Writer’s Malaise, and How to Fix It

I suffer from writer’s malaise.

Writer’s block is the noble relative of writer’s malaise. When your plot hits a dead end, when your characters are obstreperous, when your neuroses rear their ugly heads and convince you that every word you’ve ever written is worthless:  that’s writer’s block.  At least you have a reason not to be writing.

Writer’s malaise, also known as Don’t Wanna Disease, is much less acceptable. In other professions, I’ve found, Don’t Wanna Disease is cured by necessity. Don’t wanna shelve books? Your manager might have some other ideas. Don’t wanna write lesson plans? Well, have fun improvising a lecture on gerundives to thirty teenagers whose arsenal of bored expressions could, if transformed into actual weaponry, take down a small nation-state.

But when a writer don’t wanna make up stuff, she can soon find herself, hypothetically speaking, reading about the Mariana Trench on Wikipedia, or seeing whether she can still scratch her nose with her feet, the way she could when she was six. (Hypothetically.)

I’m still frequently Writer’s Ma-Lazy, but here are three strategies that have worked for me.

The Pavlovian Bach Response

This one takes some groundwork, but it’s one of the best tools I have.  When I was revising my second book for my agent, I had a strict and self-imposed deadline:  I was heading off to northern Minnesota to be a wilderness camp counselor for the summer, and I knew there’d be no time for writing.  During hours of intense concentration, I listened to Bach’s concertos for double violin.  Upon my return, I found that whenever I heard this music, my fingers would twitch, my gaze would focus, and I’d actually want to write.  (Really!)  When I’m really stuck, I put on this album.  I only use it about once a month, since I’m worried the magic will wear off, but it never fails.

Your plan:  when you’re already feeling focused, turn on some music that you won’t hear under other circumstances.  After a while, you’ll start to associate it with writing well.  (Maybe.  I make no promises.)

The Sprint-Write

  1. Choose a task that seems just as dreadful as writing.  (I chose running.)
  2. Dress appropriately for Loathsome Task.  You will be marked down for excessively long transitions.  If you require rubber gloves, you can leave those off for the time being.
  3. Set your timer for fifteen minutes.  Write like a maniac.
  4. When the timer rings, do NOT finish your paragraph, sentence, thought, or word.  Leap up.  Perform one chunk of Loathsome Task.  (I ran a mile, but you could clean one toilet, feed one neglected pet, open one piece of mail…)
  5. Repeat steps (3) and (4) until you achieve desired word count, mileage, or level of domestic hygiene.

Utter Distraction

I’m used to writing in my silent apartment. You might call me sensitive to light and sound. (You might also, if you are an enemy or sibling of mine, call me persnickety.) However, if only 20% of my brain is writing and the other 80% is planning my next snack and nurturing professional envy — well, it’s time to leave the house.

One of my most productive drafting days came in a coffeeshop, right next to two women in yoga gear.  The one wearing slightly more lululemon was interviewing the one wearing slightly less lululemon for a job at — who called it? — lululemon.  With 80% of my brain, I eavesdropped.  I learned True Lu’s favorite Cincinnati spin studio,  Aspirational Lu’s passion for trendy overpriced spandex, and where both Lus saw themselves in five years. (Hint: still wearing trendy overpriced spandex.) With the remaining 20% of my brain, I spewed first draft like projectile vomit.

Your plan: scope out chatty people.  Annex the table next to them. Turn off your internal voice that’s screaming at them to shut up, and remind yourself that you have chosen to be there. Take some deep, yogic breaths. Perhaps the Lus could help with this.

You may begin.

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