SFWC 2018: Why Am I Not Writing?

Writers love when the dam breaks and the words flow. If only that could be all the time. However, sometimes the words dry up. Sometimes life simply gets in the way.

One of the final sessions I attended at SFWC this year was a presentation by David Rasch. While on the surface it can be easy to say, “I’m too busy,” Rasch delves deeper into reasons we might stop writing. He pointed out:

“Writer’s block” is a universal issue for writers, but it’s not the same for everyone. The consequences are profound. It causes internal distress. Once you can write again, however, your mood improves.

I’ve generally found this to be true.

Why is writing so hard?

Writing is a neurologically complex task. It may seem simple—you put some words on paper or type them on a screen—but there’s a lot more going on than that. Effort and concentration are required—it’s work! Hard work! And it’s often solitary work, so a writer has to be okay with being alone. He or she has to find the time and space to focus on the task. Sometimes the practical demands of daily life pull you away, or sometimes mental chaos and distractions do it (the Internet, anyone?).

Also, the public nature of the final product, the fear of exposure, imposter syndrome can all play a part in writer’s block. Past bad experiences with writing can cause trauma that prevents you from making progress as well.

What are the barriers to productivity?

Well, first you need motivation—a desire to write. Then you’ll make writing a priority. There’s an old saying that if you can walk away from writing, you should. If you can’t, then you’re a writer. Time management, too, can be an issue for some people. If you don’t plan well or are disorganized, you may not be as productive.

Also, health issues (physical, mental, emotional) may impact your ability to write. Natural talent or ability, too. Writing is easier for some people than others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write if it doesn’t come easily, but you should be aware that the challenge of writing may stop your progress.

Making sure you have a writing space that works for you, a place where you can concentrate and relax without interruption, is key. And developing writing habits and a regular routine is also important. Pinpoint your behaviors for when you’re avoiding writing. Do you clean the house? Bum around on YouTube? Once you’ve figured them out, put a stop to them.

In school we were given deadlines for our work. Now that we’re grown, if we don’t have an agent or publisher, we may have no deadline either. Setting one for yourself is too easy to ignore, so have someone you trust set a deadline for you—someone who will hold you accountable and not let you off the hook too easily. This person might be a fellow writer, or even members of your critique group. They should check in regularly so you can account for your progress (or lack thereof).

What are some of the problems writers run into?

  • Time (scheduling/prioritizing) – Write every day, even if only for 15 minutes, and protect that time. Eventually it will become a habit.
  • Difficulty starting – Better to jump into a cold swimming pool than dip a toe in. Else you might never swim.
  • Freezing up – Sometimes you stare at the blank screen and can’t think of anything, which causes anxiety.
  • Feeling overwhelmed – The project or idea might feel too big, and you feel like you can’t start writing until you’ve figured it all out. But the best way to figure it out is to start writing. The writing itself will help you clarify the story.
  • Procrastination/binge cycle – You put off writing for days or weeks and suddenly sit and write for hours at a time.
  • Excessive early editing – You feel the need to fix that chapter, that page, that paragraph before you can go on. This causes you to write at a micro pace. Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect the first (or second, or even third) time. Just get it written.
  • Perfectionism – Similar to the previous. Save your perfectionism for the final polish.
  • Excessive research – Falling down the Wiki rabbit hole.
  • Revision loop – It’ll never be perfect, and at some point you’ve got to stop revising and say it’s good enough.
  • Unable to finish/not wanting to share your work – A fear of criticism may keep you from submitting or publishing. But not everyone will like what you write. That’s just part of the package. If you want to write just for you, that’s fine. But make that decision early on.
  • Fear of success – Rasch told the story of a man who couldn’t finish his book because he was afraid Oprah would pick it for her book club and he’d have to go on TV. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Take things one step at a time.
  • Fear that you’re a fluke – A one-hit wonder? Beginner’s luck? Maybe you’re afraid you only have the one book in you.

Hard work often pays off after time, but procrastination always pays off now.

Every time you procrastinate, you strengthen the habit of not writing. You feel relieved at first. At the end of the day, you may say to yourself, “Well, I just didn’t have the time. Oh well.” But eventually you feel terrible.

How do I change my habits?

  • Make success unavoidable – Be consistent by writing every day, even if you’re not working on the “big project.” Write anything.
  • Know your avoiding behaviors and create a strategy for dealing with them
  • Set realistic goals and break things into bite-sized chunks
  • Be okay with imperfect drafts
  • Set contingency plans – As in, “I can only go online after I’ve written for at least 15 minutes.”
  • Have a relapse strategy – If and when you fall off the wagon, have a plan in place for getting back on.

I’ll tell you some of my writing obstacles: I’ve had some bad experiences with criticism and a lack of overall success with my work. These things really undercut my motivation to keep writing. I begin to ask myself why I bother and whether I’m just wasting my time.

Also, I’ve recently gone through a serious bout of depression. That definitely impacted my desire and ability to write.

This session helped me see my way clear to getting back into writing. The energy of the conference overall was good for that as well. And it’s so important as a writer for me to have support from friends and family. So be sure that you go support your fellow writers because you’ll need theirs in return.

Do you have avoidant behaviors that cause you to procrastinate? What are your coping strategies when you’re finding it difficult to write? Tell me about it in the comments!

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M

Writer/Screenwriter

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