Guys, writing is hard sometimes. Like, really, really hard. And while a deadline or a paycheque can force you to produce something if your income depends on it, if that’s not the case – and many of us are facing uncertainty around our work at the moment – it can be a struggle to get the energy or enthusiasm to do any creative project. And who can blame us? The world is going to hell at a rate of knots, who cares about your short story?
I feel like the last three years have been a constant assault on my concentration, as the world gets ever crazier. And now, while we’re all under lockdown and being told we should be using the time to write the next King Lear, life is more distracting than ever: I don’t know about you, but I have a ton of projects that need working on, but most of what I am doing in stress-refreshing Twitter and worrying about when my wine stash runs out.
But while the temptation to let things slide is strong – to hide under the duvet until a bit of sanity returns to the world – writing, like any skill, is something you have to hone. While I have written before on the toxic ‘writers must write every day’ myth, writing is a muscle that you have to keep flexing, an instrument you have to keep practising. It will go rusty with misuse, and it’s easy to fall out of the habit, so that before you know it, you are that person who is always planning to write, but never actually writing.
Now – take a break if you need to. Rest, relax, play video games or watch trashy movies or take long baths and longer naps. If you have to deal with having kids at home or supporting a partner or relatives or taking on extra work to keep your finances stable, then that’s what you have to do – these are extraordinary times, don’t expect your responses to be ordinary. Don’t feel pressured to be productive just because the world is telling you to: look after your health (mental and physical) and your family and friends first. If it needs to, writing – any creativity – can wait.
But for when you do feel ready (or have even 5 minutes to spare), here are some fun, no-pressure ways to flex your writing muscle even on the days when you can barely face picking up a pen or cracking open a laptop. Think of them as your warm up, or the equivalent of leaving the heating on when you are away over winter so that your plumbing doesn’t freeze up and flood your basement. None take long, most can be fitted easily into your day, and they are all totally pressure-free. Give them a go and see how you find it!
The easiest of all, because no one sees it but you, so you can be as absolutely shite, self-indulgent or pathetic as you want to be. I am an inveterate journaller, and I find it enormously helpful in times of stress, but it can also be just a useful way of loosening a block. Sit down and write a page about anything – what you watched on TV last night, your dog, the fact that you can’t think of anything to write. You’d be amazed how often this simple act shakes something loose. (Side note: use the good journal. Yes, that one, that you think is too pretty to use, or you are saving for a special project, or you don’t want to ‘spoil’. Your thoughts – even mundane or rambling – are worth it. The world proves every day none of us know what’s coming. Use the nice notebooks first.)
Write a Trip Advisor review
(Or Yelp, or whatever site you fancy). Since none of us can go anywhere right now, how about remembering the places you have been?
Think about the last place you went to for coffee, or lunch, or drinks, or a movie and had a nice time. Write a short review on what you liked about it (a positive review avoids the conflicted feelings of writing a negative one, and, Lord, there’s enough bad in the world right now). It should only take a few minutes, but really think about what you want to say. Bonus: you are helping a business you like at a time when small and indie businesses really need your support.
Pay it forward with a book review
One day it might be you who is thrilled someone took the time to say something nice about their work, so why not do that for someone else? And while usually I would say reviews can be as short as you like (most authors would be delighted even if you just wrote ‘enjoyed it’), for this exercise, think of 2-3 reasons why you enjoyed the book, and spell them out. This has a double whammy effect: you are doing a nice thing for a fellow writer, but you are also forcing yourself to think about why a story works. That can come in handy later when you are planning your own.
Craft the perfectly formed tweet
Think of a sentence you want to express that you can’t possibly fit into 280 characters (or whatever the limit is now!). Write it in a tweet, and then edit and rewrite it until it fits the character limit. This is a great exercise in clarity, brevity and adapting to the constraints of a format. Bonus tip: make it a joke, or a compliment – spread some happiness on social media.
Write a letter
Or, if a letter feels like too much, a short card or email. This allows you plenty of flexibility – send it to someone you know and like, who won’t be judging your form or style – but again it is flexing your writing muscles in useful ways. Bonus, you’ve taken time to reconnect with someone! And who doesn’t love a letter? Especially when we’re all stuck indoors!
Post on Facebook (or Instagram)
A friend of mine regularly uses Facebook to regale her friends with tales from the trenches of parenthood, and it’s clear she puts time and effort into making her mini-stories entertaining and honest without the pressure of having to create something perfectly ‘finished’. Again, you are pitching to a friendly audience (if you are not, maybe consider pruning some of your ‘friends’!) so the pressure is minimal.
Draft an eBay sales pitch
Look around your house and think of something you can sell, and sit down and write the funniest (or strangest, or craziest) eBay listing you can imagine for it. If it’s actually something you want to sell, even better – you’re writing and making money!
Write a blog post
I often use blogging as a way of ‘keeping warm’ when I am struggling with other forms of writing. It’s a handy way to try out ideas, can build up your readership/platform or simply allow you to vent on whatever you have on your mind. It does require some discipline and structure, but not as much as a story or feature article, so can be done quite quickly, and best of all can get you immediate feedback/connection, which can be good if you are feeling a bit isolated in your writing.
Comment on someone else’s blog post
Let’s be honest: the comments section is usually a toxic swamp. If you follow a blog that allows comments, why not add a nice one? A few sentences not just saying that you enjoyed it, but why. Again, you’re spreading positivity while having to craft something concise and readable.
Find an online group and join in
A quick search on Facebook and Twitter shows that many creatives are looking for new ways to co-create and keep working during the crisis: I’ve already seen story threads on Twitter, call out for monologues to be streamed, groups set up to provide prompts for writers. Seek one out and join in. Everyone is likely to feel much the same frustrations and fears at the moment, so judgement will be minimal – find one that suits the level of commitment you feel up to giving.
Do something completely different (and let yourself be crap at it)
If all this still sounds too difficult – and it might, there’s nothing wrong with that – you might find the best thing to do for your writing is something completely different. Because even with any of the above tips, you might be tempted to judge yourself and your writing, and set yourself into a spiral of self-hatred that scuppers your creativity. So try something completely unrelated to writing – do some colouring or some cooking or some cross-stitch. Go running or start juggling. Make a cake and ice it badly. Do something that has absolutely no stakes so you can let yourself be bad at something, because that willingness to try something new and make mistakes and even fail terribly will stand you in good stead when you are ready to get back to your writing.
So: even if you only have 5 minutes and you feel like you’re running on empty, why not give these a try? You might surprise yourself.
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