Thursday, 13 April 2017

Beating the Blues - When Productivity Fails

We've all been there at some stage. Sitting at the computer, staring at a blank screen. Yesterday you were running in full spate, rainbow threads being drawn from the aether into your brain and running out from your fingertips to weave themselves into a bright tapestry of story. Now, today, you sit and sit, and it isn't happening. Nothing goes in and nothing comes out.

As the hours grind by, you start to stress. Is this the dreaded Writer's Block?

Writer's Block

We see writer's block talked about a lot in writers' groups on Facebook, generally by people who have not published anything or finished anything. Those writers who continue to work successfully are remarkably silent on the subject, except when it's to make some scornful comment about it.

"My plumber doesn’t only fix my plumbing problems on mornings when it isn’t raining and when the moon was full the night before. He’s a plumber so he plumbs. I’m a writer so I write. " (David Bishop, in  Writing Tips From Authors, by Patti Roberts.

I have to say I'm with Bishop on this - I don't believe in Writer's Block any more than I believe in Santa Claus.

However, there's no denying that sooner or later, every writer is going to hit a rough patch, and today I want to explore some ways of dealing with that.

The following is not an exhaustive checklist. We all have things in our lives that affect us. Perhaps you have a sick child, or trouble at work that is nagging at your mind, But it is the process that is important.

When you Dry Up

Whenever there is a problem, the best way to start to deal with it is to know as much as you can about the problem. If you can find out what caused it, you can almost certainly fix it. There is one very useful question to ask yourself when your productivity hits the wall.

Is it Just This Book or Everything?

If you find you can't go on with the book you're working on, see if you are able to write something else. If you don't have another project on the go, try your hand at a little bit of flash fiction, or write something for your blog. If this goes well for you, then you will know that the problem is not general, but is associated with the particular work. If you find you can't write your blog or flash fiction or whatnot either, then the problem is more general.

It's The Book

If the problem is the book (or thesis, article, short story, whatever) then you've probably come up against some technical snag with it.

Are you working from an outline? Is there, perhaps, a gap or thin place in your outline at the point you've reached? I've had this happen quite often, and it's easily fixed by closing the manuscript and going back to work on the outline until it's clear enough for you to continue.

Are you pantsing and can't see how to proceed? I've had this, too. With my historical novel, King's Ransom, I wrote myself into a corner about halfway through the draft and couldn't see how to get out of it. This triggered a cascade of procrastination that went on for years, and I only finally managed to continue with the book under the pressure of Camp NaNo.

If this has happened to you, I would suggest the best remedy is to take a step back and start outlining, even if it's just ad hoc. Write a simple, point-form outline of your plan for the overall work, or for as much of it as you can. You certainly can do this for the part you've already written. Then, take it away and work on some planning. Just outline your next scene in a detailed way. Then, when you return to writing, you can translate that outline into words and that should be able to kick you off, and if you're a true pantser, once you feel the wind in your hair again, you'll be right.

It's You

If the problem isn't the particular work, this suggests that the problem might be you. I don't say this in a judgemental way. I'm not going to berate you about your attitude. What I mean here is that whatever is causing you to dry up is most likely associated with something in your life or environment. Let's look at that.

Your body

Have you been taking sufficient care of your personal environment, your body?

Did you start the day with a good protein breakfast, or have you been sucking down coffee and cigarettes and not much else? Poor nutrition will lower your energy levels like nobody's business, and creative writing, with its intensive use of the brain, is a high-energy activiry.

Have you taken a shower and got dressed, or are you still in your pyjamas or yesterday's trackies that you hauled out from under your bed? There's a bit of a culture among many writers that it's somehow indicative of a fine mind to neglect one's appearance and grooming. It isn't. If you look like shit, you probably feel like shit, and this isn't helping you.

Have you been getting enough, and good enough, sleep? Or are you running on empty? See my comment above, about nutrition.

Have you forgotten some medication you were supposed to be taking? Asthma medicine, for example? If your oxygenation is poor, this will affect your energy levels terrribly.

Your mind

If you're unable to work, it is possible that you may be suffering from depression. Failure of productivity is one of the big indicators of depression. Mild depression can be treated at home. Although it's written for children, I don't know of a better resource for this than Susan Day's wonderful book, Astro is Down in the Dumps. It gives you a great rundown on ways to treat the onset of depression, and stave it off. You can get it HERE. 

Serious depression, of course, is something you should get help for. See your doctor. If you don't have a sufficiently good relationship with your usual doctor, get another one. You do not want to mess about with this. Get right on it, before it takes over your life and destroys you.

A sudden decline in productivity, however, is unlikely to be caused by the kind of serious depression that needs medical intervention. This stuff doesn't happen overnight, and if you were writing cheerfully away just yesterday or last week, it probably isn't that.

Have you been outside in the last twenty-four hours? I don't know about you, but when things are going wrong, nothing helps me more than getting outside, under the sky. If I get stuck with a story plot, I take my dog for a long walk and discuss it with her. I don't know if it's the fresh air, or the exercise, or the non-judgemental company, but this nearly always sorts me out.


If none of these things is the cause, it's possible that you just need a break. Have you been working every day? Pounding away at your novel all day, or perhaps going out to work and then writing into the night? You may be burnt out. Now don't panic. 'Burnout' sounds very serious, but all it really means is that you've been overdoing things. Give yourself a break. A long weekend, perhaps. Make a pact with yourself that you won't touch your work for that time. Close all the windows on your computer that relate to it and put any notes, printouts and so on away in a drawer. The last thing you want is to be constantly catching sight of your unfinished work.

Ideally, a break of this kind is taken away from home. If you have a beach house or something like that, go there. If you aren't that lucky, at least plan a couple of expeditions. A day at the seaside, or in the botanic gardens, or perhaps go to see a couple of shows or films you've been wanting to see. Even a trip to the library is good if you're broke. Take yourself out for a leisurely brunch. Call that friend you've been meaning to catch up with. Reconnect with life generally. Read a good book - not something about writing, or something that's on some intellectual reading list, or something you've got to review, but something you choose purely for your own pleasure. Go out dancing till dawn. Sleep in the afternoon. Spend a couple of hours in a bubble bath with a bottle of champagne. Whatever is going to lift your spirits, that you normally are too busy/broke/spartan to allow yourself.

Serious Burnout

Really serious burnout can be identified by the fact that a long weekend of the kind described above doesn't do the job. I remember once at a time of dire stress saying to a friend, "I'm just so tired." "Have an early night," she suggested, and I told her, "it's not an early night tired, it's a month in the country tired."

If you've let yourself get to this point, you've probably been struggling for a long time and ignoring the early warnings. Again, in this case your productivity failure will have been gradual rather than sudden. If this does happen to you, there's nothing for it but to put it all away and take a long break. Traditionally, a month in the country or a long sea voyage. But if you are careful and sensible, it probably never will.

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