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
Every month in this space, author Jeff Bowles offers advice for young and struggling writers. No one ever said becoming a world-famous storyteller is easy. This is the Pep Talk.
Everyone needs a pep talk now and then. I could use one at least once a week. I know a lot of damn fine writers who’re having challenging times right now. Maybe it’s just the year 2017, a surge of new energy which has left us feeling stifled and worn down. I think drive comes in waves. Easy to manifest when you’re young and hungry, also easy when you’re working for paychecks. An unexamined life is not worth living. What makes you tick, my friends? Why do you feel the need to work hard for your dream?
For me, a famous song lyric says it all: “Time inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.”
There’s a certain creative disposition that fuels productivity by way of dread for the brevity of life. I am of that disposition. When I get into a writing slump, I wake up in the middle of the night feeling unfulfilled and guilty. I’ve got so much to say, so many stories to tell. Maybe it’s more important to create as if nothing can harm us, as if the whole universe is waiting for our next works of art. It can feel like that sometimes, can’t it? Thank God.
Do you have big dreams for your writing career? I certainly do. There’s kind of a junction between what we want and what reality is willing to give us. What keeps us writing even when no publishers are interested in our work and readers are few and far between?
I think the answer is more universal than people realize. If you’ve been doing this long enough, no doubt you know a few people who’ve climbed further faster than you. Now this can be a really painful experience, and I think it’s okay to admit it. Is it petty to resent those who’ve accumulated more success than us? It is, but to a large extent it’s also unavoidable.
It’d take a very balanced personality indeed to shrug off adversity 100% of the time. There’s something within us, perhaps culled from our hunter-gatherer days, that endows us with an astonishing capacity for jealousy.
“How’d he publish that book? Mine is so much better!”
“And she won an award for it? Meanwhile I’m sitting here in obscurity, twiddling my thumbs.”
Comments like these are a sure sign of a bad attitude, but tell me you’ve never thought something similar. It’s normal, right? Even if we don’t want it to be. But I’d also like to remind you it’s corrosive to the mind and spirit.
Publishing is a tricky business because we’re all vying for limited resources. Only so many pub spots, book deals, and readers worldwide. Add to it the fact readership across the globe is on the decline, and holy cow! The competition is on. Some people are fueled by competition. In a perfect world we’d all hold hands and celebrate each other’s work and tell ourselves we can be happy, healthy and sane no matter how many copies of our latest masterworks we sell (or fail to sell).
In the end, jealousy tends to destroy people who cling to it. I do believe jealousy also serves a higher function. You can watch everyone around you meet with success and learn a great deal from it. Watch the successful ones, pay attention to their habits and practices. Are they better writers than you? Doubtful. Perhaps they’re just more keyed in to what sells. I have to admit I’m not very good at this. I have to do everything the hard way. Don’t be like me. Many people will tell you success is a game of luck. I’m not so sure I believe in luck anymore.…
That which we define as luck, I think, can be greatly enhanced by focus and productivity. You can beat the odds by maintaining a steady workflow and making sure you’re constantly revising, submitting, rewriting, doing the dance. Belief is more important than luck. I think you’ve got to take charge of who you perceive yourself to be.
Quit telling yourself you’re a failure nobody wants to read. Stop it! Do your best to boost your ego. Nothing flawed or vain about it. Isn’t there enough in this world that tears us down? So build yourself up. Focus on the end goal, the dream day, a fresh contract, your pen set to the signature line. A few months later, another dream day, signing fresh copies of your latest best seller, a huge line piled up at your table, running out the bookstore (I always imagine a nice cozy Barns & Noble).
Everyone needs friends and allies, too. People who appreciate what you do. Now I’ve got to admit that if you’re just starting out or are not yet as successful as you’d like to be, finding individuals to believe in you might be a challenge. Who knows why people behave this way, but there’s something about a nascent writing dream that drives the skeptics crazy. I’ve met a million of them, and I know you have, too. Just keep working, focus on where you want to be rather than where you are in this present moment.
I’ll just go ahead and say it. I think it pays to be delusional. You’ve got to be the emperor with no clothes on. When people tell you, “Yeah but you aren’t this. I’ve known you for years. What you really are is this.” You’ve got to show them your fine purple robes, assure them they’re more than thin air, and then parade around like you aren’t naked.
Someone someday will clothe you in something more real. Better yet, you’ll manage to get hold of some nice clothes yourself. But you can’t be a victim of other people’s circumstances. You’ll feel what you’ll feel, but don’t let envy control your world. Because it will try, again and again. We’re not monks on high mountains practicing infinite patience and unbridled universal centeredness. We are at best creative people willing to bleed for our work. And what are you going to do as a result? Quit? Ha! You’re no quitter. You are everything literature and great minds have praised for eons. To write and succeed is a blessing. To endure even as we struggle, that is divine. See you next time, everyone!
Interested in Jeff’s writing? Check out his 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
Writer’s Block vs. The God Complex
by Jeff Bowles
Traditionally, I’ve never been a fan of taking breaks from my writing. I’ve advocated others not break from theirs either, telling myself and the entire writing world to keep pushing no matter what the circumstances. I’m having to alter that perception somewhat. You see, life can and does get in the way at times, and I don’t think there’s any use denying it. Staying driven and defiant in the face of adversity is all well and good. But what about personal tragedy, financial setbacks, lingering doubts, bouts of depression?
In my life as a writer I’ve received well over 600 rejection slips. Trust me, I’ve counted them recently. That’s never been enough to put the nail in the coffin of my work ethic, but somehow when it comes to my life in disarray, a hard fight is just about the only kind I know. Sometimes existence is smooth and sometimes it’s bumpy, and after all, that which you leave behind is paramount. So working your butt off no matter what, creating stories, filling your hard drive with new material, it’s got to be a saving grace of some sort, hasn’t it?
Only I’m not a machine, and neither are you. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Here on Writing to be Read, we hand out a lot of pro tips and offer words of wisdom for writers just starting out. I’d like to give you your concept of the morning: forgiveness. As in self-forgiveness, the only kind no one ever wants to grant. It’s so very easy to pretend your problems don’t exist. Sometimes we don’t have a choice in the matter, and when life catches up to us, there can be a letdown in creativity.
Writing is a hard business to pursue day in and day out. Rather than being purely creative, it’s startlingly cerebral, which means those lovely brains of ours need to be in tip top shape if we’re going to create brilliant prose (which is always the goal, right?). The mind gets tired sometimes. What’s more, it’s far easier to produce another story when a deadline or paycheck is in play. But how do we put up with the work load when all guarantees of future success are null and void?
The answer is passion, I suppose, and a healthy dose of resolve. Discipline will get you to the finish line with startling regularity, but everyone gets burned-out sometimes, right? I would submit that what most people refer to as burnout is more attributable to depression. You’ve got to take care of yourself. Don’t ignore what your mind and body are screaming at you to acknowledge.
How do we refresh ourselves when we’re not in the mood to write? Creatively speaking—and this is just an example from my own experience—it’s always a good idea to have some kind of hobby or art project on the side. For instance, let’s say that 120,000 novel is really starting to drag you down ‘round about the 90,000 word mark. Why not go outside with a camera and begin a fun photography project? Or maybe pick up some paints and toss them at a canvas? Reading is also good, the kinds of stories you’ve always enjoyed most. Take a breather if you have to, though if I were you I’d narrow your daily word limits rather than abandoning your manuscript completely.
To be perfectly fair, I have never been great at refreshing myself in the middle of a long-haul project. The one thing that usually seems to work is finding escape in my words. Instead of viewing my writing as a crucible, I try to envision it as a form of therapy that allows me to escape my troubles and heal that which is damaged or broken. I don’t think this is easy for everyone to do, because the longer you’re at this thing, and the more life is stressing you out, the harder it is to view your writing in a positive light.
I know there will be plenty of writers out there who do not share my experience. After all, talent and depression don’t always go hand in hand, nor do they need to. But sometimes people go through bad months, bad years, and unless I miss my guess, during those times even the most productive writers find the work difficult. On social media the other day, a fellow author asserted writer’s block is just an excuse. I actually agree with the sentiment, though not by his same reasoning.
You see, calling a slump writer’s block allows us to focus on the results of our output rather than the cause. It’s like 17th century Salem assaulted by tragic events, blaming the whole thing on witchcraft. Writer’s block is a nothing phrase, a catch-all that doesn’t describe anything pertinent. Does it exist? Certainly, but not as an end itself. To me, writer’s block is and always will be a symptom of some form of depressed thinking.
When writers slow down, it’s important to consider life circumstances. Maybe the bills aren’t getting paid. Or perhaps there’s too much to do at the office. We humans are extraordinarily skilled at ignoring our troubles. Remember, everyone has bad days, months, years. It does no good to pretend we don’t. In fact, it only serves to make our writing woes that much harder to overcome.
Are you a writer who’s having trouble maintaining a steady workflow? Don’t get angry and do not criticize yourself. Call it writer’s block if you have to, but realize there’s a genuine cause that you can in fact address. Do a little soul searching, reacquaint yourself with your situation and get honest about what’s causing you difficulty. You understand best how talented you are. You are irreplaceable as a voice and as an individual, so get introspective and really try to parse out this downturn.
Consider a little self-nurturing. It’s not a sin to pause your work. It’s just not. Besides which, many of us consider writing a calling and a passion, no matter how successful or productive we are. You’ve come this far. If we can purge the negativity and bad emotion, the self-destructive tendencies and malaise, writer’s block is no longer such an issue. I’d rather work in a mind space free from all that crap. Wouldn’t you?
Most of the time writing is a damn thankless job. Let’s all be honest about that. It isolates us even at the best of times, so why’s it so hard to believe we sometimes need a little mental and emotional care? Be kind to yourself and respect your ability to produce. If you’re not feeling this right now, no worries, take a breather and work on yourself a bit. Until next time, everybody!
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces: Short Stories — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F