4 Signs That You're Not Writing Enough...and 4 Things You Can Do About It

I hate writing, I love having written.
― Dorothy Parker

You know what the best thing about being a writer is? You don't actually have to write to be one. Sure, you can get an MFA, attend writing groups, read all those how-to books, read every good book you can get your hands on, but when it comes to hard-core AOC (ass-on-chair) time, where you produce new work and polish your old stuff on your own time, well, no one can tell if you don't. Dancers have to practice constantly so their muscles stay limber, actors always have to be ready for that make-or-break audition, painters must spend hours in the studio lest they spiral into an absinthe-soaked frenzy and chop off their ears. But writing, that most solitary and introspective of arts, allows us the possibility of being lulled into feeling we are writers, even when we're not producing an amount of work we feel good about. Sure life gets in the way sometimes, and after a long-project, a cooling-off period is a necessary thing. But if you're a writer who consistently does everything but write, the signs are all there. Break out the absinthe, here are my top 4.

4 Signs That You're Not Writing Enough

1) Your Emails et al Become Unappreciated Works of Art

RE: Happy Hour
Are we all going to that bar you told us about on Friday?

RE: Happy Hour
Ah, Monty's, where the ivy snaking up the walls is tinged with silver, like the hair of an old soldier whose mind is a battlefield of loss and regret. Let's meet there just before dusk, when the sun slips from just over the rooftop bar in a crimson swan song.

RE: Happy Hour
Yeah, but is that the place where you get a free drink if you staple your bra to the wall???

Being a writer is a bit like eating garlic—even when you stop the act itself, it seeps out of your pores. Sometimes, we all need a break. However, when you start to worry about the pacing, themes and narrative arc of your texts, ("Hmm, should I go with the subtly philosophical, 'R U 2 b-zee 2 talk?' or the more suspense-inducing 'Wht R U up 2?'"), then it's probably time to get back to work.

Pretend you are a writer whose career is exactly where they want it. Write your own questions and have your "interviewer" ask about your work and how you accomplished it.

2) You Become Over-Involved with Stories Not Your Own

Movies, TV shows, video games. Much of the stuff put out these days is either crap, or the stuff crap makes fun of when it's in a bad mood. So when we do find a piece of entertainment with great characters and storyline, it's hard not to get sucked into its vortex.

But be careful. Writers have such dynamic imaginations, that it's easy to expend creativity by letting your mind run away with someone else's story. Not a great plan long-term, unless it gives you a story of your own.

3) Oral History

There's nothing nicer than sitting in a cafe with a bunch of your writer friends, talking about your dreams. Wait, I'm lying. Sitting in a bar with your writer friends is much nicer. However, there's a difference between musing about how you're going to spend that future Pulitzer Prize money and sharing major parts of an idea or unwritten story aloud.

"Talking the story out" will get you the attention of an audience. Probably some approbation. Hell, if one of your listeners is so impressed that they buy you a drink, there's your royalties. Suddenly, the impetus to write: to free the story and the characters trapped in your head, may be lost. You've blown your literary load, so to speak.  Best to keep schtum about any new ideas until you've got at least a first draft. Oh, and don't tell anyone your Pulitzer Acceptance Speech, either.

4) Ennui Is French for 'Grumpy, 'cuz I'm bored.'

When you stop writing for a long period of time, life can begin to suck very hard. You may feel restless and unable to focus on anything. You might become so lethargic that even napping tires you out. You turn away with a scowl from any story about an up-and-coming author and their break-out novel. Any piece of writing you get your hands on comes under harsh scrutiny. ("Who puts 'ketchup' before 'milk' and 'bread'? Worst shopping list EVER!")

Or maybe you, plucky optimist that you are, channel all your energies into some uncomplicated pastime. ("Lemme tell ya, there's no we-cannot-accept-your-submission-at-this-time in birdwatching!")

If you recognize yourself in any of the above, how about putting down that absinthe and listening up? Hopefully, you haven't done anything to your ears...

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.
                                Gloria Steinem

4 Things You Can Do About It

1) Examine why...

 ...you have stopped writing, or are afraid to really start. A lot of the time when we're not achieving what we want, we slap a label on our behavior, rather than investigating the reasons behind it. Believing you have "nothing to say" might be the result of a bad workshop or classroom experience where you were made to feel just that. Being too "lazy" to send stuff out might be a reaction to one rejection letter too many. Writer's block is often a combination of our own experiences and insecurities drowning out the sound of what we know, deep down, we have it in us to say. Figuring out exactly what's holding you back is the first step on your way back to work.

2) Immerse yourself...

...into the world of readings, open-mikes, author Q and A's, literary festivals. Closer to home, there are fab author interviews on YouTube and NPR, just to name two. When you're a new or struggling writer, surrounded by other new or struggling writers, getting read, getting published and  getting out there can seem almost impossible. But someone out there is doing it. Spend time in their world.

3) Speaking of Interviews...

Let's face it: We've all read interviews about our favorite writers expounding on writer's block, burnout and inspiration. They've said some deep shit. But you could go deeper. Pretend you are a writer whose career is exactly where they want it. Write your own questions and have your "interviewer" ask about your work and how you accomplished it.  What would you say to a writer who's stuck in a rut? Here are some great examples of author interviews here.

4)  Die WI-FI! DIE! or The Perils of the Internet

Here's a story:
A friend of mine (not me, honest!) had to write a brief article on gaming addiction, especially RPG's. She decided to do some Google research, mostly because she couldn't understand how anyone could get addicted to something the Surgeon General hadn't tried to ban, tax or blame entirely on South America. She typed something like "extreme RPG addiction".

The first hit was not an article on addiction but a site called Hogwarts Extreme. A place where you can attend Hogwarts as a student and learn spells and play Quidditch. My friend (who so is not me) thought this was perfect. She loves Harry Potter! She really misses grad school! And it was all she could do not to wrench herself away from her "research" after several days worth of hours and get back to work.

The internet is such a wealth of information that I don't know how people used to write without it. Sometimes, however, I'm not sure how anyone gets any work done with it. If you find a lot of your writing time is spent gaming, on social media, or headfirst down a Google hole, make sure that the majority of your writing time is "unplugged". The interweb is a noisy place, and can easily drown out the magic that lives in your mind. Work unplugged often enough and one day, writers will be able to waste time reading all about you in between research sessions of Minecraft.

“Who here wants to be a writer?' I asked. Everyone in the room raised his hand. 'Why the hell aren't you home writing?' I said, and left the stage.”
― Leon Uris, Qb VII


Ah, the tyranny of the blank page. That cursor at the top of an empty screen like a blinking middle finger. It can be tough going to write, and write often, when you know that when you finish, there won't be any applause. There might not be acceptance. Heck, it might not even get read by anyone except for you and your roommate who's just being nice because he owes you $20.

But at the end of the day, we write because we need to, because the characters in our heads want us to. Because we have a story to tell to a world that needs telling. And no one can tell it like you.

Naturi Thomas-Millard

Column by Naturi Thomas-Millard

Naturi is the author of How to Die in Paris: A Memoir (2011, Seal Press/Perseus Books) She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines such as Barrow St. and Children, Churches and Daddies. At Sherri Rosen Publicity Int'l, she works as an editor and book doctor. Originally from NYC, she now lives in a village in England which appears to have more sheep than people. This will make starting a book club slightly challenging.

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Comments

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami May 23, 2014 - 9:32pm

The minecraft bit was a laugh riot. I know the feeling.

Oh and Timers are your best friend for writing.:/

Dorian Grey's picture
Dorian Grey from Transexual, Transylvania is reading "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck May 26, 2014 - 5:12pm

That example email from the first one. Oh god, I know that feeling (and that was hilarious, too). 

Emmanuel Homberger's picture
Emmanuel Homberger May 27, 2014 - 11:30pm

Gawd. The second example. All the way.
In the end of the day, I spent 6 hours reading some good book that i DIDN'T write, but i can tell myself that this wasn't wasted time, since I used that time for 'literature'. And of course, this is almost as good as writing myself. [irony/off]
 

kensmosis's picture
kensmosis May 31, 2014 - 8:54am

My favorite litreactor article so far!  I definitely am guilty of all of these, especially letting out an idea and losing impetus.  In addition, I find that short stories and outlines are great ways of avoiding writing novels.  I just dump my idea in a few pages, and there's no need to mess around with 400 pages of actual writing...

And you taught me a new Yiddish word.  They all seem to begin with sch, so there aren't that many possibilities and I thought I knew them all...

Seriously, this was very insightful, helpful, and funny.  Oh, sorry, am I interrupting your friend's Quidditch tournament?

 

Olivia Marcus's picture
Olivia Marcus from Chicago, IL is reading "Twenties Girl" by Sophie Kinsella June 7, 2014 - 8:30am

I know JUST what you mean. My main problem is when I'm trying to do research. I try to be the kind of author who researches out the wazoo, but sometimes I stumble along an unrelated but interesting article and I get off track! (This one time I was researching bullying between kids for a story and I ended up finding an article on "New Ways to Find Love" or something.) Remember, research is a necessity, but STICK to your TOPIC!

When I have a story idea, though, I can't stop myself from writing it. I have a story idea NOW but I can't write it because I'm already working on something else that has a deadline...which I'm stuck on. :P

My advice is to take a break doing something that lets your mind wander. I like to walk--I walked for two hours yesterday in the hot sun because I was brainstorming and the only place I can get any peace is outside, it seems.

Donald Wells's picture
Donald Wells from New Jersey is reading The Pillers of the Earth June 14, 2014 - 8:14am

I think it helps to have a target or goal that you strive for every day.

This set number of words is all first draft material and so it doesn't have to be perfect, but the very act of committing to say, a 1,000 words a day, is a sure way of putting words on paper.

If you also have an accompanying goal of refining those words, then you are on the way to having  a finished final draft.

Consistency, even in small increments, is what I find to be the key for me, YMMV.