Business Musings: When To Stop Writing
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 Teachable.com 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.
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.
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.
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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.