Conquering an Extended Writing Slump

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. –Ecclesiastes 3:1, ASV

In the winter of 2017, we became instant parents.

A family emergency left us almost no time to decide whether we were “ready.”

It’s been close to two years since I’ve published. Absorbing three kids into a household with virtually no planning time, as we did, inevitably means throwing your schedule out the window.

Something had to give, and in our case, it was my writing time. This was not a healthy thing for me. There is nothing quite so depressing as a creative who cannot create. For my own mental health, I needed to be able to view this tumultuous period for the season that it was, and trust that some day, I would emerge with a correspondingly stronger perspective.

Far from rejuvenating an exhausted writer’s heart, navigating such a creative slump feels more like hiking through a muddy swamp. Every slurping, soul-sucking step of that slog drains your body and threatens to pull you down.

In the days and months immediately following our accidental foray into parenthood, I felt my career tanking. I was forced to back out of a local food column I had just landed, right after publishing the opening piece. I quit working on all of my books-in-progress. I stopped checking my editing e-mail and the lapsed account closed. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when my website crashed and I lost two-thirds of my previous material.

Social media became my social life. Other than chats with my husband, it was the only time of day where I could count on talking to a grownup.

Most of a year went by.

I got pregnant.

Another year passed.

The media, bless them, made sure to keep up my spirits throughout with articles aimed at separating “writers” from “parents.” Women could perhaps write and be mothers, the headlines screamed, but only if they limited themselves to one child. Men, of course, could procreate and parent without career consequence. Somehow, we rarely question a father’s ability to have it all. Mothers, we assume, will give up everything that makes them individual. Someone must think of the children.

The more motherhood demanded of me, the more stifling it felt. I could not stomach the thought of spending the rest of my days endlessly putting goals on the back burner because somebody did something gross yet again and wanted me to clean it up. Patience is not my strong suit.

It turns out that perpetual sleep deprivation is also a killer. Truly, it was not until we started being able to rest again that things slowly began to improve for our household.

The halcyon days of calmly sipping endless bottomless pots of coffee while hunting for the perfect turns of phrase, are, to say the least, far behind me. That same cup usually takes two or three spins through the microwave before I give up and start afresh. Nothing these days gets done without background noise. On a good day, it’s the Paw Patrol theme song. Others, my desperate attempts at concentration will be punctuated by unintelligible exclamations delivered at the top of a preschooler’s lungs, accompanied by what might be the sound of elephants smacking into my living room walls.

But the elephants can keep thumping, because I am not willing to wait another 18 years for my turn. I’m taking it now. Minute by minute, if I have to. My children deserve a happy mom. My husband deserves a happy spouse.

That means making time for the things I love as well as the people.

Wishing you all a blessed 2019.


P.S. I did manage to wrap 2018 with one clip! Find my latest over at The Syndrome Mag.

Breaking Up Writer’s Block: Thunder and Brainstorm

Writers are notoriously secretive. We use fake names. We like to play our cards close to the vest. Fellow writers are competitors as much as potential collaborators. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of every writer’s mind, lies the fear of idea theft. The hack peddling a knockoff version of our literary progeny. The common plagiarist. The blabbermouth partner. We protect our developing work with parental ferocity.

Intellectual property fears aren’t the only reason we hesitate to share. You’ll find plenty of advice telling you to keep your story a secret, with good reason. A few years ago, I shared a piece of writing with someone who had minor connections to an industry I was interested in working for. I got ripped apart and then some.

I wasn’t ready for that level of criticism. Nor was that person qualified to give it. That one bad review–more like a personal attack–not only permanently damaged my longtime friendship with that individual but also ended any serious attempts to break into that field. I was done.

Pursuing a writing career requires the ability to develop a cowhide-thick skin. There is a difference, however, between finding oneself on the un-fun end of a tough critique from an industry expert and being subjected to a nasty dress down by someone who has no idea what he or she is talking about.

Much of the advice about keeping stories under wraps is aimed at protecting writers from those unprovoked attacks by typically well-meaning, occasionally jealous, but always ill-informed friends, relatives, and writing-world acquaintances. A budding story, entrusted to the wrong hands, can be shredded to the point of unrecognizability and shoved into a drawer. Although rescuing the world from one more terrible book could be construed as a public service, damage occurs whenever talented would-be creators are injured.

Yet telling writers they must go it alone until the story is a perfectly polished pearl is equally problematic. Nobody successfully walks the path to publication alone. There are teachers, sources, editors, agents, critics, layout experts, graphic designers, photographers, advertisers, illustrators, promoters, and countless others involved in every publishing medium. You won’t build a prominent writing career by yourself. Why would you expect to craft the Great American Novel (or anything else) without help?

Your novel will come to a screeching halt at some point in your writing process. If it doesn’t, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. You will find yourself contending with implausible story arcs, confusing characters, boring filler moments. You will question everything, and the temptation to throw it all into the nearest paper shredder, never to be seen again, will be palpably real. Perfectionists, recognize.

There are two things you could do next. You could follow the technique prescribed by NaNoWriMo coaches: Ignore your inner editor and push ahead. Get the words on the page. All systems go. Forget the mess, you’ll clean it up later.

Or, you could recognize that some problems are simpler to fix before you hit revisions. Keep writing, but make notes of the things you need to fix: this character’s behavior, that subplot, those research holes. And never underestimate the power of a good brainstorm session. You don’t have to share your ratty early drafts or adopt anyone else’s changes, but opening a conversation about a specific issue that is giving you pause can send a fresh jolt through your creative process.

Earlier this week, I went into a brainstorm session feeling that my protagonist and a secondary character didn’t go together. The story was morphing into two different books rather than main plot and subplot, and I needed to take back control. I came out of that conversation–-which naturally covered a ton of ridiculous, insane plot pitches–-with slightly more confidence and a few workable ideas. Also, by addressing the issue at the first opportunity, I didn’t let myself write my way into a corner, and I didn’t put myself in a position where several chapters would have to be heavily redlined or tossed out. Instead, I’m going back in with a game plan.

Have you tried brainstorming your way out of writer’s block?

*This post originally appeared in September 2016.*