Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Some Writing Days are Better than Others

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 10•22

Here we are slogging through another January amid challenging times. It’s Monday and the morning news is reporting a startling list of local schools that are closed or shifting to online learning because of Omicron. Pediatric hospital admissions are on the rise, and, besides teachers, there are not enough hospital staff, bus drivers, airline workers, and truck drivers among other professions. Worry, grief and trauma still pervade our national mood.

And although I’m a resilient type and feeling pretty optimistic about the coming year–once we trudge through another COVID surge–some days I’m just bone tired. Still.  Not from lack of sleep, but because my bounce back is low on bounce. You know that feeling, right? Last spring I sent this piece from The New York Times, “Feeling Blah During the Pandemic” to friends because we were feeling worn and not like ourselves. Worse, we couldn’t snap out of it.  And isn’t languishing the perfect word here for the ongoing worry and weariness of surviving through a pandemic and political turmoil?

I’m sure a vacation or European adventure would help, but right now travel isn’t a safe solution. At least not for me. I’m not feeling exactly invincible these days. Then there’s the little problem of flights being cancelled because there are not enough pilots and airline crews.

But…even when times are sucky or just this side of sucky, writers all over the world are nailing their writing goals. They’re racking up words of their latest opus, signing with agents, signing book deals, and hawking their newly published books as best they can.  Let’s plan to join this pantheon of achievers. You in?

First, let’s factor in what sounds like an obvious truth: When it comes to writing, some days are simply easier and more productive than others. Some mornings you’ll bounce out of bed clear-eyed and rested and the writing simply flows and your brain clicks along like an abacus. The words pour forth as if a delightful spell was cast over your flying fingers. For many of us, those bewitched days don’t happen nearly enough.

Because there are days when it feels like you’re threading your frayed thoughts into a needle too small to see under a magnifying glass. Factor in days when the stay-in-your-chair effort to churn out words seems like plodding uphill as in mountain climbing without equipment. Above the tree line.

 

You’re Not Alone

As I’m composing this a writing memory emerged. It was late in 2004. I was writing Between the Lines, Master the Subtle Elements of Writing and I had a tight, effective writing routine down. Get up early, walk across the hall and turn on my computer, go downstairs and make a cup of Earl Grey, return to my office and settle in as dawn broke out my window. But that overcast morning I stared blankly at the screen because I was feeling empty and overwhelmed. I want to write ‘completely overwhelmed’ here but that would be redundant. But in this case overwhelmed doesn’t convey my sense of doom. My whole body was acknowledging it, from churning stomach to tight shoulders to increased heartrate.

I wrote all my books while working three jobs so let’s mix tiredness into this picture. Again I want to append modifiers like dog before tiredness because I worked such  long hours in those years.

So there I was, my courage faltering and… I stayed. Even though they were sickly, I added a few sentences.  Still scared, I pecked out a few more. Then I reread pages I’d written the previous day and started fixing typos and grammar. By that time I was feeling calmer and ready for a second cup of tea so I trekked downstairs. As the teakettle boiled I gazed out at my patio, the table and chairs glittering with rain, grass startlingly green, flower beds stunted and browned. There was a patch of tall ferns that had withered, and were slimy, and sad-looking. When I take  writing breaks I change my view as often as possible.

photo by Avi Richards

When I returned to my office the neighborhood was coming to life as neighbors drove off to work. Still low on confidence, I plunked down and managed about four hours of work. It wasn’t my best effort because some writing days are so-so.  You pick apart a scene, but it just doesn’t come back together. You dabble, adding hues and shadings for depth and you’re still not satisfied with the results or nagged by the sense the language could be more refined.

Here’s another memory: I walked into this same office with my morning tea and sat down to begin my most ambitious bookBullies, Bitches, and Bastards, How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction. In it I was explaining dozens of character types and tracking how anti-heroes had become the norm in storytelling and what this meant for writers. That particular morning I felt the most heart-rattling, haunted house terror I’ve ever experienced associated with writing. Shaken, I began. And I got off to a shaky start and my editor let me know it as I started turning in chapters.

Aim For Deep Work

It was my fourth book and I’d learned how to deeply focus even though I’m a jittery sort. Cal Newport wrote a book called Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World and postulates in this age of distractions we need to be able to dive into our tasks and remain there. Focused, allowing insights to emerge as we ignore distractions of our noisy age. I see deep work as child-like absorption and flow that happens when we’re solely engaged. Newport claims that the ability to concentrate  is our new IQ and that most of the time, most people are doing ‘shallow work.’ Which is more like dabbling or ‘busyness as a proxy for productivity.’ Here’s a good summary of his research and strategies for getting more quality writing done.

I haven’t read Newport’s book yet, though I’ve heard him interviewed. I’ve learned the more you give in to distractions, the more distractions will steal your writing time and your brain gets wired for impulsivity. Most people accomplish about three or four hours of concentrated work in a day. Our world has a lot of people who measure things–actuaries, statisticians, pollsters, researchers and scientists. So naturally someone has analyzed how productive workers are these days–pre-pandemic.

We all need to keep writing when we’re scared and  strategies for faltering, angsty times. My tricks might not work for you and yours might not work for me. But here’s the point: You need a plan in case inertia or brain fog creeps up on you; when the story stalls and you don’t have a way forward. Yet.  Because a day can turn into more days and before you know it,  you’re not producing much.

Plan for the Dog Days of Writing

It’s likely you know this, but I’m going to mention it anyway: Start by identifying and taking advantage of your peak hours. This article has good advice on the subject. But don’t overlook your days’ nooks and crannies–for writing of course. Twenty minutes while dinner simmers or bakes. The hour you can fit in after putting the kids to bed or instead of watching TV.

A simple trick is to set a timer and then allow it to dictate your writing sprints. The brain works better with periodic focus and deep work, followed by a short break. Research varies on the optimal time to focus, but 30 to 45 minutes works for many people. Now, some of us need to settle in and not move for a at least a few hours. I subscribe to 30 or 40 minutes of writing, breaking for 5 or 10 minutes, then back at it. Five or six, 30 to 40-minute sessions work best for me, though sometimes they run longer.

Another doable habit is to overwrite and slap down every snippet, thread, or brainstorm. This gives you room to mess around as in moving sentences and paragraphs, refining scenes or ideas, bolstering characters who are kind of limping along, not fully formed. Often these bits end up in a document I label ‘extras’ or something similar–I’ve created one for every long work I’ve written. By the way, I’ve harvested these tidbits and such many times.

I’ve long been interested in neuroscience and I’ll share some of what I’ve learned here. There are so many resources for helping your brain and mood.  I’m sure you’re well aware of the top hits: Sleep is key. Omega threes. Healthy proteins. Easy on sugar and junk food. Hydrate because our brains are 75% water. Drinking water as soon as you get up in the morning is an easy habit to adopt. Keep a glass next to your computer. Always.

Deal with Stress and Other Maladies


Monitor your stress levels and do something about them. Easier said than done, right? Here’s motivation for you:  Stress shrinks our brains. Feeling anxious or wired diminishes our ability to focus. I’ve been exploring how to better calm my vagus nerve and it’s been eye-opening. The vagus nerve is actually a pair of cranial nerves, the longest in the body and run from the head to the abdomen and are involved with brain and emotional health. That ‘brain-gut axis’ you’ve been hearing about is the vagus nerve because it connects the brain to the body.

Specifically it connects the neck, heart, lungs, and abdomen to the brain. It has a bunch of functions, too many to enumerate here. I’m paying attention to my vagus nerve to lower my blood pressure–and it’s working by the way. Those rocky, scared, I-want-to-flee moments can be tamed by simple techniques like deep breathing. Luckily, stimulating and calming the vagus nerve is relatively easy. Check out this and this for more information and inspiration.

Can we talk? About negative self talk that is. Notice and question your negative thoughts, because thoughts are not always reality. Especially when your writing isn’t going well because you’ll be doubting yourself and forgetting all your successes.  Our minds can be tricksters, but these days we don’t have the band width for extra pressure.

Learn to navigate your moods, because navigate them we must. Which brings us around to living with awareness.

Brains need oxygen and blood flow to create new neural pathways. Move often. Get outdoors for a walk or yard work whenever possible. Meditate or at least just hang out and slow your breathing every day. If like me,  you’re not great at quieting your mind find a podcast  or YouTube video to help.  I tune into guided sleep meditations via Tracks to Relax at night. I’ve been resisting meditating for most of my life, but now that I’m delving into it, I’m surprised at how much better my brain works. Emily Fletcher has created Viva Meditation and her methods are user friendly even for beginners.

Feed your imagination. Naturally, reading and storytelling of all kinds are important, but also nourish it with new experiences. Creative brains need sensible habits and novelty. If like me, you’re not ready to get on a plane, find ways for mini adventures and small joys. I’m going to order flower seeds today as my small delight.

The solutions for achieving deep work aren’t onerous, but change can be hard if you’re battling a slew of longtime bad habits. Nevertheless, habits are formed via neural pathways and you can hardwire your brain for resiliency and  creativity by forging new neural pathways. Our beautiful, miraculous, malleable, brains, WANT to operate optimally. Try googling “hardwire your brain for happiness” for workable ideas.

How do you pivot when hours seem to be slipping through your clumsy fingers? I switch to researching, editing, and reading my own writing. I peruse my writer’s notebooks and word lists. {Sozzle, burble, peacocking, fuddle, moonglade, lorn} When my brain feels fried,  I take naps, read, check in with writer friends, and stalk (online) writers with habits and outlooks worth emulating. What works for you?

Always Looking Ahead

It’s January. Not all of us plunge back into writing immediately after the holidays. I like to imagine how people lived in ancient times or before electricity was invented.  In winter there would be something cooking all day. After the evening meal family members would read, sew, knit, repair tools, tell stories by firelight or candlelight. They’d go to bed early likely huddled together against the cold.

That means February 1, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, is  in a few weeks.  It’s St. Brigid’s day, and  Imbolc a time of new beginnings and the natural world awakening. And National Dark Chocolate Day. Who knew?  So if in January you feel more like hibernating them than full speed ahead, you’ve got a do-over coming up. And you know dark chocolate is good for your brain, right?

Meanwhile, keep scavenging and eavesdropping,, focus when you need to focus, and be prepared for possible slumpy conditions ahead.

 

With apologies for earlier wonky drafts that appeared here when they were supposed to remain behind the curtain.

 

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