The Slump: how to start writing again

Today is, I think, the sixth or seventh day I haven’t done significant writing work. As in, I have pulled up the Word tab languishing at the bottom of my taskbar, stared at the winding sea of paragraphs, contemplated the next, set my fingers on the keys–and then it was too much. Something I didn’t understand. Some question that I couldn’t answer. I closed it out. Another day, I told myself. Another day.

So many of us experience this slump in our writing–we stop for a day, because we’re tired, because we’re busy, because we’re brainstorming. Then one day multiplies to three, seven, twenty. On writers’ blogs (see Meg Dowell’s discussion of the phenomenon here) and among the Twitter community, it’s a common theme. So what is the slump, where does it come from, how might we avoid one, and when avoiding doesn’t work, how can we pull ourselves back?

Two weeks ago, my school’s ski trip took us up into the mountains above Stryn. Our group spent one easier day in a fire-making competition. The experience is an apt symbol for overcoming a writing slump.

Inertia

To begin, a lesson from physics: a body in motion stays in motion; a body at rest, it stays at rest. So it is with objects, and so I have found it is for writing too.

The writing process thrives on running thought: when the story plays out in our minds, when it keeps stretching, spinning, proliferating, that is when the creative flow comes easily, and when we find ourselves in such a frame of mind, we harness it, write as fast as our fingers can move, and feel justly proud.

But when we stop, the thought is not sustained. Other matters fill our minds, and the story atrophies. In fact, we find ourselves trying to remember the emotional thrust of a chapter, having to go back and check what came before–the animating fire that pulls us forward in our writing has died down for lack of fuel. In order to restart the process, we need to, once again, find kindling and dry leaves, assemble our airy stack that will take the flame and allow it to grow…

When our writing hits a slump, the colder our fire becomes, the more work it will take us to rebuild. And this is intimidating. It is a hundred times easier to to scroll through social media, to watch a show, to take a nap, to catch up on work, to wait another day–anything but the arduous task of reassembling the inertia in our minds.

The best way to keep the slump from starting is to just keep writing. No matter what. No matter how busy. Even a bit. Keep feeding the flame. It’s a lot easier to keep a fire burning than it is to start one cold.

This group had a hard time getting started, but eventually, their fire was blazing.

Self-consciousness

When we venture beyond the personal journal, when we believe that, someday, someone will read this work, writing becomes an act of self-revelation. It requires courage, perseverance, belief in the value of our projects–all of these things require mental energy. Writing can be fun, freeing, motivating, invigorating, yet it asks much of the mind and spirit.

Keep going! You can do it!

In a slump, when I begin to write again, in halting, cloying, oft-deleted sentences, that is when the ghost of self-consciousness most often pays a call. Insecurities about the value of my story, about my own ability to tell it–these fears strap me down and refuse to help me achieve a flow.

The thoughts say, “It’s better, in truth, not to write at all. Then you’ll never fail.”

I see this same thought process in many of my students. So frequently it is self-doubt that forms the root of procrastination–if a student believes she or he won’t succeed, it’s better to distract, to put off the work, because if it’s never produced (or produced but never turned in!), then it can’t fail, right? It can’t be bad.

It’s a lot easier to perceive this in someone else than in oneself. But this is where we writers have an advantage, I think, because our business is so often the perception of the internal, the emotional, the hard to see–if we can see it in ourselves, then perhaps we can fight back.

What to do about it.

The other day, a fellow writer tweeted:

Of course she is right. There’s no question. And as writers, we are always having to make time, as life loves to fill up all the space we have. But if our stories matter to us, if we care enough to build the fire at all, then we must do the hard work when we are in a slump.

First, if insecurity is involved (as for me it almost always is), we must talk it down. We remind ourselves of what others have said about our writing or the conclusions we have come to after deep reflection, that yes, this story is worth it. Yes, I can write. Yes, this is something I care about.

That takes time. That takes effort. At some point that deserves its own post here. But when we have calmed our fears, the work is not yet done. Then we must banish the distractions, choose our priorities, and begin to reassemble our inspiration. I usually reread some of the text before, look back at my outline, and sit quietly playing out the coming scenes in my head. In time, this gets me where I need to be.

Has writing this post been enough of a pep talk for myself? We’ll see. I’ll get going again, soon to be sure, and thanks for being here with me to keep pushing!

So tell me, how do you get unstuck after a slump? What other factors do you see contributing to one? Thanks for sharing. Best of luck with all that you’re doing, and happy Sunday.

Jimmy

Sandwiches grilled over the campfire: an impressively delicious reward for hard work.
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