When Your (My) Writing Practice Derails

True confession time: my writing practice derailed completely about two weeks ago.

I kept thinking that maybe my lack of motivation was a temporary blip. I thought that surely the next day, my missing writing mojo would return and I’d churn out page after page of brilliant prose. But it didn’t and I didn’t. Day after day, I looked at my article draft and made yet another excuse for how I was too busy to write or that I needed to “think a little more” about my topic or read another article.

I met with my writing group. Although I loudly lamented my “lack of progress” (insert dramatic sigh), I made no attempt to change my behavior. I secretly refused to even try to write for fifteen minutes because I just didn’t feel like writing. I chalked up my screeching halt to some kind of weird internal resistance to the forces of the universe and reasoned that I’d “write when the time was right” and the planets aligned correctly.

All of this is to say that I have hit the absolute bottom of my writing productivity. In the great arc of the creative process, I’m somewhere between, “This is shit.” and “I’m shit.” It is a dark and lonely place to be.




Although I know that the cure is to start writing again, I’m almost too embarrassed to try to start writing again after a few weeks of zero output. So, naturally, I decided to write a blog post about being in the writing doldrums.

Here’s what I’m doing to try to move forward.

Admit the problem.

It’s true what they say: denial is one hell of a drug. I’ve made a zillion poor excuses as to why I can’t possibly write. They are all poor excuses and only serve to make me feel justified in not writing.

I decided that the first step was to get a grip on the problem. Knowing myself as I do, I knew that there had to be something more to my refusal to write than just a lack of motivation. I investigated:

I don’t want to write.
Why don’t you want to write?
Because it’s hard.
Why is it hard?
Because I feel like I don’t know enough about my subject.
Why don’t you feel like you know enough about your topic?
Because I’m trying to write some new stuff and I’m scared.
Why are you scared to write about new stuff?
Because I’m afraid that I’m not a good enough writer.
Why are you afraid that you’re not a good enough writer?
Because I’m afraid that I’m not good enough.

And there you have it: the real crux of the problem. Your inner demons may whisper to you in their own destructive words, but mine always helpfully suggest that I’m not good enough to be writing and that I’m not a good enough person to be doing much of anything. I don’t want to move forward with my writing because I’m secretly afraid that what I’m writing isn’t good enough, by which I mean that I’m afraid that I’M not good enough. Admitting that this is the real problem has cleared the psychic smoke enough for me to see clearly what I need to do.

Engage in some positive self-talk.

If you’re anything like me, when your writing practice goes to shit, you’re excited to have yet another opportunity to bury yourself under a pile of regret, shame, and self-recrimination. Here’s the nice and edited version of my inner monologue:

“What’s wrong with you? I can’t believe you just quit writing. Do you want to be a quitter? How are you going to explain this to your clients? What kind of writer are you if you don’t write? Why did you pick this really hard topic to write about? Do you even know anything about this? Seriously, I just can’t even with you sometimes.”

To all of us, I beseech us: STAHP.

Although it may feel reasonable to berate ourselves for falling off the writing wagon, negative self-talk helps absolutely no one with anything. I’m trying to do some more positive self-talk. Even though I can still hear my negative internal monologue, I’m trying to be more aware of when I’m being mean to myself and be kinder. I try to make my monologue sound more like this:

“Blah blah blah negativity blah blah blah. STOP. Okay, so you don’t want to write. I know it’s hard and you don’t feel like it. It’s okay to feel like that sometimes. But maybe we can see what happens if you write for fifteen minutes or so?”

Take responsibility for your actions.

Blame gets you (by which I mean me) nowhere. It’s easy to blame every one and everything for our our failure to write: our partners, the weather, the dog. One thing I know about emotional grown-ups is that they take responsibility for their actions. No one forced me to stop writing. I chose not to write. The responsibility with writing rests solely with me.

Start anew with baby steps.

Fifteen minutes. Just fifteen minutes. We can all do fifteen minutes. Even I can do fifteen minutes.

Even tiny efforts towards crawling out of the abyss move us nearer to the exit.



Procrastination: Shame in Disguise

Many writers (this one included) procrastinate. We shove our writing projects, no matter how important, under a towering pile of meaningless stuff. We write email, read the news, catch up on Twitter, and watch kitten videos on YouTube. Somehow all of these things take priority over nurturing our own creative and intellectual passions.

Lots of us assume that we can solve our procrastination through better time management and organization. We make schedules, use timers, and invest time learning the latest software that promises to help us manage our projects with magical algorithms.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those solutions and many of them help people move forward with their writing. However, I think we can’t deal with our penchant for procrastination until we get a grip on underlying issues of shame.

When we procrastinate, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. Our actions speak louder than our words. You can tell yourself that your writing is important; however, unless you’re actually writing, your actions tell a different story. Procrastination says that your writing isn’t very important to you. By which, you mean that YOU’RE not very important.  

Procrastination confirms to us all of the bad stories that we tell about ourselves. If you listen closely, many people (self included) have a toxic internal story playing in the background about themselves and their writing abilities. Our stories may be unique and individual, but we often hear them whispered in the ugly voice of shame:

You’re not good enough.

The idea that we’re not good enough cripples our writing ability. It is safer to write nothing than to write something flawed.

As I wrote in this post, procrastination, or the fear of starting, is often just shame, and its handmaiden, perfectionism, in disguise. It’s a double- edged sword, though. Procrastination helps us avoid feelings of shame, but also creates feelings of shame when we don’t write. Feeling shame is downright unpleasant. I, for one, would do almost anything to avoid it, including the kind of self-sabotage that procrastination provides.

When we procrastinate, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. We procrastinate and don’t write because we assume that anything we do write won’t be good enough. Then when we don’t write, we confirm that the voice of shame is probably right after all: we’re not good enough to write anything. It’s a vicious cycle that prevents us from being the writers and people we want to be.

So we make choices that confirm our worst stories about ourselves as people and as writers. Our procrastination confirms that we aren’t good enough. Once the voice of shame has convinced us that we’re worthless and people and as writers (so why even bother writing?), then we’re thrown into a cycle of guilt and panic because we’ve got deadlines and haven’t written a thing. Frantic binge writing magnifies our already shitty feelings about ourselves and our writing. Then we get to be angry at ourselves for causing this whole sorry mess in the first place.

Here’s the thing: to deal with this whole messy shame and procrastination cycle, we’ve got to take a deep breath in and start. Write something. Write anything. Just write. When we write, we tell the voice of shame to STFU.

If you’re a procrastinating writer, the cure for procrastination (and shame) is writing.

Writing is an act of telling yourself that you’re good enough as both a writer and a person to write some words. In choosing to write, we are choosing to prioritize ourselves. In this post, I argued that taking care of our writing is an important way of taking care of ourselves as people. Taking time out of our busy days to write signals to our minds and spirits that we, however flawed, are valuable and important. We become important to ourselves.

The act of writing is an act of positive self-affirmation. In a world that’s constantly trying to beat us down and make us feel small, writing is courageous. It is sometimes an incredibly subversive act.

Writing can even be joyful when we realize that attending to our writing means that we’re being brave for ourselves and affirming our own self-worth. Every time I write a blog post, I’m pretty sure that the sky will fall on my head each time I click POST. Somehow, it hasn’t yet.

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you already know what you need to do. Your goal is to make writing, which is really a part of a broader self-care practice, not some special thing that you do every now and then. Writing is something you do daily because you’re worth it.

Photo: Volcán Agua at sunset. Antigua, Guatemala, 2013. Full image available here.


Research =/= Writing

I hate writing, I love having written.
— Dorothy Parker

Several years ago, as I struggled to write my dissertation, I made a startling discovery.

Research is not writing. Writing is not research. Call me naïve, but I felt as though I'd experienced a revelation.

Like Alice in Wonderland, we academic writers often fall down rabbit holes of our own making. A tiny moment to look up a small fact to support our main argument turns into a full-blown wild goose chase to find some obscure shred of evidence.

Academics are, by profession and by nature, curious and inquisitive people. We live to find the perfect source, document, or photograph. Doing the research is the fun part of any academic project, whether a dissertation, book, or journal article. We're at our best because we're in our field sites, our archives; we're in our elements. Conducting research often feels like hunting for buried treasure: each new discovery leads to a discovery more wondrous than the last. The chase feels exhilarating. Research allows us to be the heroes of our research journeys, linking fragments of clues together until we arrive at the exact place where X marks the spot.

Armed with our research—our hard-won documents, interviews, and data—we begin to write.

And then we become bored. To quote B.B. King, the thrill is gone. We grapple with our findings, arguments, and conclusions. We struggle to translate our ideas into written words. We write terrible first drafts. We struggle to craft topic sentences. The act of writing threatens to overwhelm us with emotions we’d prefer not to experience: shame, anger, frustration, and anxiety. We wrestle even more with the writing.

In the middle of our writing, we suddenly find holes in the evidence. Relieved to have an excuse to stop writing, we dive into the rabbit hole of research for hours on end. We wonder why we don’t seem to make progress with our writing. We’re frustrated that nothing has been written.

When I first began writing my dissertation, I would sit down to write and yet always found myself doing more research. I wondered why I wasn’t making better progress. Then I made the amazing discovery: research and writing are distinct activities. They are not one and the same. Research is research. Writing is writing.

Here’s what no one will tell you: research is fun, while writing is generally unpleasant, even for people who like to write. Writing will trigger every unhealed childhood neurosis you thought you’d dealt with in therapy years ago. We feel anxious, angry, and ashamed that we can’t write. We don’t want to feel all of these negative emotions, so we avoid writing. We procrastinate, which only causes more anxiety, shame, and anger. We neglect our writing. We feel like failures.

Here are some steps to help:

Acknowledge to yourself that writing is hard. Turning ideas into words is difficult, but writing is also hard because we so often feel under massive emotional pressure while doing it. Realize that you’re probably going to feel unhappy and stressed while writing. Your feelings are valid. However—and here’s the kicker—you’ve got to keep writing through the emotional yuck. You need to keep writing despite your anxiety and frustration. Cry if you must. No, it’s not fun. Yes, it’s unpleasant. Keep writing anyway.

Set a timer. Feeling like a total failure as a writer and human being is more tolerable if you know that you’ll only feel that way for a set amount of time. Once you’ve completed your allotted writing time, you can stop writing and go about the rest of your life like the competent adult you are. Many people have great luck with the Pomodoro method and write in many small twenty-five minute periods. Other people need longer periods of writing time to get the ideas flowing. I find that I need to write in hour-long periods—any less than an hour and I haven’t had enough time to work through the bad feelings that get in the way of my good ideas. Give yourself some scheduled time for writing and your feelings.

Separate writing from research. Your writing time is for writing, not falling down research rabbit holes (or, *ahem*, watching hours of kitten videos on YouTube). If you need to look up a date or fact, put some dummy text in your writing to hold your place (e.g., some person named XXXXX did thing XYZ in year YYYY) and keep writing. You can look up this particular fact later. Get back to writing.

Make a research to-do list. When tempted to jump down the research rabbit hole, control yourself. Every research urge you have should go on your research to-do list. Jot it down, know that the item is safely on your to-do list, and return to writing. When you’re done with your scheduled writing for the day, figure out some time to pursue the items on the list. The advantage of this method is that you’ve now scheduled time to fall down that research rabbit hole on purpose. You now have permission to be the hero of your own choose-your-own-adventure research quest while still making writing progress.

Set goals and rewards for writing. Writing can be a whole lot more enjoyable when you receive tangible rewards for hitting certain milestones. Challenge yourself to write more than you think you can, but be realistic. You’ve crawled over hot coals and written 3000 words? Finished a chapter? Revised your article? Congratulate yourself with something fun or a present. Giving yourself some real rewards for writing sometimes makes the pain of writing feel almost worth it. Little tangible rewards along the way mean more than distant and intangible ones like, “When I’ve finished writing my dissertation, I’ll have a PhD.”

Meditate. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: regular meditation is a powerful productivity tool. Training your mind to focus intently on one thing primes it for the focus and attention that writing demands. Just like meditation is a practice, so writing is a practice. Meditation also allows you a safe place to work through any bad feelings about writing. Be mindful. Write a journal. Do yoga. Do tai chi. Practice something that requires intense focus and reflection

In sum, if you’re not making enough progress with your writing, evaluate your writing practice. What’s getting in the way? What would happen if you devoted your entire attention to your writing on a regular basis? What if you did less research and more writing? If you’re using research to avoid writing, separate these activities from each other. Research is not writing. Writing is not research. Research to research. Write to write.