for a few minutes and giving up.

On the rare occasion I can get started in a timely manner I can write a little segment of text then go back to work and it feels really good, but getting started as soon as I open the document is REALLY HARD.

The type of writing I do doesn’t seem to make any difference; it’s equally difficult for fanfic, original fiction, and work-related science writing.

How do I stop needing a ritual 15-minute staring session before I start writing?

Thanks,

Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

Thanks for writing in again—I love answering your letters! (And if any past letter writers are wondering, yes, you’re always welcome to send me another question.) I appreciate that this time you gave me a nice easy question to answer. The answer is: you can’t.

Every writer has a different process. Your process appears to require you to idle your brain for a bit before getting it in gear. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that it’s inconvenient to you given your other constraints at the moment. Alas, sometimes creative work is inconvenient.

I totally understand you thinking that “do work, write for five minutes, go back to work” is the same as “sit down, write for five minutes at a time on a bunch of different things for a few hours, get up” but it really isn’t. You’re discounting the crucial transition from the work or everyday life mindset to the writing mindset. That transition takes time (apparently for you it takes about 15 minutes) and is very difficult to rush or skip.

In my experience, a lot of the transition time between not writing and writing is spent getting your intuitive, creative side and your intellectual, designing side (or your conscious and subconscious or left brain and right brain or whatever metaphor you like) to work together, like getting two high-spirited horses to draw a carriage. If you simply don’t have time to do that, here are some writing-related things that mostly rely on one type of thinking or the other.

Intuitive tasks:

  • Doodle. Free-associate. Let your intuition run wild. You can try to do this with relation to a particular plot or character issue, or just meander. Maybe you’ll come up with the ideas for your next six stories. Maybe you’ll get a page full of meaningless scribbles. Both those outcomes are fine.
  • Make a list of title ideas.
  • Come up with some questions about your story or characters that you can’t immediately answer. “Why” questions are particularly good. These two nations are at war when the book starts—why? Lisa has an inordinate fondness for milkshakes—why? Don’t try to answer the questions for now; just ask them.
  • Come up with some ridiculous ideas for fanfic of your work. Coffee shop AU! High school AU! One character throws another a surprise birthday party! Or match your cast up to the cast of a book or movie or show: which Avenger or Crystal Gem or member of the Ring Fellowship would your protagonist be?
  • Take a quick online personality quiz as if you were one of your characters.

Intellectual tasks:

  • Draw a quick sketch of a character or a scene. This can be especially useful if you’re trying to figure out who’s standing where in an interaction where physical proximity is important.
  • Do a little bit of research. It might help to plan ahead for this so you stay focused and get the most out of your short breaks: “On Tuesday, I’m going to see what I can learn about medieval sheep farming.”
  • Outline the next scene you want to write, or work on the outline for your whole story.
  • Create a timeline of significant story events.
  • Try to answer some of the questions you came up with in another day’s question-generating session.

You may try a few of these things and realize that you need your work downtime to be downtime. If trying to get anything done during your breaks ends up frustrating you, take them as breaks. The time isn’t wasted, any more than time spent sleeping or eating is wasted. Your brain can’t keep going at top speed all day, and valuable, important things happen when you let your mind wander and ruminate. If you’re not a fan of staring off into space, try reading a book or working on a handicraft project or playing a silly phone game. Give yourself permission to rest.

Separately, see what you can do to carve out more writing time that includes the 15-minute staring session and whatever else you need. Your innate writing process is what it is. Work with it rather than against it, and you’ll be much happier and more productive.

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!