What to do when writing is a struggle

If you’re a writer, you will most likely think, in some variation at one time or another:

  • Well, this is not really very good at all.
  • I have no idea what I’m doing.
  • What is this story/essay/script/poem even about?
  • I shouldn’t be wasting my time.
  • No one’s going to read this.
  • Why did I ever think I could write?
  • What can I watch on Netflix instead of working on this story/essay/script/poem?

How do I know you will think one or all of these things? I don’t, if we’re being honest. But I can say that I’ve thought all of those things at one time or another while I’ve been writing.

Yesterday, if you must know. I thought all of those things yesterday.

And no, it doesn’t matter when you’re reading this, because I think one or more or all of those things on any day when I’m writing.

But if we’re also being honest, any day where I’m writing is better than any other day where I’m not writing.

And yet, I have been struggling lately to find time to write. And by “lately,” I mean the last three years. Not only is finding time to write a struggle, I’ll often go to great lengths to avoid it. Why is that?

I could blame my day job. After finishing graduate school in 2014, I spent the next two years freelancing and working on completing a novel. Freelancing gave me the flexibility to do things like attend the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging Writers in 2014 and spend a month in Vermont at the Vermont Studio Center. It also meant I could tailor my day-to-day schedule around my writing.

And yet, when I was freelancing, I still faced the same struggle. What was distracting me?

I could say anxiety, but I think that was more of a symptom than a cause in this case. What was I anxious about? Setting aside the real-world concerns of making enough money to pay bills, putting food on the table, getting and keeping health insurance, not to mention maintaining my health, I was anxious about the book I was working on: would it be successful? Would I be able to get an agent? What if people didn’t like the book? What if nobody read it? How am I going to promote it? Should I spend more time trying to build a following? How do I do that?

I had a lot of questions, few answers, and no idea what I could do about it.

I worried about everything except the actual writing

You’ll notice that, in all of those things I was worrying about, nowhere is the word “writing” included. The book wasn’t even done yet, but I was spending so much time worrying about it. I would say I was putting the cart before the horse, but that’s a cliché and I would have to change it in revision later. I was borrowing worries from the future about a book that I hadn’t even finished writing. It made no sense, but I did it anyway.

Eventually, I did finish writing that book, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I ended up setting it aside. In other words, I spent three years working on and worrying about a book that wound up in a drawer. How’s that for futility?

After that, I went back to work on a different project, the novel that I’d written in grad school as my thesis. I’ve been working on it ever since, and I’m finally getting close to the end of a major revision. I would like to be able to say that in the intervening years, I’ve gotten better about not giving in to those worries about agents and publishing and whether readers will like it or not, but that would be a lie.

How do I stop worrying and just write?

I’ve been easily sidetracked by pursuits tangential to the writing process: publishing, applying to grad schools, building a—I shudder to write this word—platform. (And whatever you do, don’t even get me started on the idea of having a “personal brand.” If I had to describe my personal brand identity as a writer, I’d say it’s a combination of queer rage and fear, barely concealed beneath a thin veneer of wit on a good day, blatant sarcasm on most days.)

I wasted a lot of time early in my writing career worrying about things I thought I should be doing: trying to get published, trying to find an agent, trying to get into grad school. I would pour time and effort into those goals and it would feel like I was working on my writing, but was I actually writing anything?

By now I probably don’t need to tell you what the answer to that question is.

No one will be able to answer this question for you, but they can tell you what they did when they faced the same struggle. As always, your mileage may vary.

What is in your control?

Here are the things I have no control over:

  • Getting published.
  • Finding an agent.
  • Getting washboard abs.

Okay that last one is a bit of a cheat. However, I think that my genetics/biology combined with age make it highly unlikely that I’ll see my abs any time in the future, near or otherwise.

Here are the things I do have control over:

  • Writing.
  • Well, that’s pretty much it.

I have to love the process and let that be enough. And if we’re being honest, most days it is.

I had a breakthrough with a story one morning recently. I was at the gym, sitting on the recumbent bike machine, reading an email. It’s part of a challenge to write a thousand words a day during a 14-day period in the summer. I know that I respond well to external writing goals of an arbitrary nature, so I decided to take up the challenge, too.

This is something that’s good for me to know about how I write. If I tell myself, “You’re going to write a thousand words today,” I might or I might not. If someone else says, “Try writing x number of words for y days/weeks,” I’m much more likely to follow through and be consistent. In addition, other writers who took part in the challenge posted reports of their daily progress on Twitter, so I did the same. That small added aspect of accountability makes a big difference as well.

You (and here I do mean you, not me) may not have the same results. The one way to know for certain is to try it. If you find yourself petering out after five hundred words, well, that’s five hundred more than you might otherwise have written. If you don’t have the daily bandwidth to write that much, maybe there’s another writing habit that will work better for you.

Do not be afraid to experiment, whether that’s writing in twenty-minute sprints, choosing a different location to write in, or switching from laptop to notebooks to typewriter to post-it notes. I wrote almost an entire story using my phone while riding the bus. (The story involved riding on a bus, so the environment probably helped in that case.)

Let’s face it: Writing is just hard.

I’m fond of saying it’s not digging-a-ditch hard, but it’s not easy, either.

I took a teaching workshop with the wonderful Canadian writer Nancy Lee in 2015. One of the many things she said that have stuck with me is this (I’m paraphrasing, but I hope I get the gist accurately): Writing is a career of attrition. Which is to say that a lot of people along the way give up. This is not a pursuit of easy wins and instant success. Some of my stories that have been published took years to finish, revise, polish, walk away from, walk back to, start over from scratch, and eventually send out again, and again, and again.

I’m talking about persistence. That was another mistake I made early in my writing career. I gave up too easily. I lost most of the 1990s that way. I also lost sight of how much I loved writing; instead, I allowed the disappointment of not getting any acceptances outweigh the joy I got from stringing words together. At some point I figured out I could worry about getting published, or I could focus on getting finished.

You can’t publish an empty page. You have to fill it.

It helps to have (writer) friends

After grad school, I packed up and left Vancouver to return to St. Louis, leaving behind two years’ worth of friendships and so many lingering conversations about the writing process and all our anxieties about it. I don’t have many local friends who are writers, and it’s hard to keep up with people who are thousands of miles away. And to be honest, I don’t know where I fit in anymore.

But there are other writers in St. Louis and I need to find them. You could probably use a writer friend or two yourself. There’s only so much commiseration and moral support your friends, partner, or family can provide.

Remember why you got into this in the first place.

Because you love writing. Even when it’s hard.