So you’ve been writing your 500 words a day, researching your new novel, making the revisions your editor suggested, starting a new essay, approaching an article deadline… when life throws you a punch. Your boyfriend leaves. Your kid is failing school. Your mom breaks her hip. You have a major fallout with a friend. Your mammogram is suspicious.
You’ve had one of those days. Or weeks. Maybe one of those months. You’re knocked off kilter. And so is your creative output.
Your focused mind becomes a traffic jam of negative thoughts. The words sit lifeless on the page. Whatever you’ve written, now seems crap.
Trying to write a book is challenging on the best of days. Now, the sadness or worry you’re feeling is compounded with each passing unproductive day. The fewer words you write, the more frustrated you become.
On days like these, I wish I were the kind of person who can don emotional blinders and keep churning out the pages.
Writing itself sustains me during ordinary times, which is why it is essential to keep at it during hard times. Yet sometimes I find this extraordinarily difficult, particularly during the past two and a half years since my father was killed. The traumatic experience shed my already thin skin and it hasn’t grown back. Despite my healing, my brain remains sensitive to shock and perceived threats. It doesn’t take much to knock me over.
It’s happening right now.
How do you keep writing when life throws you a punch?
Notice I didn’t say “if” but “when,” because it will happen. Often in waves. Disappointment. Anger. Hurt. Shock. Grief. Worry. Emotions that can cut through creativity.
I’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Here are a few things I’ve tried.
1. Take time out—but not too long.
You wonder how you can possibly write anything worthwhile when you feel so bad. Your first impulse is probably to cast writing aside and attempt to numb yourself or engage in distracting activities. Give yourself permission to have a bad week, to take time off—just try to designate a time limit. When a student I advise is crushed about a college rejection, I give him 3 days to mope, rant, or binge watch Netflix. Then it’s time to move on. So go ahead, curl up on the couch…just don’t stay there.
2. Switch writing gears
If you find it impossible to connect with your current project, try starting something new (but not too big). Revise/edit an older manuscript. Work on submissions. Engage in research or brainstorm ideas. Or write in a different genre. (Like I’m doing now with this blog post.) Read something inspiring. Journal writing can help you grapple with the problem and clear your mind. Any writing you can do will make you feel better.
3. Expect something good
There’s a Yiddish saying that originated in Chassidic teaching, “Tracht Gut Vet Zien Gut “—“Think good, and it will be good.” The idea is that positive thinking will not only help you weather hard times but can actually make positive things happen. I take this to mean that if you expect good things, you are more likely to attract them. The Universe may surprise you by sending a salve for your wound. Strange as it seems, this has worked for me. Just this week, when feeling my lowest, I heard from a special person I hadn’t spoken to in years but had been recently thinking about. I also had a story accepted for publication.
Sometimes, though, the punch is more than a bad week or a misunderstanding. It’s a serious illness. The break-up of a marriage. The death of a loved one. It may take a lot more time to find your words again, to rise out of the darkness. During such trials, I hope you have a special person to lift you up.
Famed American novelist, Henry James, wrote, in July 1883, a most tender and compassionate letter of advice and comfort to his friend and fellow writer, Grace Norton of Boston. Grace was despondent after the death of a family member. Henry encouraged his dear friend not to give up on life.
My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain.
James’s concluding words to Grace lift me each time I read them.
Sorrow comes in great waves…but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us… we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we, after a manner, see.
Paul Christian Gelutu
You can read the letter in its entirety at Letters of Note–Henry James or hear it on YouTube.