Everyone I know who writes, whether it’s short stories, poetry, plays, novels or blogs, has experienced trouble with writing during this time, myself included. As lockdown is continuing for at least a few more months, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve picked up over the year.
1. Read what you love
I am a firm believer that you can learn just as much from a book you would only give a 1 star rating as you can a solid 5/5. 1 star books teach you what kind of writing doesn’t work for you, which can be a valuable lesson in itself. This is the main reason why I always try to finish a book, even if I don’t enjoy it.
However, 1 star books have now become a hindrance. As everything around me is doom and gloom, I no longer have the energy to read them. Instead, I just want to immerse myself in (to borrow from Neil Gaimon) “good art”. “Bad art” is, at the moment, completely draining. I used to read on my commute, travelling from north-east London to south-west London and back again, and this metal cocoon provided the perfect space to help me through 1 star books (it was either that or stare into the tired, vacant eyes of strangers). But now, if I’m not enjoying a book, it is far too tempting to reach for my phone, turn on the telly or find a flatmate to annoy.
Basically, if I am not enjoying a book, I now find myself trying to avoid it, meaning it takes me ages to finish it and move onto something better.
So, allow yourself the right to leave that 1 star book unfinished. If you’re a completionist, just remember: you can always come back to it later. For now, immerse yourself in writing you love. Hopefully, it will inspire you to create something you love.
2. Stay in your lane
At university, one of my lecturers advised us to read work that we could see next to ours on a library bookshelf. In other words, read work that relates to your own. For example, the book I’m writing:
- is fictional;
- is character-driven;
- contains elements of magic realism;
- has short chapters;
- examines nature, loss, desire and grief.
It should come as no surprise then that not only does my writing improve when I read books that share these qualities, but I also end up writing more.
So first, identify your project. What are the main themes? What genre/style/format is it? Then find works that align with yours. Reading work in your area should keep you focused and offer inspiration.
3. Join an online writing group
Joining any kind of social group can be daunting, especially when you are no longer in the habit of meeting new people. Although, in my experience, writers are rarely scary!
I found a writing group on Meetup, which I attended recently for the first time. The session was organised into four bouts of 25 minutes of silent writing (where everyone turned off their cameras and muted themselves), separated by 10 or so minutes of chatting. I found this really helpful. Not only did signing up to the session mean that I had committed myself to writing that day, but knowing that other people were doing the same as me at the same time was encouraging. The sessions’ members were strangers to me, but we were united in our goal: to write. I will definitely be booking myself in for more sessions.
4. Set deadlines – and rope in a friend
I get it – setting yourself arbitrary deadlines of X amount of words or Y number of scenes can be understimulating. They don’t work for me either. That’s why I recommend enlisting a fellow creative to join in. This friend does not necessarily have to be a writer; they could be a painter, a dancer, a musician… but it should be someone who is also working on a project. Set deadlines and, if you’re both comfortable, share your work! This can lead to great feedbacking sessions.
If you are not comfortable sharing your work just yet, don’t push yourself. Our projects can be deeply personal and sometimes they are not ready to be shared. If this is the case, don’t feel obligated to send your Word doc over, but do still talk to your friend about it. Blow off steam together about your lack of motivation, your crap writing style, your terrible plot structure. Listen to their problems too.
All this will not only give you deadlines to work towards, but it will also put you in the habit of helping your friend, thus activating the problem-solving part of your brain, which can help dislodge something in your own writing.
5. Go for a walk
Only do this if it feels safe! Not only is it important to step outside and breathe air that is fresh and that hasn’t been circulating your flat for a week, it can also be hugely beneficial for finding inspiration.
Turn your phone to Do Not Disturb, put on a playlist and go for a walk. I’m fortunate enough to live between a park, some marshland and a high street, which offer very different vibes. Take note of the places and people around you, imagine their lives. Get lost in your own thoughts. I found inspiration for a short story I’m working on when I walked past a mother strapping a helmet to her child’s head. You never know what you might see when you go outside, and that’s the beauty of it.
6. Put your creativity elsewhere
I’ll set the scene: you finally have the energy to write, you tell your flatmates you will not be joining them for the evening film as you will be holing up in your bedroom, hunched over a laptop. You get yourself a big mug of coffee and open up your latest project and… nothing happens. The words don’t flow. Your ideas have run dry. Vex, vex, vex.
If it’s not coming, turn your creativity elsewhere. Maybe you have an old paint set lying around, a camera that hasn’t seen the outside of its case for a few years, an instrument you keep meaning to learn but just can’t seem to find the time for. Now is the time to dust the cobwebs from your guitar and play.
Redirecting your creativity means you don’t fall out of step with your creative side or lose the habit of setting that time aside. It’ll take your mind off the problems in your work and the blank page, but keep the juices flowing.
7. Give yourself a break
These are daunting times for everyone, and writing, if you do it consistently, can even be considered a second job (even if you aren’t being paid for it). Allow yourself the time to rest. If it’s not flowing right now, don’t push yourself. The last thing you want to do is kill your passion.
So don’t feel guilty for taking a break! Your novel will be waiting for you when you get back.