Strained Brain? How to Stoke Your Mental Fire

Image: close-up photo of flames rising from burning logs
“Home” by Phil Gradwell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Today’s post is by author and editor Kim Catanzarite (@kimcanrite). Her psychological thriller They Will Be Coming for Us is out now.

It happens to everyone from time to time: You’re just not too excited about being a writer anymore.

As we all know, the road to writing “success” can be a long one. One that seems, at times, never ending. Because even if you reach your goal, whatever that may be, there’s a new goal waiting for you beyond that one. A new book. A new series, article, or essay. You have to finally admit it: you’re tired.

Is that a surprise? Most people who write have a small battalion of flying objects in the air: young children to raise or elderly parents to care for or a significant other or friends who require time and attention (and nights out)—in other words, a life. We’re constantly racing to meet a self-imposed deadline, upset that we “never have enough time.” Is it any surprise that we eventually reach a point of exhaustion?

Not feeling the burn

What I’m describing is not writer’s block (Jane’s blog). What I’m talking about has more to do with mental fire: the kind that burns when your creativity is stoked, that “can’t wait to get up in the morning” zest, the “I have the best idea for the scene I’m working on” thrill. When you’re not feeling any of that, when your writing sessions end with a sigh instead of a “that was awesome,” when you feel like you just don’t care anymore—it’s time to take a break from writing.

To some, this is a scary prospect. You might say, “But I’ve worked so hard to get in the habit of waking at 4:30 am, and if I stop now, I may never start again.”

My answer to that is very simply “Make the plan and stick to it.” That’s all. Stick to the plan. If you decide to stop writing for one solid week, if you absolutely forbid yourself to write for an entire 168 hours, you can come back refreshed and, more than that, eager to get to work, all cylinders firing. The plan is simple but powerful. And it’s only one week. But what a difference one week can make.

Diagnose yourself

Does any of the following sound familiar?

  1. You sent queries (or proposals or short stories) to agents (or editors or literary magazines) four weeks ago, and the rejections have been coming in. After the last one you received, you gave the universe an ultimatum: if I get one more rejection, I swear I will QUIT writing. And you mean it this time.
  2. You’ve been rising early and heading to bed late in the name of getting a few extra minutes of writing time in for months, or years, or even decades. Burning the candle times two, in other words, and you know what your mother always said about that.
  3. You’re starting to feel angry when you hear about other people’s successes. Even other people you don’t know. New book releases used to be something to get excited about but lately they just seem like authors showing off. Plus, you’re angry at Reese and/or Oprah and/or Jenna for not choosing your book for her club, even though your book hasn’t been published yet.
  4. You’ve taken on a general air of impatience. Your significant other keeps asking why you’re so cranky/snippy/fill-in-the-blank lately. Your father asked you not to call him again until you’ve had an attitude adjustment.
  5. Your migraines are back with a vengeance. Or you’re having back spasms on a regular basis. You’re not sleeping well and when you do, your fitness tracker says you’re not getting into “deep.” You crave junk food and soda—and possibly other, less wholesome things. In general, you’re starting to feel years older than you actually are.
  6. Your concentration is shot. You spent the last hour putting commas in and taking them out again. Or looking for a synonym for the word “very.” Then you stared out the window and watched a robin pull a worm from the lawn, and you thought that seemed like fun.
  7. You no longer care what trouble your MC gets into and have no intention of bailing him or her out again. You haven’t written an interesting paragraph (in your cranky opinion) in weeks.

If any of this describe how you feel, get ready to book that vacation!

The Plan

Do not write for one entire week. At all. Not on your computer, not on a bar napkin. As a matter of fact, hide your computer. Stow away all writing utensils and journals. Do not put one word down on paper that doesn’t have to do with a grocery shopping list. You’re going into it cold turkey, so do what you have to do to break the cycle, get off the hamster wheel. On day three or four of this vacation, you may naturally experience a flicker of desire to write. You may be reminded of that fabulous scene at the midpoint of your book, and you’ll reach for a pencil even though you know you’re not supposed to—but don’t. Wait. Let the desire build. It’s all part of the plan. Promise yourself right now. You are banned from writing for 168 hours.

Instead of writing, use your freed-up time to do any of the following:

  1. Read. Read beautifully written books. Those that inspire you (see my suggestions here). A classic or two, or any of your favorites. Take a look at the novel (or memoir or nonfiction book) that most made you want to write. Again, let the reading inspire you, but do not boot up your computer. Remember what it was like to read for the sake of simply reading.
  2. Call some of the people you’ve been avoiding for the past few years since you’ve sworn off phone conversations in the name of using every free second to write. They’ve missed you, and you probably have a lot to talk about.
  3. Partake in an activity that requires creative energy of a different sort. Cook a real meal or paint a picture. Yes, you may use that pencil to jot a grocery list, but afterward, lose it. Then get in the kitchen and make something everyone in the household will enjoy. Or, take out the paints and canvas and tap into the abstract side of your brain. Enjoy what it feels like to have no expectations.
  4. Go for a walk. Remember exercise? If you don’t sit at your desk for an entire week, I can (practically) guarantee you your hip sockets with thank you. Plus walking spurs creativity, which will further build up your desire to write.
  5. Meditate for a couple of minutes a day. Just breathe, as they say. Or if you’re not one for meditation, simply head to the nearest park and listen to the wind, birds, rain, children playing nearby. You need stress relief, and nature is happy to comply. If you have a day job outside of the home, you can do this after your commute or during lunch.
  6. Get face-to-face with those you love—because sometimes we writers are so wrapped up in our book worlds that we forget there’s a real world with real, physically present people to interact with.
  7. Sleep. Sleep late if you can. Don’t set your alarm. Even if just for a night or two. Take an afternoon nap (or seven). Your brain is tired. It’s been going nonstop for a long time. Too long. It needs rest. It wants to enjoy itself again. It wants to remember what it’s like to be carefree. If you give it what it needs, it will start dreaming again.

When you come to the end of the week, take your literary pulse. How do you feel? Did you miss the writing? Did any brilliant ideas come to you when you hiked through the woods or whipped up those egg-and-bacon breakfast tacos everyone loved? Are you glad the week is ending so you can get back to work? If not, consider taking another week to decompress.

It’s impossible to fire on all cylinders all the time, so dedicate some of your writing time to stoke the flames of creativity. (Here’s advice from Bonnie Neubauer and Rosalie Morales Kearns.) And enjoy some downtime every once in a while so you can rise like a phoenix, refreshed.

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