The Pep Talk – I Think We Need a BreakPosted: July 5, 2017
Every month in this space, author Jeff Bowles offers advice for young and struggling writers. No one ever said becoming a first-rate storyteller is easy. This is the Pep Talk.
So let’s assume you’re a dedicated writer. Or at least you want to be, which is why you’ve decided to come back to your craft after months or even years of not writing a single word. Perhaps life got in the way. Maybe you got married, had kids, made the choice to focus on your family and career first. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? We all have the ability to pursue our dreams whole-heartedly or to lay them aside when more important things come along.
The truth is you’re not alone. Almost by definition, writing is a solitary and thankless job. Becoming motivated and staying that way can be tough, and if you’ve got other responsibilities and obligations in your life—and all of us have—setting aside time for yourself and your work can be a huge chore.
Several years ago, I was feeling the crunch in just this way. I’d gotten married, had bought a new home, and I was working a job that was financially stable but not personally gratifying in any way, shape or form. Many days I’d pick at one of my short stories over my cafeteria lunch, praying for the day I could dedicate myself to my writing and leave the confines of corporate America for good.
It’s often been noted that many great authors throughout history have had to suffer dead-end jobs on their way to literary nirvana. Writing is a for-passion proposition for the vast majority of us. We do it because we are compelled.
But what happens when you aren’t feeling compelled? What happens when all your desire dries up and the thought of putting words on the page fills you with dread? Further, what happens after you’ve already taken a long break? Is it possible to pick up where you left off?
Of course it is. Momentum is momentum, and when people pursue their dreams with everything they’ve got, the universe conspires to bring their stars into alignment. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re tired. Most writers I know have come to that place at least once or twice in their careers. When I was just starting to learn the craft, it seemed to happen to me at least once a week.
“I’m never writing another word! These people don’t appreciate my talent, and anyway, I’d much rather pursue things that aren’t so damn frustrating!”
So maybe you grumble and walk away from your computer and promise yourself you’ll never tell another story as long as you live. Your intentions here don’t actually matter that much, because like smoking or eating premium New York-style pizza, writing has a way of getting under your skin.
In truth, when we come to the point of extreme frustration, of no forward momentum, often the best thing we can do for ourselves is offer a little humility and compassion and allow the work to falter. This might not be a popular perspective, but from a holistic standpoint, it’s the correct one. Frustration in a creative field signals burnout, which is most often caused by internal factors like unrealistic expectations and uncontrolled anxiety. When you add publishing contracts and money into the mix—as all of us one day desire to do—it can make matters worse.
The good news is that the human animal is ever changing. No really, that’s the good news. We are not static beings. You never know who you’re going to be from one day to the next, let alone one month, year, or decade to the next. Imagine your surprise when after a long hiatus you discover you still like writing. What’s more, you’re not the same person now, and your work seems to reflect this new maturity. Hell, sometimes we just run out of ideas and need some distance in order recharge the batteries, right?
Some will tell you stopping is the worst thing you can do. A rolling stone gathers no moss. I might have done so myself a few years ago when I was stuck at that crappy job. I’d have been wrong, though. The intellect and creative mind are not eternal well-springs. They do not flow on command at all times, and they can run dry when pushed too hard.
Here’s a little test for you. Tell me the last piece of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry you wrote to completion. Was it difficult to finish? I mean, more so than usual (let’s be honest, writing is seldom easy—if it were, everyone would do it). Did you find thoughts and ideas hard to come by? Did the notion of hauling yourself to the computer one more damn time make a compelling case for alcoholism?
See, we come to these brick walls precisely because the act of creating meaning and order from abstract symbols (or writing, in the common tongue) is not a natural fit for our freeform, emotional minds. Given the choice, we’d spend our lives daydreaming—many of us do anyway. We come to this craft with the highest of hopes, our expectations completely untempered, like a piece of nascent steel. Time separates the tourists from the devout. Disappointment is the rule rather than the exception. Is it any wonder we need to hit the brakes sometimes?
Here’s what I’d like you to do the rest of the day. Don’t write, even if you were expecting to. Rather, choose an activity that’s bound to depress you. Count up all your rejection letters, read something you wrote five years ago, look up your publishing stats, and yes my friends, read them and weep. Stop telling yourself you’ve almost made it, just one more story, just one lucky break. This is a trust experiment, gut-check time. Have you chosen this craft because it will make you famous? Are you more interested in seeing your name in print than in revising a single piece of fiction until your fingers bleed?
You are more interested in that? Well you’re the strange one, aren’t you? Everybody knows writing is never thankless, is always a laugh riot, and makes you feel good every single day of your otherwise bleak life.
Writing sucks sometimes, people! It just does. We all know it, and if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to make peace with it sooner or later. You need to realize this is a long game. I mean a looooooong game. You will get burned out, probably more than once. You will feel the need to quit, and you might even hate yourself because you gave up better opportunities along the way.
Be kind to yourself, please. You aren’t alone. You’re a writer because you can’t quit. It isn’t in your DNA. You should be more trusting; have some damn faith. And I think it’s a beautiful thing, admitting you’re helpless in the face of your need to tell stories. Taking a break is not giving up, it’s just taking a break. You may notice when at last you return that your skills have atrophied somewhat, that you’re a bit rustier than you’d like. That’s okay. You had to start somewhere way back when, and really, nobody forgets how to write.
Jump start that mind, warm up with some finger exercises, write a piece of flash fiction to get the ball rolling, but know that your choice to rest up was made in service to yourself. Let’s just call it an act of love. After all, you know yourself best. You’re not a machine, as much as you’d like to be.
It’s a mind game sometimes. It’s a battle of will. But one does not cease to be a writer just because one ceases writing. We are who we are, enjoy what we enjoy, are passionate about that which nourishes our souls and allows us to feel free.
Far from feeling free, do you feel like your writing has become a prison? Then take some time off, dudes and dudettes! That’s an order! Sheesh!
Until next time, folks.
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F
YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6uMxedp3VxxUCS4zn3ulgQ