The Writing Life: Re-Entry

James_Tissot_The_DreamerMaybe some writers have uninterrupted careers. I don’t know any, and I certainly don’t qualify. Sometimes it seems that my writing life has been one uninterrupted series of interruptions. If it’s not one thing, it’s not another. Then I have to wrestle not just with getting back up to speed on the project du jour and making up for lost time, but wrestling with guilt, regret, and self-doubt.

Guilt because I should have been able to keep focused, keep writing, No Matter What. Isn’t that what a professional writer does? If “those other” successful writers can churn out 2500 words a day, come rain come shine come conventions come weddings, then I should be able to. Right?

Regret because of all the moments spent checking my email or playing Scrabble online or anything else but writing. If only I’d resisted the temptation, I’d be well ahead of the game when an interruption happens.

Self-doubt because the present interruption will only prove – publicly and conclusively – that I don’t have what it takes. Everything else I’ve written (12 traditionally published novels, somewhere around 60 published short stories, award nominations, etc.) was smoke and mirrors. Hand-waving, nothing more. And now everyone will find out. It’s called the imposter syndrome, and I am far from alone in experiencing it. My version is that because I’ve been interrupted and I’m having trouble getting back on track, I never will. That’s all she wrote. Literally.

Before I run the risk of turning into a blubbering mass of self-pity, I do have some defense against the aforementioned demons. For one thing, this has happened to me before. Big interruptions, little ones, emotionally overwhelming ones, delightful ones. Crises and celebrations, injuries and vacations-without-computer (although to be fair, for most of my writing career, my idea of a vacation was undisturbed time with my laptop). If I can get myself calm enough to listen when I say, “Been there, done that, remember? This too shall pass,” then I’m well on my way to conquering the heebie-jeebies.

Knowing I’m not alone in having difficulty diving back into my writing routine is helpful, too. This is especially true when I think of writers I admire and the similar challenges they have faced. (That’s also one reason I’m writing this blog, passing it on!)

One of my favorite co-panelists at conventions, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, talks about “writer’s gap.” That’s her way of looking at “writer’s block.” She says you know where it is you want to go (in the story), you just don’t know how you’re going to get there (yet). This is such an encouraging concept, I have applied it to the difficulty of getting re-started after an interruption. I don’t have to know exactly which strategies and micro-strategies are going to work for me this time around. All I have to do is have faith that something will work, that I will be resourceful in coming up with that something, and this too shall pass.

Strategies? Did I say I have strategies for dealing with interruptions?

Strategies sound so formal, like roadmaps etched in granite or super-sure-fire remedies for Doldrums-Of-the-Muse. Speaking only for myself, I have never found a magic bullet or a guaranteed cure. What I have done is flail about until something works. Maybe the thing I thought helped actually made no difference, it was simply time for me to move on. Maybe I got so frustrated with struggling and getting nowhere that it was easier to sit down and write. But maybe each thing I tried brought me that much closer to success in a sort of cumulative, synergetic effect.

Maybe each time I tried something, I became more determined to break through the stalemate.

Here are some things that have helped me:

  • Admit that I’m stuck and remind myself that it’s something that happens to great writers.
  • Using blog posts, emails, paper letters, or other “ordinary” writing as a warmup.
  • Calling or emailing a fellow writer, one whose sympathy and discretion I trust.
  • “Getting a running start:” reading back over the last thing I worked on to get my head back into the story. Then: adding one sentence. One paragraph. One page.
  • Setting low, achievable daily goals (see above.) I can almost always slog through one sentence. If I do enough “just one sentences,” I sometimes find myself back in the zone.
  • Start something new, often something utterly frivolous and self-indulgent. Indulge in my literary guilty pleasures.
  • Type out a chapter of a book I adore.
  • Read aloud. Sing the words.
  • Listen to music from movies I love. Movie music is especially inspiring because it has narration, just like written words do, and that makes it easier for me to visualize scenes. Romantic pieces like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade would well, too.
  • Take a long walk where I won’t be overheard and say dialog aloud.
  • Draw portraits of my characters. Chart genealogies. Draw maps or plot flow charts.
  • Buy a new journal to keep writing notes in.
  • Do things that re-charge my creative batteries: play, get out in nature, listen to or make music, talk to folks I love, visit museums, play with my pets, dance, visit the ocean or the redwoods…
  • Make sure I’m ready to resume writing. If I’m not, what do I need?


What works for you?



(The image is Tissot’s “The Dreamer, (1871)



The Writing Life: Re-Entry — 7 Comments

  1. I’ve used gardening, fake cross-country skiing (NordicTracking), cooking, even cleaning. Re-reading an old, favorite book that I can drop at a moment and return to the WiP (because I know how that one ends…in truth, my subconscious was busy underneath, figuring something out.)

    Barbara Burnett Smith once told me, in the pit of my despair on writing and life, that I was just on sabbatical.

    The thing about sabbatical is, you always come back eventually.

  2. Sometimes you can start another work and circle back when that one runs dry.

    Beware! Beware! It’s so very easy to rack up a whole pile of half-finished works.

    But it can work.

  3. I agree with all the tricks. But it comes down to: Close the door to the office. Essential in my house even though the cat believes otherwise. Turn off the telephone. Disconnect the modem. Turn up the stereo. Apply butt to chair and hands to keyboard. One (1) and only one game of free cell and let the muse loose.

    And I agree, small achievable goals. One sentence. One paragraph, One page. I sometimes promise myself a second computer game–keep them simple and short and not online–if I achieve the current goal. Coffee and a stretch when I achieve a higher goal. Food if I go higher.

  4. Heh, heh – I come here.

    And in the process, I learn about so many things I never gave a thought to before: lipizzans and dog agility and Belgian fences and service dog rehabilitation and Aikido and the fascinating Marryat clan, and myriad others I could spend weeks trying to list.

    I also learn that there is such a thing as hope.

  5. I had a whole bunch of “life” that happened in 2004-2005, including the death of my mother.

    I didn’t write, not really, for about 2 years.

    This wasn’t project block. Or writer’s block. The words were gone. I did other things. Painted. Quilted. etc.

    Finally, when the words started coming back, I picked up Judy Reeve’s “A Writer’s Book of Days.” There was a quote for every day of a year. I used those to “prime the pump” as it were, to get back into writing.

    Eventually one of those quotes turned into a trilogy that I will one day rewrite and publish.

    Best of luck to you on your journey.

  6. For years the shower was my retreat for breaking ideas loose, until I realized it was the only place I did not have a mass of (conflicting) obligations to other people.

    Since then I’ve tried to grab a few minutes to myself, even if it’s only five or ten. If the writing doesn’t come as fast as it did when I was young, I think of it as tides, ebb and flow. During ebbs, it’s time to get into the world–read, watch a movie, listen to music, people watch, breathe. Move. The ideas will flow again. It takes longer after heavy emotional shocks, I’ve discovered, (those also come with age) but they do come back.

  7. Because I was raised on a steady diet of Guilt Guilt Guilt and What Have You Done For Me Lately, I tend to freeze up when I’m not writing because I should be writing. My husband, who is a smarter cookie than I am sometimes, calls this “shoulding on yourself,” and when I realize I’m doing it I write myself a hall pass to not be writing right then. Not “not be writing the next day,” or even later that afternoon, but in that moment. I know it sounds demented, but it’s useful for me to give myself a little guilt-free space.