Business Musings: When To Stop Writing

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The writers who come to our workshops have one trait in common: they’re driven. We choose writers to attend our in-person workshops based on that trait above all else. Yes, we mostly teach professionals, which takes care of the whole “can-you-write-well-enough-yet” thing, but even among the professionals who apply to our workshops, we still search for drive.

So many professional writers, with sales to their credit, aren’t all that driven. They believe it takes six months to write (and rewrite) a short story, or five years to write a novel. If you actually do the math, you realize that someone who spends that much time “writing” isn’t writing at all. They’re doing other things—researching, perhaps, or taking one word out of a paragraph on Monday only to insert the word again on Friday.

Unless those writers get lucky and end up with a huge traditional publishing book contract and/or a movie deal and know how to manage money, those writers will have day jobs—and other, more important (to their finances) careers—for the rest of their lives.

Dean and I have always believed that writers write. More importantly, writers write new words and new projects. Writers in other fields write a lot of words—just ask the writers in the writers’ room on a major TV show how much they write throughout the season. Yes, they do it in tandem with others, but someone has to put the words on the page, so those words can be filmed—often within the month (or week) of being written. And that doesn’t count the writers who work in theater, who often write entire acts  from scratch in a day or two because that act didn’t play well in a series of preview performances.

Sometimes (often) we have to teach writers to get out of their own way, so they can learn to write at a comfortable, professional pace, one that allows them to write enough to make an actual living at writing. We have a number of online courses on specifically focused on that.

The writers who come to the in-person workshops, particularly the writing intensive ones like the ones I teach, have learned how to write fast and write well. I’m teaching other things at those workshops, and that requires writers to write a lot.

So it’s not surprising that the question I get asked the most from our students is a variation of this:

I can’t seem to get enough energy to write. I want to, but I can’t. What do I do?

If our students and friends were the short-story-every-six-month/novel-every-five-years kind of writer, I would say that they need to stop waiting for their damn muse and learn how to apply butt to chair.

But these are our students and our friends—driven, hard-working, and determined. When these folks say they don’t want to write, what they’re actually saying is that something is very very wrong.

Since I deal with these comments either in person with a friend or in email, I rarely talk about these issues in public so most writers have no idea what I’m going to say. What I usually say often surprises them.

What I usually say is this:  There are times in life when writing isn’t all that important. Sometimes, those situations are pretty obvious. If you’re currently hospitalized, you’re probably not going to be writing much despite having “free time” and access to a computer.

My personal rule of thumb is this: If the illness or life situation would have caused me to take time away from a real world day job, then I can easily take the time away from writing. There are circumstances in life that we all acknowledge supersede any job, no matter how critical that job is.

There are life circumstances to which that rule of thumb doesn’t apply. For example, I always tell parents of newborns to spend the next few years with their children, because those years will never come again. Who cares if you miss your five pages on Thursday? You will care if you miss your daughter’s first steps because you weren’t near her on that Thursday.

Writers have the luxury, sometimes, to spend the time with their families on issues like that. No day job will give you time off in the off chance that your one-year-old might take her first steps this week.

Other life choices are starker. You might have become a caretaker for someone who is seriously ill. And yes, as a caretaker, you might lose years. But if you would rather care for that loved one yourself, then you might only be able to write in bits and snatches if at all.

You make choices. I did that a year ago when Dean got pneumonia. Unbeknownst to us, my own chronic illness was getting worse, which limited my energy level and mental clarity. I realized that I could handle the household chores, helping Dean through those first ten days of the illness when he couldn’t do much, and my own exercise (which kept me healthy). I had no ability to write anything except the occasional piece of nonfiction, and even that was a struggle.

Surprisingly to my friends, I wasn’t annoyed at this. (I’m usually annoyed when I can’t write.) Dean is my top priority, and staying healthy so I could take care of him was just as important. Everything else went by the wayside.

He spent years making the same calculation off and on for me, with all of my health issues.

I knew, however, that he would get well, and that someday I would return to writing. And I did (albeit slowly, because I got sick again in December and whoa, things cascaded from there).

Other things get in the way as well. We moved in 2018, and the move was major—to another state. Again, I managed to do some nonfiction, which I can do in my sleep, I think, but even those bits of nonfiction weren’t very deep. It mostly dealt with the issues I saw day to day, rather than something research heavy.

I knew that once I settled here in Las Vegas, the fiction writing would come back. And it did. It took about six weeks (with some fits and starts in the middle of it) before I had the ability to concentrate on a story with a through line.

Dean did most of the moving and packing. He did a challenge with himself to keep writing in April, but after that, he had too much on his mind to do much more than nonfiction and placeholders as well.

Writers can kinda sorta plan for moves. Writers also understand illness and family issues of the limited sort.

But there are other problems that I hear about a lot from writers, and those are harder to understand.

Once the crisis is over, so many writers have a tough time getting back to work. They go to their keyboard but can’t concentrate or simply aren’t enjoying the writing. They can get words done, but writing isn’t fun any more. They might hate it, which is never a good place for writers to be. After all, why do this profession (which is hard) if you hate it? Find some day job that pays regularly if you’re going to hate what you do.

Even more frustrating for some writers is the fact that they were able to write through the crisis. They could carve out time while being a caretaker, but after the person they cared for moves to a care facility, then they can’t seem to use all that found time to write.

Writing is especially hard after someone beloved dies. We all want to return to normal—not that normal is achievable in the exact same way again—after a major death. But grief takes its own sweet time.

The experts can’t help, either, because every grief is different. Every person is different, of course, but every time that same person experiences grief, that grief will vary depending on who (or what) the person is mourning. Grief is maddeningly unpredictable.

So reading books that give timelines like You’ll be back to normal in two years don’t really help. There are no easy answers for grief and grieving.

Worse, we don’t just grieve after a death. A loss can cause grief. And that loss might be the loss of a job or the possibility of ever performing in that industry again. The loss might be a divorce. Loss of dreams or a lifestyle is often as powerful as losing a dear friend.

So writers might be grieving without realizing it. When writers write to me asking about how to get back to the enjoyment of writing, I often ask them what’s going on in their lives before I answer them. I also ask if something big happened.

Even a good something big—like getting married or moving to the place you’ve always wanted to live—might take adjustment time. You have to give it that time.

I usually express it this way: Your brain has just entered a new reality. It takes time to process that new reality, and even though you’re functioning on some subsistence level, most of your brain is trying to make that shift from the old ways to the new. Sometimes the shift is relatively easy. Often it isn’t.

If you’re having trouble writing, though, and you haven’t experienced an obvious loss or a major life change, then do some other assessments. Burnout feels like listlessness a lot of the time. Depression often manifests as a lack of interest and nothing more. Some nutritional problems often show up in the way we behave. And so do chronic illnesses. Mine advanced slowly at first, and I gradually lost the ability to work hard. But the loss was gradual, so it was hard to notice.

If you’re feeling chronically listless, then see a doctor or two. Consult a nutritionist. Enter a new exercise program. Talk to a therapist for a few sessions or go to some group therapy. If you’re grieving and live in a city, you’ll find a number of groups for people who are grieving. You don’t have to say anything when you go. You can just listen. But you might learn how to cope differently.

But…let’s say you’ve done all of that. Let’s say you’ve investigated every possible road and you’re still not interested in writing.

Then what?

Well, then, maybe you’re done with writing. Maybe you’ve said all you want to say in this particular art form and need to move on. Maybe you’ve tried writing, did well at it, but never really liked it.

Maybe writing just isn’t for you.

You can still be an artist. You might have to move on to other forms of storytelling. Stand-up comedy is both writing and performance. Working in the theater exercises storytelling chops. Learning a musical instrument or painting might make you feel more creative.

There are other forms of storytelling as well. Game designers often tell stories. You can now shoot movies on your iPhone, and they look pretty dang good. There are a lot of tools for video storytelling as close as your computer.

You don’t have to write more novels just because you wrote a few. And you don’t need to continue performing an art form that doesn’t interest you deep down.

As I’ve mentioned before, I went through a huge musical phase. I love music and I’m good at it, but honestly, I don’t want to put in the effort to become better. I get bored with music easily. I never get bored with writing.

I could have gone on to a career in music, but I didn’t. And I could have remained a reporter, but I didn’t. Both professions interested me until they didn’t any more.

I know Dean has had similar experiences with other forms of art and other professions. You try things—and you might be good at them—but that doesn’t mean you have to make a living at them. Even if you’re better at them right now than you are at writing.

Got that?

You’re not required to be a writer. You don’t have to continue just because you tried it.

If that suggestion makes you angry or stressed, then you want to keep going with your writing career, and something else is going wrong.

If that suggestion relieves you, then pay attention to that feeling. It’s important. Your subconscious is telling you something. Find that other thing that interests you and do that.

Even if you only do it for a while. If you circle back to writing, then you and writing were meant to be. If you don’t, then you really didn’t want it a lot in the first place.

If you’re a driven person and writing has been at the heart of that drive, not writing is a terrible thing to go through. You can push through it—sometimes. But you can’t always.

Sometimes you have to rest. Sometimes you have to let the brain adjust to the new reality, whatever it is.

And sometimes, you can locate your drive again by channeling it into a new profession.

The choice is yours.

But as you make that choice, remember to be kind to yourself. Writing should be fun, and an escape—even when it’s hard. If it is not fun and you’re not escaping into the fiction, but are, instead, trudging through each day, it’s time to make an assessment about what you’re doing.

Remember, though, this post is for those people who are driven, not those of you who take five years to write a single novel. You have other issues that you’ll need to resolve.

As for those of you who are driven, realize this: We all hit a point where we can’t write. Life—with its ups and downs—happens to all of us. You’ll get through whatever it is that has stopped you.

I promise.

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“Business Musings: When To Stop Writing,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / lenm.


27 thoughts on “Business Musings: When To Stop Writing

  1. Thank you for all the great advice.I had to retire from my job last year due to health issues and have been wondering how to restart my passion again.Never really liked the job so this has been kind of exilirating, but nevertheless,scary.How to best proceed?

  2. I came to the conclusion about 6-7 years ago that writing is something that I will likely get to after I become an empty nester. That time is getting closer for me. I also realized I am not a single domain person. I couldn’t be just a writer. Music calls me harder than writing, but I have stories to tell. As I am getting very close to the empty nest stage, I am getting more productive in all my creative ventures, but still trying to maintain the work/life balance.

    As someone who IS driven, I felt like I often turned down dirt roads and couldn’t find the creative highway that would take me away from those dirty responsibilities. I think I’ve learned to enjoy the dirt roads rather than frantically searching for the highway they lead to. Not sure that makes any sense, but I feel there’s a good analogy in there somewhere.

  3. I lost my words for nearly a year after I left my abusive ex. Hadn’t written much for the six months before I left either. It was hell. All I wanted to do was sit down and write and work through what I’d experienced and put it behind me. But nothing came out. I’d sit there with a pen, or staring at the blank page on my screen, and get even angrier because nothing would come out. It HURT. I was afraid he’d taken everything that was me, including my words.

    Then they came back in a rush 11 months later while I was taking care of my grandmother after she broke her femur. She was mobile, just needed an extra set of hands while she was restricted weight bearing and doing therapy. I finished my first novel later that year.

    Ever since, my muse has been on turbo mode. I’ve written 10 novels, rewritten one of them, and am gearing up to publish my ninth. My writing also has an emotional depth it never had before, so in a weird way I’m grateful for what happened.

    But I’m not eager to ever experience it again.

    1. So glad you came back to writing. Sometimes it takes time to process major change, such as the one you went through. Kudos on your courage and coming back to write even more. So sorry you had to go through any of it.

  4. Dear Kris,
    I have been beating myself up for not being able to get my books out there. I have finished my first two books in a series and in the middle of the third when life happened. Well, basically saying good bye to a career of 15+ years and starting a new one in a completely new industry. I underestimated the humongous toll it would take on me emotionally – I was grieving the death of an old career which I loved to transition to a new one. On top of that I moved house and the first job I transitioned to didn’t work out. Of course I couldn’t write when I had so much to deal with but I still blamed myself. I thought I was a slacker. I just had a lot to deal with that’s all. Thanks for this post. 🙂

  5. I’m realizing in reading this that if I’m having trouble editing, it’s a question of drivenness. If I’m having trouble producing new words… well, I’ve moved three times in the last year and before that I was recovering from domestic violence; maybe it’s okay that I’m not managing to produce writing as quickly as I’d like right now.

    1. Oh, my. You have plenty on your plate. Be kind to yourself. And I hope you have a good support system to help you with the aftereffects of domestic violence. Good for you getting out. The writing will be there, maybe even therapeutically. Just let yourself recover (from the moves as well).

  6. “Once the crisis is over, so many writers have a tough time getting back to work. ” The crisis was six-months of downsizing, investigating retirement communities, and moving. NJ to CA.

    But rebuilding a life takes a lot of time – everything from driver licenses to doctors to grocery stores – and meeting new people. It has been exhausting.

    I’m trying not to worry too much: I had one writing day last month, and just went right back into the water. It will come. But today I have to go learn how to sign out a bike, after waiting all week for them to put air in the tires. One has responsibilities.

    Exhaustion can come from good, desired things well after the ‘crisis’ is over.

    But if it doesn’t ultimately get better, I just wasted a huge amount of effort. At least we get dinner.

  7. “I always tell parents of newborns to spend the next few years with their children, because those years will never come again.”

    This hits close to home. I decided this year that the voice in my head telling me I was too old to write was stupid and that I should just start and see what happens. But with a job and two young kids, that doesn’t leave a lot spare time for writing. I make the time I can, but sacrificing time with my daughters isn’t something I’m willing to do.

  8. Looks like you’ve hit a need here. For me, too, though I have to look at your post kind of a-slant. I’ve retired, and my issue is that I have lots of unstructured time on my hands! I know, lots of writers would LOVE to have that problem. I too thought it would be a blessing, and I guess it is, but I find it disconcerting not to be needed somewhere or have a weekly deadline. I’m now three months into retirement, and I had given myself those three months to figure out my new lifestyle. I figured by now I’d have something like my college schedule: music on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, writing every morning… But it’s not there yet. I’m writing more, but still figuring out how that works best for me. You’ve reminded me that since the year leading into retirement was pretty stressful, I can maybe ease into this thing, even not write if that seems appropriate. You know the story about the college campus that put up a new building but didn’t put sidewalks in? They gave it a year to let students walk wherever, and then put the sidewalks where the paths had been worn. Maybe I’ll see what the path looks like as I wander. It sure feels strange, though.

  9. Ah, heh, yeah, this. Thanks. My brain is too full of certain other stuff that… yeah. Time and the mental energy required to hold a plotline are both being put into something else.


  10. Thanks, Kris. I needed this. You helped me figure out why I’ve been stopped on the current project. It’s been a year full of dealing with Other Stuff, capped off by the disappearance of one of my cats a month ago. (Oh. Yeah. That could have something to do with it.)

    I’ll get back to it. Meanwhile, I’ll keep breathing.

  11. I really needed to hear this today (after I got over the mild panic caused by the title). The last two years have been filled with so many ups and downs, with a deployment in the middle of it, and finishing off with a move across the country, and through it all, I managed to find the time to write, even if just in little bits. Now everything has “settled”, I have much more time to write, and I spent September not writing anything. I think I had to take that month to let everything catch up to me, but I did worry that I would never get it back. Now I know I can and am working back into it, though I have a long way to go still.

  12. This hits home with me. I’m in the “midst” of a move (building a new home after a major move) and living in cramped quarters until the build is over. Right now, we’re painting walls, so I’m close … but that’s as frustrating as waiting for the builder to finish another job or for the electrician or the plumber and so on.

    I’ve discovered things about re-locating, finding a new place to live, working within other people’s timetables, and construction that will likely go into writing some day, but this morning I want to kick those walls that will be painted.

    And the writing is about one day a week of successful wordage.

    So I’ve tried to do other things. I’ve worked on improving my marketing skills. I’ve tried to connect with writers in my new area (which is problematic since only a tiny handful believe in indie publishing rather than agents and major publishing houses).

    The best thing I’ve done this summer is take Dean’s Depth class—which had me reworking what I had labored to write in May and June.

    In reading your post, I have realized it’s not just the frustrations and the being crammed into a small space and the excitement of the new place and the distractions of that and marketing and more. I think I’m grieving also, for the life I had carved out for the last 7 years, when my writing started coming together.

    And I have to tell myself constantly, “Yes, I am accomplishing things. Four books this year. Two planners that came out of the blue. Blogs still going. Two books (one NF) in the works. I am accomplishing things. I am. I am. I am.”

    But that litany falls short when I look at this week and see only 1,000 new words, and here it is Thursday.

    So, thank you for this post. It helped. I’ll print it out and post it so it will continue to remind me that these seasons of the relocation and the finding of my new nesting spot and the build will pass.

    And I’ll try not to kick walls this week.

    1. You’re welcome. And, speaking as a puncher & kicker, why not kick the wall if it’s going to be painted? (I punch pillows. Drives the cats nuts.) And be patient with yourself. 1,000 new words is better than none.

  13. Many years ago, I worked with a cowriter on a novel. It was great fun coming over on the weekend and writing the first draft. We eventually broke up because he had such an extreme fear of submitting (and didn’t know it) that he started sabotaging everything. But through my pushing, I got this book done and out to agents…and then I started talking about writing faster. I knew the publishers were going to set deadlines, and we had taken too long to write the book. I was astounded when cowriter poo-pooed my concern, saying, “Everything’s negotiable.” Yeah, when you break your leg and have to have surgery. But not because you just didn’t get around to writing. And it hit me that he hadn’t put any priority on writing. Everything else was more important. If I wasn’t prodding him every week–and even I wasn’t writing enough–he’d probably have taken a couple of years or more to write the book. In hindsight, he was more in love with the idea of being a best selling writer than the actual writing.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this, too, because I’ve been reading The Big Leap and thinking about how my family treated side hustles. You can write a book for 10 years and tell yourself you’re accomplishing something and let those dynamics you grew up with keep you from actually succeeding. I grew up the daughter of a minister’s son (the minister did not want to be one and got five degrees to avoid it!). It was always assumed that you should work on your labor of love on the side, but never expect to get paid for it. The result is my father came up with scientific ideas he could have sold–and had interest in–and never did anything, and he’s been working on a forty year project, like a never ending novel. It’s very easy to tell yourself you’re making progress and never actually make any.

  14. This is so timely for me. It hit me hard enough to bring tears.

    I’ve been working on a 4 book project with a cowriter who just accepted the fact that his marriage is ending. We’ve finished our first book and are going on a hiatus for the remaining 3 until his life stabilizes again. I’ve gone back to some solo projects but since he and I are friends, I’ve listened to several emotional days of him being unable to find his usual work flow. I sent him this blog post in hopes that he feels validated in just getting through his hard time right now. Divorce sucks and the process of separating is world changing. Thank you for this post, Kris.

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