I don’t know about you, but as a writer with a day job, sometimes I feel like I’m failing if I’m not spending every free minute writing. I don’t know if this is a chronic condition of all writers (okay, probably not R.L Stine or any of the other novel-a-month authors) or a remnant from my MFA years in which it was hammered into me that writing time is a luxury that is not to be squandered. The condition is made worse by the number of articles out there compelling writers to get faster, write more words, or complete that novel in 30 days.
Inevitably, there comes a writing day when putting even one word on that blank page is a struggle, let alone 500 of them. There’s lots of sage wisdom out there about not waiting for inspiration, that it’s discipline that makes one a successful writer, butt in chair, et cetera, et cetera. But combine a bad writing day (or two or three) with an anxiety about productivity and you have a recipe for disaster, IMO.
The butt in chair mantra is well and good for some writers, but for me, sometimes the butt has to come out of the chair. And that’s OK. There is no writing police. No one is going to point fingers at me and declare me less of a writer because every so often I need to use my writing time to browse Target with a mocha latte in hand.
However, since the nagging need to do something writing related never actually goes away, here are five things you can do to feel more like a productive writer on the days when the words just aren’t coming.
1. Read. Any writer will tell you that reading plays an ample role in the writing process. But if finishing that library book or settling in with a short story feels too much like leisure, try reading a book about writing. Might I recommend this one:
It’s huge. It’s a textbook! The size alone makes you feel like you are reading Important Things About Writing. But more importantly, it’s extremely readable and very, very good. It is an MFA in a book. Actually, it’s better than that because the discussion of the shape of stories has made me think of short fiction in an entirely new way. Spend some time reading about craft so you’ll be ready to apply it in your next writing session.
2. Critique. Analyzing others’ writing helps us analyze our own. Bug your writing buddies for pieces that they want feedback on. You have no writing buddies? Take apart a published short story or chapter from a novel. What’s working in it? What isn’t? If you were writing it, what would you have done differently? If you’ve been blocked because of an over zealous editor’s voice, this is an excellent opportunity to get it out of your system.
3. Journal. Okay, this is kind of writing, but it’s not. It’s not writing you’d want anyone else to see, anyway. When I’m in a particularly bad writing place, venting about it usually makes me feel better. This is the time to turn off the thoughts of the work-in-progress and just vent, rant, cry, whine, bitch about how much you hate writing. Putting those thoughts down on paper often helps expel them from the brain. And who knows, maybe in the freewriting, you’ll come up with a new idea or new character. Maybe you’ll figure out that tricky plot point.
4. Clean. There are some days that I can absolutely not get focused until I shovel the stacks of paper off my writing desk or clear the hall console table of the mail and junk pile up. I’ve heard a lot of writers talk about how they procrastinate by cleaning, but personally, I feel better in a somewhat organized environment. After hearing a writing teacher talk about this, I’ve even made it part of my process. The writing day doesn’t start until my office has been straightened up a little. Some days I have to spend time doing the bigger chores, but those are not wasted days. Like journal, I find it also clears my head — and my house — and doesn’t allow me any excuses about getting started tomorrow.
5. Exercise. I started running a few years ago and I’ve noticed a definite increase in productivity when I’m getting regular exercise. Not only is it yet another way to clear my head, I also feel more creative when I run. If I’m on a treadmill, by brain is on autopilot, leaving my mind free to talk to my characters, draft different plot lines, etc. If I’m on a neighborhood or trail run, I’m still a little on autopilot, but I’m also taking in the scenery and paying attention to the things around me. Both spur the creative process. But even if running isn’t your thing, the link between exercise and creativity is well documented. Get on a spin bike. Lift some weights. Exercise improves your mood, so even if you don’t get any writing done, at least you’ll be less prone to agonize over it.