You go to bed with a plan. You have ideas swirling around your head and a schedule to bring it all together. You’ll start fresh at 6 a.m with your morning rituals. You’ll consume a healthy breakfast. After some high intensity exercise to get the creative juices flowing, you’ll sit down and you will write.
Unfortunately, the world has a different agenda, and it doesn’t include your writing plan.
As a new mum trying to parent in a pandemic, I’m here to tell you that you are still a writer, even if you don’t get to write today.
My story is that I have a 3-month-old daughter. She’s wonderful. But she’s also a baby and so, often, she cries. Sometimes, I don’t know why she cries and there’s not much I can do other than be there for her.
I go to bed bursting with thoughts I want to work on but sometimes the reality is that I can’t get them written the next day. I’m unable to perform that most satisfying part of the writing process — getting the words out and crafting them into something meaningful.
You might not be able to write because — like me — you’re a parent, or it might be that the demands of your job are too great. Maybe the pandemic got you feeling low this week, or maybe something joyful happened and swallowed all your time. Maybe you’ve been blocked for a while. I can’t guess the reasons why you didn’t get it done today. But I can relate to how it makes you feel.
Writing as an identity.
It’s hard trying to prove to the outside world that you’re a writer. When you end the day without writing a word, it can be a struggle to prove to yourself that you’re a writer.
If you end up stringing a few of those unproductive days together, it can feel like you’re failing — not just at writing but at being a writer.
There are certain things that it’s easy to pin your identity to. Writing is one of those things. Running is another pastime that can get tangled up in your sense of self. I’m both a trained physiotherapist and mid-pack runner so I know about the state of mind that runners who aren’t running can get themselves into.
Injured runners who can’t run often have crises of identity. They think that because they’ve been sidelined for a few days or months they’re no longer runners — or that they are missing out on being runners. But most healthy runners aren’t running every day. They may only train 4 or 5 times a week. Aren’t they still runners on the 6th and 7th days? Aren’t you still a writer on your off days?
Runners that aren’t running can do plenty of things during their downtime that will greatly improve their running when they eventually return — strength training exercises, form drills, dialling in nutrition, getting enough of sleep, and so on. Luckily, as a writer, you’ve also got plenty of things that you can work on when you can’t write.
How to work on writing when you’re not writing.
So during the course of the day, you discover that, for whatever reason, you’re not going to be able to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. What else can you do that — like an injured runner — will prepare you for your next writing session? Here are some tips to try.
1. Brainstorm ideas.
I get it — you might literally not be able to write anything down. Most days I have a crying baby tying up my hands so I feel you. But you can think of ideas to work on even if you don’t get to record them. Play around with them in your mind. It’s likely the stronger ideas will stick and you’ll be able to do them justice when you’ve next got some writing time.
2. Make notes.
I’ve taken to using the voice recorder function on my phone’s note app to get stuff down. You could dig out your sticky notes. Tell your partner about an idea that you just had. Build a memory palace! You might not end up including these ideas, but if you make notes, at least you’ll have the choice to use them or not.
3. Get better sleep.
Sleep is an easy win whether you are an athlete or a writer (or both!). It’s tempting when you’ve been busy and have neglected writing to steal some time back from the day by shortening your sleep. You might do this by waking up extra early or by staying up super late.
Don’t be tempted to do this. Even mild sleep deprivation will negatively affect your creative output in the short and long term. (For a great book on the importance of sleep, check out Matthew Walker’s essential Why We Sleep.)
4. Clarify your goals.
Sometimes it’s tempting to just sit and type. You might be the kind of person that likes to let things flow without much of a plan, or you might take a more formal approach. Either way, it is always worth revisiting and clarifying your writing goals. This will mean that that next time you sit down to write, you can be more certain that the session will further your goals — whether that goal is starting an article, completing some copy, or outlining a chapter.
For goal setting in general, I highly recommend Brian Tracey’s Goals! Pro tip: go through it with a pen and take notes.
5. Get inspiration.
You might not be able to write today, but you may be able to read or listen to audiobooks. Immerse yourself in the form that you are writing in — read newspapers, watch movies, and read books. Study the narratives that emerge throughout your day; you’ll be surprised how often they do. Anything can be an inspiration if viewed in the right way. Use the world around you to trigger ideas and to teach you techniques you might have otherwise overlooked.
Very few people will be able to sit down at a specific time every day and write, especially those of us who don’t do it full time for a living. Life pulls us in all sorts of necessary and unnecessary directions. But just because you didn’t get to write today, it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. Luckily, there are plenty of things you can actively do during your non-writing time to help improve the effectiveness of your future writing sessions.
The next time you’re doubting the legitimacy of calling yourself a writer — because of a technicality like putting words on a page — work through some of the tips above, or try out a few of your own.