Why Aren’t You Writing?
There’s a running joke, especially in the academic world, about how you should be writing. If you search the phrase, you will come up with dozens if not hundreds of menacing images like this one:
The fact that you could be writing at pretty much any moment of your day if you do something with flexible hours, or that if you have a fixed work schedule you have very specific times that you really should be writing (the memes are right!) if you want to achieve your writing goals, often leads to self-doubt, procrastination, and paralyzing fear.
It’s a vicious cycle: you really want to write, which makes it a high-stress activity, so you avoid it, which increases your stress about it, which sends you into a downward spiral of self-condemnation and inaction. Believe me, I’ve been there. I doubt there’s a writer in the world who hasn’t.
The trick is to figure out your fears, and then either face them head-on, or do an end-run around them. Personally, I recommend both.
Figure out your fears
Make a list, either on paper or in your head (try both if you’re not sure what works for you; most people like to write out their lists in physical form, but I personally find it more helpful to do them in my head) of all the reasons you’re not writing.
These reasons generally fall into two categories: material obstacles, and psychological obstacles. Right now we’re going to talk about material obstacles.
Material Obstacles to Writing
These are the most difficult to get around, although don’t discount the trouble that psychological obstacles can cause you. Some common material obstacles are:
- Not enough time/energy, normally because you’re busy caring for a family and/or holding down a full-time job. This one is huge, and overcoming it will probably require discipline and sacrifices on your part.
- No good place to write. You may not have your own room or dedicated office, or easy access to popular writing places like libraries and coffee shops. For middle-class Westerners this is normally a trivial problem, but for people in less comfortable circumstances this is one more hurdle they may have to clear.
- No access to writing materials. Again, for middle-class Westerners this is less of a problem, but for others this can be a major issue. Also, middle-class Westerners can often turn problems 2 & 3 into insurmountable problems if they are trying to avoid writing. The good news is that a little creativity in this realm can actually force you to get over your psychological hurdles and become more productive!
- Physical impairments that make writing difficult. g., you may have vision limitations, or suffer from chronic health problems that make writing exhausting or physically painful. Even basically healthy and able-bodied people will find writing to be mentally and physically challenging, and may spin this into a reason to procrastinate and avoid doing what they know they need to do.
So how might you get around these obstacles?
Some things to try if time is your issue:
- Set aside some very small period, say half an hour once a day or even once a week, in which you must write. During that period of time, the only thing you are allowed to do is write, and you are allowed to write only during that period of time. Don’t fall into the trap of wasting your creative energies with unfocused faux writing whenever the spirit moves you. Not that you shouldn’t learn to listen to the voice of inspiration, but if you’re not getting any writing done right now, worry less about inspiration and more about discipline. Inspiration will not come calling unless you give it a specific address. You have to train yourself to access your inspiration and give it external form, and regular, focused writing sessions are one of the best ways to do that.
- Think of this as exercise: if you’re training for a marathon, you don’t just randomly go for runs when it seems like a good idea and you have nothing better to do. You will always find other things you could be doing, things that seem important right now but are holding you back from your goals. Whether you’re training for a sports competition or trying to start and finish a writing project, you need some kind of a plan of consistent action.
- Experiment with different writing times and find out what works best for you. Once you get in the habit of regularly generating acceptable quantities of text, see if you can expand your writing time, but always keep it within doable limits. For example, you may find that you can, in fact, write for half an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays after dinner quite easily, so once you get comfortable with that you might start writing for an hour, or writing on Mondays and Wednesdays as well, but don’t write all night, every night. You will burn yourself out mentally and physically. The goal is to create a sustainable lifestyle that includes regular writing, not to rush through things once and then never write again.
You are not the first person to have to juggle work and/or family with writing. People with PhDs, who are legion, finished book-length dissertations while teaching, producing academic papers and articles, job hunting, and attending to family responsibilities. Chekhov launched his writing career while working full-time as a medical student and then doctor. Tolstoy managed to produce some of the longest (and best!) novels ever written while fathering and homeschooling a vast brood of children, managing an enormous estate, working as a political activist, and founding a new religion. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a side hobby while he was holding down a day job as a professor. Ursula K. LeGuin was able to be an incredibly prolific author while taking care of her family. Use these examples as inspiration, not intimidation. If they can do it, so can you. It will require a certain amount of dedication and commitment on your part, though.
“The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Authors” https://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers is a good collection of quotes and tips from authors who ended up achieving both fame and a certain level of fortune from their writing. Note their emphasis on regular, consistent writing habits and marrying inner inspiration with outer action. This is a learned skill. The good news is that you can learn it!
That’s all for this week! Next week I’ll talk about the all-important task of finding a good place to write.