How to Get Out of the Writing Doldrums

Lightbulb made of crumpled paper, get out of doldrums

Today’s guest post is by author, editor and writing coach Mathina Calliope (@MathinaCalliope).


No matter how much we love writing, sometimes we find ourselves in the doldrums: the blank page terrorizes us, we question our fitness for this life, others’ successes poke at our inner green monsters, and rejections demoralize us.

When this happens, how do we combat it? Probably too many of us turn to social media for a distraction, but when I do that, it does nothing to lift me out of the muck. Lately, I wondered what might be more fruitful, and I hit on the idea of writer candy—completely accessible, easy ways to nourish our muse and get us back to the page. They’re treats that don’t depend on factors outside our control such as an elusive rush of inspiration or energized productivity or on validation from gatekeepers.

I’ve been feeling discouraged since early spring. A handful of tough rejections have felt like indictments not only of my writing but, given that I write memoir and personal essay, also of me.

Such setbacks can get under our skin and pervade everything about our writer selves in ways both overt and subtle. Although my early summer was jam-packed with immersive, positive writerly experiences (Yale Writers’ Workshop, Denver’s LitFest, Barrelhouse’s Writer Camp), I couldn’t seem to shake the insecurity the rejections provoked.

So when I sat down to write out my intentions* (a fun dose of woo I highly recommend) for August, it surprised me that they all related to writing. Usually they’re spread across various domains of life: fitness, work, friendships, fun. But this month they were a monolith:

  1. I honor my muse and creativity.
  2. I write for the love of it.
  3. My voice is true, powerful, and uplifting.
  4. My writing reminds people of what really matters.
  5. I have an agent.
  6. I believe in my book.

* I state my intentions as positives in the present tense as if they’re already true—it’s a trick yoga teacher training taught me. Theoretically, this helps the Universe help me.

Intentions are funny things. Sometimes they manifest lickety split and sometimes they linger in my notebook and rattle around my brain for months or even years. Once I write them down I try to read them aloud once a day, and if I haven’t been making one of them happen, this can feel like a soft rebuke. That’s how #2 has been for me this month. I seem to have forgotten how to do it or what it even means.

It occurred to me that the way there might be through writer candy—easy-to-access and reliably pleasurable writing-related activities. So I came up with a list of them:

  • Prompts. They’re quick and low stakes, and they almost always yield something unexpected. Look for lists of prompts online, pick up the book 642 Things to Write About, or take Leslie Pietrzyk’s bitchin’ Right Brain Writing workshop.
  • Word lists. I’ve been keeping word lists in various notebooks for as long as I’ve been writing. Anytime I come across a word I want to learn or move from my receptive to my productive lexicon, I jot it down. Simply going back to these lists and reading them makes me happy.
  • Libraries. Just being in a library, I feel myself becoming a better writer. I browse new titles and nearly always come across a book I’ve been wanting to read. It’s invigorating.
  • Novels. Reading the novel you want to read, not the one you think you should read, just delving into it Netflix style, may be the lowest-hanging fruit there is for climbing our way back into the tree of writerly productivity because it drops us instantly and easily into the language and rhythm of story.
  • Snarky usage books. Okay, one snarky usage book: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer. This guy managed to subtweet The New Yorker in a book: “If you’re going to have a house style, try not to have one that’s visible from space.”
  • Thesauruses. The physical, hold-in-your-hands, made-of-paper kind. Just browse one! I especially like J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. It’s fun to pore over how words relate to each other and to fill your brain with exciting new possibilities for your own writing—for when you’re in the mood to write again. Add them to your word list!

Think of all this stuff as writer self-care, maybe even writer kale, not candy.

There are times for ruthless discipline in the writing life, but there are also times for knowing not to push ourselves. In those times, gobbling up writing sweets may be the best reminder of why we do this, the best way to renew and refresh until our muse returns.

I let myself indulge in them this summer, got back to submitting, and even landed an acceptance or two. More important, I wrote again for the love of it.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post.

Mathina Calliope is a writing coach, teacher, editor, and writer whose coaching is informed by more than twenty years’ experience teaching students ages 9 to 89. Her years in the classroom, plus an MFA in creative nonfiction writing and an M.Ed. in teaching, have given her powerful pedagogical tools to use with her clients. Her words can be found or are forthcoming in the Wall Street Journal, Outside Magazine, Longreads, HuffPost, Real Simple, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere. Her memoir and personal essay classes at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC, regularly sell out, and she is looking forward to leading her first tropical writing retreat in Jamaica in February 2020!

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Richard Gilbert

Love this! So true, so helpful. It is also clear you are really immersed and will prevail.

Mathina Calliope

Thanks, Richard! 🙂

Will Bontrager

Back in the 80’s, when the BASIC computer language was becoming quite popular among the geeks of the day, a BASIC-written game introduced the idea of automated plot generation. It was a creative mind booster. Most of the plots so generated were inane, but still could get the creative juices flowing and pulling on the reins to write the story that the automatically generated plot simulated. The https://willbontrager.com/writer-tools/plot.php page contains a modern rewrite of the software and can be used online. Good stuff.

Mathina Calliope

Neat!

Samantha Burris

What! I saw where Mathina is looking to lead her first writing retreat in Jamaica?? I am checking this out!

Mathina Calliope

Please do! Would love to have you. <3

jon
jon

I’ve used Rodale’s Synonym Finder for years. I find it at least if not more useful than a thesaurus as it lists its entries in alphabetized or dictionary form – a design that aids ease of use. I would also recommend Rodale’s Word Finder – out of print but available on Amazon – which somewhat like a thesaurus provides a selection of adjectives, verbs and adverbs to modify its inventory of 100,000 words. I’d feel uneasy and disadvantaged without either.

Mathina Calliope

Neat!

CarolynTara

Also consider the artist date, an idea from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Plan something nourishing and fun to do **by yourself** — visit a museum, attend a concert, take some photographs, etc. As she says, woo yourself, and nourish your imagination.

Mathina Calliope

Yes! I love The Artist’s Way!

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[…] time. But it can be overwhelming, and sometimes our Muse lets us down. Mathina Calliope tells us how to get out of the writing doldrums, Augustina Van Hoven lays out how to break down overwhelming tasks, C. Kevin Thompson explores the […]

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Andrew Joyce

How about throwing the TV out the window?

Andrew Joyce

I didn’t want to do this second comment, but I got confused (my standard state of being). Anyway, get rid of the television. If you got a life, that’s cool … if ya got a family … that’s cool, too. But you sure as hell don’t need no damn TV. When not writing … read a book. So says the person who knows everything.