“I can’t write when I don’t feel like it. I don’t like forcing myself to do something that should be fun.”
I’ve heard this argument against “writing when you’d rather not” enough times to realize it’s a touchier subject than expected among various kinds of writers. People love to argue with me on this point. And as much as I understand why and where they’re coming from, I pretty much choose to end these discussions by agreeing to disagree.
Their stance: Writing when you don’t want to is a waste of time. It makes you do bad work, it makes you less creative, and you’re just going to have to go back and rewrite all of it later.
Maybe that’s their personal experience. I can expect everyone’s point of view even if I don’t subscribe to or agree with it.
But here’s the thing about writing: It has to get done eventually, somehow. And the more you give in to your excuses (of which there are often many), the more you decrease your chances of success.
There are a lot of reasons you might not “feel” like writing. Lacking the perceived motivation to get even a few hundred words written — to even get to a point where you’re sitting down in front of a blank page to begin with — is a common enough problem among writers that I’d estimate it accounts for at least 80 percent of “missed attempts” at becoming a writer.
I’m no expert, and I don’t have the statistics to back up this estimate. But jump onto any writing forum or #writing on Twitter and you’ll almost immediately find the first of many hopefuls asking the masses: “How do you find the motivation to write? I try, but I just can’t do it.”
Why is this such a widespread issue in the writing community? There are many possibilities, and many reasons why writers “can’t” write. And every individual likely has a different reason for struggling to get the words out — it probably also changes from week to week. So there’s no “one reason” why writing is so universally challenging.
Chances are, you’re dealing with a combination of internal and external barriers to creativity. Internal barriers are the things “all in your head” like self-doubt and fear of judgment. External barriers are things you can’t control, like a family member needing extra help, your day job making it difficult to set aside personal writing time, or mental health issues.
Where we often go wrong in scenarios like these — the ones in which we can’t even force ourselves to “place butt in chair” and start writing — is that we trap ourselves in an all-or-nothing approach to writing. We decide even before we make the attempt that if we’re not going to be able to do our best work, then there’s just no point in trying to write anything at all.
More often than not, starting is the hardest part. Think about it. You know you have to write a blog post today, for example. It’s the last thing on your to-do list and you’ve been putting it off all day. The more you think about when you’re going to sit down and do it, the less motivated you feel to actually sit down and do it.
The less motivated you feel, the more upset you get about not being able to write … and even though all it would take is a simple sit-down-and-start-typing approach, you’ve often talked yourself out of doing even that long before the opportunity presents itself.
To be clear: It’s okay to not write. It’s not the end of the world, and deciding you’re not in the right headspace to write isn’t the end of the world … for a day or two. But when you lock yourself into this mindset for too long, it becomes that much harder to convince yourself to sit down and try again.
So even though writing seems like the absolute last thing you “feel” like doing right now, there’s absolutely no harm in trying anyway. Far too many writers have convinced themselves — or have been convinced by others — that “writing while unmotivated” will lead to bad writing. And maybe it will … for the first few hundred words or so.
But that’s the trick of it. Everyone starts out a little wobbly, even those of us who have been doing this for a long time. You have to start, though. You have to put one foot in front of the other and keep doing that. That’s the only way to get past the wobbly stage and into the inspiration zone, if you will. Most just call it a flow state, but inspiration zone sounds cooler.
You can’t reach a flow state if you don’t start a workflow. A flow state is the writer’s equivalent of a Runner’s High. Musicians and many other types of creators often describe experiencing moments in which it almost seems as though they stop thinking, detach from reality, and watch the work seem to start completing itself.
It’s still their work, of course — it’s still the musician playing those notes, the runner running those steps, the writer forming those words with her fingers. But the combination of inspiration and being “in the zone” sort of melts all the “I really don’t want to do this anymore” feelings right out of your system.
This is the place all writers wish they could live, always, This is where writing doesn’t “feel” difficult, the anxieties of the outside world can’t bother you, and the ideas just keep popping into your head seamlessly as if you’d planned for them to do that (you didn’t).
You can get there. Pretty much anyone can. The problem is that you have to already have been writing before you can enter a writing flow state. We’ve already discussed how to start. And once you get to the flow state (if you do — it doesn’t happen every time), you don’t usually have to worry about how to keep going.
But what about in-between “just sat down to write/have written some words” and “I could write 10,000 words without stopping, I am a literary goddess”?
Well, that’s the tough part. Nothing really “happens” in this in-between place except writing. There’s not necessarily anything stopping you from writing, but there sometimes isn’t much to drive you forward either. So … the best advice I can offer you is that if your goal is to write more than a few hundred words, and you don’t feel like you can get there, you really just have to take it 100 words at a time until you’re comfortable calling it quits for now.
Maybe that’s not what you want to hear. But this is not the place for magic cure-alls and fluff suggestions. I tell it like it is on these digital pages. Yes, you will encounter circumstances in which writing is not possible — more important things will get in the way and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about them.
But sometimes you do have to “suck it up” as they say and do the work anyway. It’s not always as difficult as it seems. Don’t talk yourself out of trying. If you do and it doesn’t happen, well, at least you tried. More often than not, though, once you get going, you’ll find it most difficult to stop instead of the other way around.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.