Writing can allow us to dive deeply into ourselves and how we connect to all life. It can give us extraordinary moments of epiphany, awe and insight. Writing can immerse us in a state of flow or enable us to fly on the wings of imagination. The writing life can be a space of enchantment.
But there are also days when, for whatever reason, getting out of bed is a struggle and a few lines in a journal seems like way too much effort. There are times when the day unravels almost before it has begun — we’re running late or we don’t manage to do our morning yoga or have a coffee or a walk or whatever makes the day start right for us. There are days when you feel anything but inspired and wonder what you were ever thinking to have had the audacity to call yourself a writer.
And sometimes these days turn into weeks or months. When these times come it’s so tempting to believe we’ll never write again or to feel that there is nothing we can do.
Creativity is a delicate creature. It can wax and wane like the moon, it can be on fire for a while and then seem to evaporate for no apparent reason. We have to give it every opportunity to flourish. We need environments where we can get into flow. We need mindsets that prioritise the creative life.
Sometimes, we’re just in a negative frame of mind, we’re making excuses about why it is impossible for us to do something we’ve previously promised ourselves. In these times we may need to take a long, hard look at our inner-landscape and perhaps shake ourselves up.
But at other times, life actually does get in the way. There are whole periods of life when we are overtaken with grief or caring for someone or facing serious illness or a difficult job or raising young children while juggling a hundred and one other demands.
What can we do when the predominant feeling is of overwhelm or disenchantment?
Holding the vision
When the hard times come, the winters of our creative flow, don’t decide you were never a writer after all, that you were never the ‘real thing’. Instead, hold the vision in any small ways possible. This might be as basic as one or two lines in a journal each day — it might be reflection, a scrap of dream, a rare haiku, one thing you were grateful for that day …
I’ve mentioned previously the wonderful equation from Oliver Sacks:
creativity = time + forgetting + incubation
Trust that creativity will return — it’s incubating. Give it time, don’t keep taking its temperature. You are a writer. Use any scrap of creativity that comes your way but don’t force it.
One of the huge problems for creative people in our current society is that we are so overly-focussed on productivity. This race to produce art or writing by the yard, or preferably by the mile, becomes overwhelming when we hit a difficult patch in life. And this in turn is exacerbated by another huge societal pressure towards perfectionism.
Failure is not only an option, it is also a great teacher. In the inimitable words of Samuel Beckett:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
If we fear failure we will never take the risks that lead to real progress. When a drought of creativity hits, either through awful life events or an internal crisis, hold to the vision of yourself as a writer, an artist. Believe that you will continue on the other side.
We’re all flawed and the writing we do will have flaws even when we are at our most creative. Taking time out when huge things happen, letting the creativity gestate and giving ourselves time, doesn’t make you a less worthy person.
Life is a not a puzzle with a solution
Writing in Psychology Today, Jennifer Kromberg says:
…being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be ‘right’.
We all have to make choices, even when life is going smoothly. If writing is essential to you, then you need to prioritise it, but that might mean you have to lower your standards in other areas. In Writing Wild Tina Welling talks a lot about lowering standards in order to do what she loves: write.
She suggests areas for lowering standards might include the car you drive, how much money you want, the clothes you wear, the amount of housework you can do… You might have to cut down on social media or phone apps or answering every email. You might have to miss some social opportunities…
It’s okay. You don’t have to do it all. To quote Annie Dillard:
It’s endearing how people think writers have time to dust.
Welling suggests we make a sign of this and hang it where visitors will see it.
And when life takes a huge turn towards hard times, even such prioritising will have to wait. It doesn’t mean you are not a writer afterall. It means you’re a human being with all the joys and sorrows that brings. Life is not a puzzle with a corrent answer, it’s complex and messy and when it gets difficult we need to replace the urge to perfectionism (in writing and in life) with gratitide for the smallest signs of progress and, above all, with radical kindness.
Take joy wherever you find it along the way.
The steps taken, not the miles to go
We all have ‘miles to go before I sleep’.
When life hits a rough patch we can become hyper-aware of this and begin to measure how far short of our goals we feel. This isn’t motivating or helpful, it’s paralysing. In this mindset, even if things get better in our circumstances, we find ourselves so lacking in cofindence and sense of self-worth, that the quest we once thought attainable now seems out of reach. We mock ourselves for ever thinking we could scale such heights of creativity.
When life hits a period of overwhelm and disillusion it’s crucial that we adopt a different perspective, one that will eventually enable us to look forward with optimism. Ironically, this requires looking back, not with sentimentality but with a sense of self worth for how far we’ve come.
When life gets hard, each day can be a struggle. But we know it hasn’t always been this way. We have a past to draw on in which we did write that poetry collection or article or novel or essay. We have a past to draw on in which we did make changes when we needed to. We have a past to draw on in which we survived former hard times and went on to thrive.
When life is hard, it’s a good moment to start thinking of all the ways in which you have been previously amazing, all the ways in which you have been creative, humane, lived by your values … Think of all the steps you’ve already taken rather than the ones ahead and the future will seem less daunting.
Kindness not comparisons
Ultimately this is an act of radical kindness to yourself and one of the extraordinary things about being radically kind to yourself, which is not the same as living on excuses or living in a victim mentaility, is that you develop a much deeper and more generous empathy towards others when you are not self-sabotaging.
A while ago I re-watched the film Magnolia with two people close to me. It’s not the most easy film to watch at points, but it is deeply moving and a central question runs through it: What can we forgive? It’s clear that the answer to this varies enormously and that this variance differs on the basis of how much each character can forgive him or herself.
This isn’t a glib forgiveness of shrugging off responsibility or making trite excuses. It’s hard won and involves deep work. But not self-destructive work. Accepting ourselves isn’t the same as excusing ourselves. We can take responsibility without taking ourselves apart.
It seems to me that a key to this is not believing that anyone can be perfect. We are works in progress as much as any of our writing is, more so. So often perfectionism has us looking at others and thinking they have it all worked out. It’s easy to see what’s on the surface of someone else’s life. But everyone, no matter how ‘successful’ has struggles. What’s often amazing is how so many of us get through our days given how much is going on at any one time.
Don’t imagine the person with the gorgeous house decorated with antique furniture has no self-doubt or suffering. Don’t imagine the writer with three award-winning novels doesn’t struggle to start writing every time she sits down.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, take a deep breath and be kind to yourself. In her poem, ‘Wild Geese’ Mary Oliver suggests:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves
Oliver is a poet who takes her craft seriously. She is not someone who is advising us to do sloppy, lack-lustre work. But she also knows that driving ourselves hard, never allowing that anything we write is good enough is self-destructive.
By all means be ambitious. By all means have huge dreams and do what is needful to bring them to fruition, but don’t let perfectionism petrify you. Remember:
- It’s better to try and fail, learn and move on.
- All humanity is flawed, but you are still worthy.
- You don’t have to do it all: lower your standards in the non-essential areas.
- Don’t compare yourself to others who may seem to be doing better. You never really know and in any case comparison is odious and demotivating.
- Sometimes life will slow you down, even to a stand still. You are still a writer. Look at how far you have come and be patient with yourself.
Above al, be kind to yourself. In the inimitable words of Mary Oliver, remember:
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
An invitation to transform your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. On the website, you’ll also find free courses, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as tasters for the paid courses so you can dip in and see for yourself.
Wise words. Why is it harder to be kind to yourself than others?
Judith Field says
This is a wonderful post, which speaks to me in so many ways. Thank you.
Keith Lander says
Thank you for this. I’ve been going through a long bad patch, but am slowly returning. I needed to be told it – again.
Gwen Williams says
Thank you so much for this post today. truth shone out from your words encouragement and permission to be gentle and wait for your own readiness/.
It has helped me so much today to be kind to myself and wait patiently in awareness of the immediate world and my own senses.
Enjoyed this blog especially the first part.
Thank you. X
Jo Reardon says
This is inspiring Jan and very timely, just what I needed to read today.
Thank you Jo – I always think it makes a difference to know that others have the same highs and lows.
Beth Bruno says
Jan – Thank you so much for this timely and thought provoking article. This is just what I needed right now.
Thank you Beth, I Think we all need to stay aware that any real writer has down times.
Helen May Williams says
It feels as if you wrote this blog just for me. I feel so much better about the enforced period of ‘incubation’ before I shall feel able to write Chapter 15, than I did before reading it.
Thank you – it’s so easy when we have obstacles to think everyone else is sailing along easily but I’m suspicious of writers (or any kind of artists) who don’t have real problems along the way and we know as readers when that authenticity of all kinds matters 🙂