When Writing Seems Impossible

One of my favourite reactions to the question ‘why do you write’ came from Lisa McInerney when I saw her at the Emerald Street Literary Festival last year. She’d just won the Bailey’s Prize for fiction (you can see my thoughts on the book here), so she had reasons to be cheerful. Her answer was something along the lines of ‘I hate myself less when I’m writing than when I’m not.’ Having heard many replies from writers that made it sound like they leapt out of bed each morning, bursting forth brilliant words onto the page, it was refreshing to hear someone acknowledge the slog and occasional self-loathing that comes when you make the odd decision to dedicate a fair portion of your life to staring at a screen.

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For me, it’s currently the summer holidays. Last year that meant absolutely screaming through the first draft of my second novel (which I still haven’t got around to editing). After a restful couple of weeks abroad (holiday blogs here and here), I returned to my desk, plot outline and brilliant idea in my notebook, all set for the words to come leaping from my fingers.

And here we are, a week and a half later, and I’ve written about 500 words. Why is it that when I have all the time in the world to write, nothing happens? The amount of short stories I’ve written while sat on the tube, or huge chunks of novel squeezed in between temping and tutoring, you would think that a free open space would give you a guarantee of a great word count at the end of the week. Alas, for me at least, this is not the case.

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This beautiful view (St. James’ Park) did not lead to the inspiration I was hoping for.

There are a few things that have kept me from going a little crazy. One of them is editing existing work. In past moments of creative enthusiasm, I’ll have great ideas for short stories, or I’ll scribble all over old chapters with THE idea that’s going to lift my novel. On days when I’m not particularly feeling the creative flow, picking up an old idea and polishing it up, or applying my cynical eye to previous drafts often has very fruitful results. For example, I now like the opening sentence of my novel. Which is saying something.

The other thing that gets me over the hump is doing other types of writing. As I’m reading more books and watching more stuff on TV, I’ll be far more likely to have some ideas for blogs or articles, or be able to write book reviews.

If you can take an existing passion and find a way to squeeze some writing into it, all the better. I used to spend a fair amount of my week doing amateur dramatics. From a young age, striding about on stage with an orange face in a stupid dress was my idea of a good time.

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No, I don’t know what I’m doing with my hands either.

So now, I channel that enthusiasm into writing theatre reviews. Thanks to the marvellous Caroline Hanks-Farmer at Carns Theatre Passion, I get a regular writing gig. Once or twice a month I’ll head out to various venues in London (Clown Festivals and theatres above pubs, for example) and get to experience some new theatre, then be able to write about it afterwards. This gives me regular deadlines, and ensures that, even if the creative well is running dry, I’ll be able to describe the way the performance made me feel, the images and ideas it brought up, the different elements that came together to make it work. So I’m still writing. It’s a different kind, but it still makes sure I’m putting pen to paper and turning ideas into words.

How do you cope when your creative well runs dry? Do you have other writing outlets? Please share in the comments below.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

10 thoughts on “When Writing Seems Impossible

  1. I really find myself in your words.
    My philosophy is: the more writing projects I have on the go at any time, the more chance that at least one is going well (overlooking the fact that spreading myself too thinly is bound to reduce quality, until the little critical demon dwelling in the mind, wakes up and shouts ‘Jack of all trade!’)
    So when the creative well runs dry, I also go back to the notebook of ‘amazing short story ideas’ which maybe don’t feel as amazing now as when they were first conceived, but still are a starting point. And, if I’m lucky, a nice short story is born. Enjoy the rest of the summerx

  2. Often times, especially when I’m the first draft of a novel, if I’m finding myself basically in hand to hand combat with a chapter, I fall back and edit a previous chapter, adding to it, subtracting from it, whatever I need to do.

    Often times that assigns the problem chapter into another part of my brain, and when I get to it, it flows easier.

  3. “How do you cope when your creative well runs dry?”

    I don’t… 😀

    Actually, as a man about to turn 40, this is gonna sound strange. I throw my pens down on the rug, whip out a sketch pad, and just scribble. Eventually, a character or idea will appear on the page I can do something with. Once I have a thread I can usually tug it out into something or other. 🙂

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