I didn’t mean to go so long without posting. It feels like forever — and hardly any time at all.
I could tell you all the ways my life fell apart last year, but I’d rather do something helpful: share the lessons that 2020 taught me about writing when life has other plans for you.
Right before I got sick with covid-19, I’d made commitments that would have been ambitious for healthy me: collaborating on novels for two different pen names, as well as co-authoring a nonfiction series about making sure your story’s emotional journey is as strong as it could be.
If I’d known what was coming, I might have postponed some projects, but I was being optimistic. I figured I’d need a few weeks of rest before I’d be ready to work again.
A month later, I was getting worse instead of better.
And I started to feel panicky about how far behind I was falling. The way I was used to working wasn’t working.
Out of desperation, I started doing some big experiments — here are four things that worked and four things that didn’t work:
What didn’t work: Setting SMART goals and creating a detailed plan. I never had to wonder what to do next, but I also didn’t have the energy or focus to execute on anything. My word count plummeted, but my despair skyrocketed.
What did work: I lowered the bar — so low, it was practically on the ground. I let myself write in 15-minute sprints, and when that was too stressful, I aimed for 100 words, then a break. If something felt too hard to write, I let myself put in placeholders like “describe the tower later” or “fistfight goes here.” And when I was editing, if I couldn’t see a fix, I left myself a note about what felt wrong and moved on. And I napped as much as I worked.
I couldn’t believe it when my word count went up. So I choose two more things to try.
What didn’t work: Being more disciplined about sticking to a minimum number of timed writing sessions. This works great for me when I’m healthy — or even mildly ill — but I was so sick that I would run out of creative energy before I’d done all my sessions. Spending more time at the keyboard didn’t result in more words, it just made me more tired the next day.
What did work: “Writing about the writing.” Long ago, I’d read a book by a therapist who specialized in helping writers break through writer’s block, and his primary technique was to get them journaling about the thing they weren’t ready to write. So I started each day by freewriting about the day’s work — what I thought might happen in the outline, what I wasn’t sure about yet, how I wanted the reader to feel at the end of the next scene, or even about what shouldn’t go in the scene.
My word count didn’t go up, but the words I did write started to come more easily, and I was feeling less exhausted at the end of the day. And I started to find passages in my journal that I could retype into the document as-is.
But I was heading into the worst of the illness at this point, and my energy started dropping again. Feeling panicky, I tried two more experiments:
What didn’t work: Bribing myself to get the work done in the morning, before my energy ebbed. But a bribe doesn’t motivate much when you’re too sick to enjoy it.
What did work: Giving myself more daydreaming time. Rather than forcing myself to sit at my desk after the words had dried up, I wrapped myself up in a warm, fluffy blanket on the couch and let my mind wander around the topic of my project. Ideas would come, and I jotted them down. Sometimes they turned into complete sentences or paragraphs that weren’t half bad. Other times, I woke up from an unintended nap to a half-written sentence.
My word count fluctuated wildly, and I worried that the daydreaming time might be a waste of time; I was getting a lot of ideas, but they weren’t necessarily translating into more words on the page (yet). But I was too tired to spend that time writing anyway, so I kept at it.
Once I turned the corner and entered the recovery phase, I had more energy to write — but I also had more energy to panic. And there was plenty to panic about. I was months behind on everything. I would have to write almost twice as fast as usual to catch up.
But I hadn’t even gotten back up to my pre-covid word count yet.
So I went back to the drawing board.
What didn’t work: Starting a writing streak. Scheduled writing sessions had always worked better for me than a streak in the past, but the old rules no longer seemed to apply, and I hoped that my desperation might be enough to keep the streak going. But there were still a lot of ups and downs: one day I’d write for 5-6 hours, the next day I’d be back on the couch, writing 100 words at a time. And every time I broke the streak, I felt more demoralized than before.
What did work: Immersive incubation — I’ve been a fan of keeping your project front and center for a long time, but now I took it to an extreme. I re-read the previous day’s work or reviewed my outline before I got out of bed, and again before falling asleep. If I couldn’t write, I edited what I’d written before. If I couldn’t outline, I spent my writing session re-reading my character work and daydreaming about the characters’ some more.
Surprisingly, my word counts jumped up by more than 50% — even though I wasn’t spending more time at the computer, I was writing more words per hour, and they were coming more easily. I also started recognizing that many of my new ideas had taken root during those daydreaming sessions.
For the rest of the year, I kept up these four practices, and as my body slowly recovered, so did my productivity.
When I tallied my word count at the end of 2020, I was shocked to discover that I had written more than half a million words.
But more importantly, this year of illness reminded me of two things:
First, it reminded me that no matter how long you’ve been writing, there are still things you can do to improve your creative process. (And I’ll share some of the other things I did in another email.)
Second, it reminded me how powerful creativity can be, when we’re willing to meet it halfway. Like the daisy that pushes up through a crack in the pavement to reach for the sun, your creativity is always looking for a way to express itself. Even in the worst times.
It’s easy to lose faith in your creativity when life falls apart, but your creativity will never lose faith in you.
- Is there some area of your creative process where it might be worth lowering the bar to take the pressure off?
- What journaling prompts might help you see your work-in-progress from another perspective?
- Can you set aside 5-10 minutes today to daydream about your one current projects?
- What could you do to immerse yourself more deeply in the story you’re writing?