I have a confession to make: sometimes, I just don’t feel like writing. I have stories clamoring around inside my head, but the idea of sitting down and carving them out of words just seems excruciating. Those days, I daydream that I’ll take up painting, or filmmaking, or almost anything else, and I’ll get the stories out by some other medium.
I used to let those days pass without fighting them too much, and waited for the good writing feelings to return. Then I had an entire year without feeling drawn to pick up my pen, and I learned that sometimes I just have to push through that feeling and write anyway.
I also learned that there are some things that will help break me out of a funk, as long as I use them in moderation. It’s really easy to get distracted by all the inspiration-builders, and end up without time to write.
So here they are, 6 things that help me get back in the groove.
Number 1: Music
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says he likes to listen to classic rock while he’s writing. JK Rowling said once in an interview that she likes to write without any music at all.
As for me, I like Mumford & Sons or something instrumental. The rises and falls of music can help me get my rear in a chair and keep it there while I scribble. A lot of the pages in my notebook will have a song title and artist written at the top, so I will forever know what song I listened to as that page emerged out of the jumble of potential in my head.
The best music for writing is the kind that sits on top of your thoughts like a warm blanket. If it’s too irritating, you’ll be distracted. If you have the urge to jump out of your chair and sing along to the lyrics, using your pen as a microphone, then you won’t be writing. Which is why I save ‘Shake it Off’ for dance parties with the kids.
Number 2: Food
I didn’t always like to cook, but once I got into it, I really, really got into it. After getting through the drudgery of chopping and searing and baking, I realized how much art there was in the knifework. There is chemistry in browning meat. And baking bread is like some magic trick that enlists the help of living organisms to crawl around turning sugar into gas bubbles.
My favorite way to write is with a mug of homemade granola next to my keyboard. Or perhaps one of my specialty Pumpkin Muffins.
Sometimes the process of cooking is enough to get my brain re-engaged. New recipes where I learn to make from scratch something that I usually buy always boost my confidence and fill me with wonder. Just last night I made a new type of pizza crust from scratch, and pulling that beautiful, puffy, crackling crust out of the oven made me want to dance, then take a million pictures to post on Instagram.
Number 3: Books
Just walking into a bookstore or a library is enough to make my brain tingle. I’m the kind of person who loves to stick my face into the binding so I can smell the glue. The reminder that this is my goal, to have a book someday on one of these shelves, wedged in among the ones I’m renting or buying, is a great nudge.
Some books are better to read than others, I find. I’ve read some books this year that were way too close to current events and actually made me less productive. Things like The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie opened my mind to new possibilities. The writing in both is skillful, and the concepts are intriguing.
When it comes right down to it, writers have to read, so try to pick the things that inspire you. And don’t limit yourself just to the genres that you write in. There’s a lot to learn in every section of the bookstore.
Number 4: Motion
Sometimes when I’ve come across a really snaggly writing problem, the best solution is a nice, long walk in the woods. As my feet tread the miles, my brain is free to churn over that character who just won’t do what I need her to do. I’ve built many characters, cities, and plots while climbing hills and crossing streams.
When I’m just feeling down, stuck, or uninterested, I often turn to Yoga. As hippy-dippy as it might seem, going through a sequence of movements connected to breath-work have a way of instilling me with confidence. Some Yoga is rhythmic and structured, some free-flowing and artistic. I almost always come back from it ready to take on new problems and reminded of the importance of discipline.
The mind and the body are really closely connected, more than I think we acknowledge. Sometimes when inspiration is running low, getting in some movement can kick-start the brain.
Number 5: Making
Part of what leads me to write is an urge to make things. But novels are not going to give me a rapid sense of satisfaction. So far it’s taken me several years to get my manuscripts into really excellent, well-polished condition. That is a long time to go without that moment where you stand up, dust of your hands, and declare, “Done!”
When I find myself craving that sense of completion and the end of a novel isn’t anywhere in sight, I turn to the shelves of craft supplies. I might try some watercolors, sew a shirt, or knit some socks, anything to satisfy that craving to make a thing and call it finished.
Bonus, when I knit some socks, my feet are warm.
Number 6: Work
There are times when all of the above kick-start methods fail. When I’ve gone days hanging out in a windless sea, the sails of my boat hanging empty all around me.
This is the time I take out my oar and row. Sometimes I find it’s not so bad, that the craft I’m in is a little canoe and the waters are still and smooth. Sometimes I find it’s much worse than I imagined, and I’m the captain of a frigate on a stormy sea that I can barely budge. But still, I have to row, because sometimes the only way out is through.
Writing is not about waiting for inspiration. It took me, I’m ashamed to admit, years to learn this. A lot of the time (probably not that much, really, although more than I like) getting the words out is just a question of sitting down and scratching out letters one at a time. Sometimes I set a timer, so at least I have a point where I know I’ll get to stop. Sometimes I just sit down and grapple with it as long as I can stand. Like many things that are heroic, it doesn’t feel grandiose or special, but these are the times that galvanize a writer. These are the moments of mental fortitude that make the writing of a novel something to be proud of.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are probably as many ways of igniting inspiration as there are writers. That last one, though, is critical to the success of any story-scribbler, from the teen writing fan-fiction for her friends (hello me, ten years ago) to the serious contender who’s been published (hello, future me).
I encourage you, wherever you are on the writer spectrum, to seek out your inspiration. Find the things that lift your spirits and give you fuel to keep going when the waters get rough or the winds die.
I’d love to hear what helps you get back to the page when you just aren’t feeling it. Have you tried any of my methods, or do you have some that are completely different?
Above all, keep writing!