Unintended breaks from writing – long and short – happen. Writing and productivity experts will tell you that strict adherence to routines and word counts are the only ways to find the gold at the end of the writing rainbow. But life happens, and sometimes you wake up and find it’s been weeks (or, gasp! months) since you’ve written.
Now say it with me: It’s okay. You can be a writer-taking-a-break, or a writer-in-a-rut, or a writer-out-of-rhythm. But, as you can’t shed the weight of those hyphenated addendums until words are hitting the page, you need to set a plan of attack for getting yourself back to the page or screen.
However, just like going back to the gym after a break, you can’t set the treadmill to 9.0 or pump iron until you drop. Our bodies, minds, and fingers aren’t ready for 0-to-60 changes – so we have to stay within ourselves to start, and re-work the brain muscles, helping, rather than forcing, them to remember how to move and think.
So, if you’re poking about looking for some way back into your writing, here’s a plan to help you regain your peak (or at least peak-ish) writing form:
- Practice Rapid Acceptance. Buddha would have been a Novelist should be a t-shirt – because the core tenets of mindfulness are a writer’s best friend. Among them, accepting what’s in front of you without condition and moving on, rather than dwelling on regret. Did you have a tough six months with the new baby and nary a word to show for it? No sweat. A particularly tough period at work that drained you of all emotional and creative energy? Don’t worry about it. That time has come and gone, and now you’re here – and you’re ready. In fact, your mere act of acknowledging your break, and accepting the reasons for it, is the first step toward moving on without judgment. That’s right – no judging, Judge Judy.
- Get some context for where you left off. You might not remember precisely the moment, the scene, or the chapter where you left off, but I’d wager you can come pretty close – and close is good enough. A few tactics to try:
- Freewrite about the last point in your writing you remember. Set a timer for 5 minutes and just write about where you think you left off with your story or your writing in general – no judgment, no editing, no looking back. If you want to write about why you stopped and what has brought you back to the page, go for it. The point here is not to create, it is to get your sea legs back and explore the catharsis of looking inward without a filter.
- Read the last draft of your outline, story, or even a single scene. This often helps me re-enter the mindset of the story, and rekindles my excitement for what I was writing about. Also – it doesn’t take very much time or effort. And it feels good, because I say, “huh, maybe I don’t suck as much as I thought I did when I wrote this.” The feeling of not sucking is pretty great.
- Pick up a book or story about your subject matter. If you’re staring at the page and can’t find the inspiration to re-enter your subject matter, reading can help. Dive into a novel (though perhaps not anything by Dostoyevsky, Pinchon, or David Foster Wallace), a Wikipedia page or a short story – and dip your toes back into the world you hope to create.
- Write in the Cracks. The cracks of your day are those small stolen moments when you can jot a note in your phone, tablet, or good old-fashioned notebook. You know, waiting for the bus, riding the bus, or standing in long lines for pour-over coffee (a favorite pastime of San Franciscans). Even if it’s five or ten minutes here and there, on a park bench, at the counter while waiting for lunch, over an afternoon coffee, it’s something. Despite our ever-increasing sense of busy-ness, Americans are notorious time wasters. It’s not outrageous to think you can find an extra hour in your day to write if you really look. And really, you don’t even need that. Just a few moments here and there are enough to rebuild your attention and make progress on your writing.
- Don’t set large goals. Yes, you read that right. Just don’t do it — at least not at first. This isn’t a forever thing, it’s designed to get you back in the game before focusing on larger, constraining, and perhaps more nebulous performance goals that may be doomed to fail. Guess what – writing 1,000 words every day with pre-sharpened pencils lined up in a row like Hemingway might not be possible for you anymore. That was the old you, and this is the now you. Instead of measuring where you want to be based on where you once were, focus instead on the one thing you are going to do next, whether that happens tomorrow or even a few hours from now. Then, break that task into two like a Kit-Kat bar until it seems almost too simple. That’s your starting point.
Focusing on a specific, achievable near-term task is a great way to appease the brain’s voracious appetite for immediate gratification (you don’t have to tell your brain what you’re feeding it is actually vegan). It’s also a great way to avoid the fear we can sometimes feel with larger milestones. For example, instead of aiming to finish the first draft of a novel in three months, how about aiming to reread the first five scenes of your outline and make notes, or watch a Netflix summary on your subject and NOT take notes? Keep it simple, and don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.
Also, do yourself a favor and write down all those seemingly simple task ideas. And then cross them off your list whenever you’re done. At the very least it will feel good and that alone can help woo our brain back into a regular writing relationship.
- Ask for permission from a spouse, loved one or other significant person in your life to make time for writing again. Writers often overlook this step, but finding space in your life for writing is not always an isolated action. Everyone wants to tell you they support your writing – but people who aren’t compelled to write, through no fault of their own, often don’t understand what it feels like NOT to write. And you can’t expect them to. So, ask them for permission to make a small amount of time to write each day or week. It may be at 8:30 p.m., or first thing on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when you usually get coffee or read the paper together (or when you’re changing diapers and mixing formula).
Carve out a space and time to write, and ask for understanding and respect of that space. Rather than complaining to a partner, spouse or loved one about never having the time or space to write, ask them to join you in the journey. Make them a part of your creative process. Always better to feel like a Muse than a mushroom.
There are a number of ways to return to your writing. The important thing to remember is to start slow, go easy on yourself, and focus on the short-term, achievable steps to slowly build back to a routine that fits into your life.
Remember, you don’t have to write – or write they way you used to – to get back into the writing rhythm. You merely have to create the regular space to think about your project in a way that helps you get back up to speed – where you can produce, make progress, and finally finish.
Baby steps, dear writer friends, baby steps.
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