Have you ever had one of those days where everything you try to write in nice, professional sentences just comes out sounding like garbage? How about one of those days where no words come at all … or some do, but you just end up spilling a bunch of nonsense onto a page because you have no other choice?
Of course you have had days like these. Congratulations — it means you are a writer. A struggler, a sufferer. You are a creative human with a lot of ideas, but your seemingly limitless brain is trapped inside a body that gets tired and has to eat and just aches all the time for some reason?
The question: Is writing supposed to be THIS hard?
The answer: Yes … but only to a certain point, and for very good reasons.
What’s the point of setting personal writing challenges? It would be very easy to set one simple writing goal and spend your whole life casually inching your way toward it day after day. And plenty of people do this — writing is something they care about, but not a priority. And for the record, this is a totally acceptable way to approach creative projects if that is the way you prefer to go about it. No judgment here.
But if you are truly dedicated to leveling up your writing and Making Words Happen — maybe even as a career path you are terrified but willing to attempt to pursue anyway — you can’t just take a casual, non growth approach to your work. This is not a time for “somedays” and “maybes.” This is a time for deciding to do something that does not come easily to you and actually sticking with it.
Setting personal challenges as a writer is something not nearly enough people do, but most who don’t really should. At the very end of 2018, I decided I was going to write 1 million words throughout the course of 2019. No one suggested this to me, no one bet that I couldn’t do it. It was just something I decided I wanted to try, even though I (rightfully) predicted it might come pretty close to becoming the death of me.
Because of that challenge (oh it’s not over yet, friends, unless you are reading this in 2020 and beyond), I learned A LOT about writing and about myself. I have a completely different perspective on the creative process and what it means to be “successful.” I brought all those lessons upon myself because I took on a really dumb challenge, but I have no regrets (so far).
Pursuing challenges is how we grow. This is the reason you can’t just keep writing the same story with the same setting featuring the same characters over and over and over again until you “get it right.” You have to expand your horizons. You have to try new things. You have to write stories that make you feel uncomfortable. If you are always comfortable, you are neither growing nor improving.
It’s important to set challenges that are achievable — but not EASILY achievable. You don’t want to aim so high consistently that you “fail” at every single new thing you try. But you want to aim high enough that if you do meet your goal, you feel a true sense of satisfaction … and if you don’t, you can still feel like you accomplished something in the midst of your attempt.
Do things that are hard. That’s how it should be. You should give yourself permission to write things that are “easier” and take breaks, but don’t shun the hard stuff. It’s what’s going to change you for the better more than anything else you try.
What does it really mean to “struggle” as a writer? For the past few weeks, I’ve really been on “the struggle starship” as I’ve come to call it. I haven’t written much, I haven’t felt great, and I’ve really started to doubt that all my goals and ambitions and hopes were actually worth the time and effort I had been putting into them.
But for me, it’s that struggle and its effects that motivate me to keep going, even if it means working a little less and resting a little more. Being a writer means you sometimes have to temporarily say no to things you would rather say yes to in order to meet a deadline or flesh out an idea. You have to push yourself when you are feeling sleepy. You have to force yourself to focus and “adult.” The struggle is, to a certain extent, part of the job description.
For a writer, a little struggle should be inevitable. Everyone goes through different waves to get to where they want to be, and it’s up to you to figure out how to navigate them in ways that work best for you. But you should not struggle so much with doing the work that you can’t sleep, or can’t get out of bed, or can’t do the things you otherwise love.
And of course, if you really feel like you are struggling to the point where you can’t handle the ups and downs of everyday life, ask for help. Please. There is a big difference between the typical struggles of an artist and the undeserved suffering that results from poor mental health. Take care of yourself. You are more important than your work.
How to find a balance between “work” and “play” as a writer. Want to know a secret? I have spent almost all of my adult life as a chronic over-committer. You can call this whatever you want — I’m not in denial — but I have spent many bouts of burnout desperately trying to convince myself that making time for rest would not kill me. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Here’s the truth: YOU HAVE TO DO BOTH. You do not have a choice. You cannot play video games all day every day and expect to meet your goals (unless it IS your goal), and you cannot expect to work every waking moment of your life and die happy.
There is no such thing as perfect balance, because you will almost always end up doing too much of one thing on any given day. But you have to leave time and space for it. This is not optional.
Only you know how much work you can handle, and how much “play time” you need in order to recover from that work and recharge for your next cycle of productivity. I can work 12+ hours a day AS LONG as I have at least a few hours of do-nothing time before I go to sleep. That is what works for me. It does not work for everyone, and I would never say “my way” is THE way.
As a general rule, though, never work so much that it pains you, and rest just enough that you start to feel bored. Let yourself be bored for a little while. Boredom is, believe it or not, one of a creator’s most valuable tools. Boredom is when your imagination wakes up. So go. Go play.
Writing is not always supposed to be easy. It is also not always supposed to be hard. This whole game is a balance, and we’re just out here making sure we have the resources and tools, strength and support we need to get back up each time we fall.
Welcome to the writing life. Work hard. Have fun. Cry. Laugh. Eat a doughnut. Repeat.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.