Six impossible things

Back on the horse

To Our Hostess: If you’re still looking for topics, how about something on getting back to writing after one of those periods of stress that justifies dropping writing like a hot rock while you cope? You’ve touched on it in various posts about being stuck, but I was thinking of something specifically about coming back after a crisis: anything from how to know if you’re ready, to tips on getting back into the saddle.

Funny you should ask that. A week and a half ago, my 94-year-old father fell and broke a rib; I have been down in Chicago since, making tea, doing things that hurt when he tries (like picking stuff up off the floor), dealing with plumbing emergencies, and not getting any writing done to speak of. Now he’s recovered enough to handle things with minimal check-in from the sibling on the spot, so I’m headed home to catch up and get back on the writing horse. So the suggested topic is…pertinent, to say the least.

First off, I’ll grant you that a week isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. This kind of emergency does, however, mean a total shift in mental focus; the difference between a one-week time off and six months or more is one of degree, not of kind. Coming back to writing after months away takes longer, but the steps are the same.

The first thing one has to do is accept that no matter what one’s intentions were, one has spent X amount of time not-writing. Yes, you planned to get up early and write a page before plunging back into crisis mode, or maybe grab a notepad during lunch break, or do fifteen minutes of journaling before you went to bed. You didn’t. You couldn’t. Stuff kept happening, and it wasn’t your fault. Other stuff was more important. So don’t beat yourself up.

Also, don’t expect to hit the ground running at the same speed and intensity you were working before the crisis. Sometimes, if the crisis went on long enough, some writers find that they sit down and all sorts of things come out in a glorious rush, like water rushing out of a dam when the flood gates are opened. If you are one of those writers, great; take advantage of it as much as you can. Just don’t count on it, because for most of us, getting started again is more like trying to run water through a backed-up drain – the blockage has set and hardened from lack of use, and it is going to take time and work to clear it out before things will flow properly again.

What I do, coming off one of these incidents, is to start off easy. If I was in the middle of a project before the handbasket whisked me off, I spend a while gearing up again. I do a sort of quick-and-dirty version of starting a project from scratch: I spend a few days or a week rereading my research notes (and any particularly important research). I go over my plot outline(s) and any notes about characters or background. I redraw or extend maps, if I have any; if I did any charts of the plot or character relationships that have gotten messy as I changed my mind about how things will go, I re-do them so they are neat and up to date (and fresh in my mind).

Eventually, I almost always end up revising the plot outline. I also reread and tinker with the already-written part of the project. And every time I do, I take a look at the end of the file, where the story isn’t moving forward. Sometimes, I add a sentence, but I don’t worry too much about pushing it. The point is more to remind my backbrain where it is going to be moving on from than to actually start moving.

Somewhere in here, I start generating random ideas that may belong in the story somewhere eventually – snippets of scenes, random bits of witty dialog, jokes, telling bits of characterization. Mostly, they’re only two or three lines long. They go in a “notes” file, which I also fiddle with, rearranging bits to group things together that seem to belong – sometimes because they feel as if they ought to be in the same scene, sometimes because they all deal with the same character or plot point. The idea on the top of my head is to be able to find them easily if I need them; really what I’m doing is, again, reminding my backbrain that this is the kind of stuff we are trying to do and this is where we left off.

The other thing I do is to try to do at least something – looking over research, reviewing notes, writing a sentence or two – every day. Even if it’s just opening the file and reading a page, and not actually writing anything, it helps get the habit back. I find it easier to be strict and get back to the something-every-day habit (even if it’s just reviewing notes), and then either expand to lots-every-day or else back off a little, than it is to have a little writing session once a week, and try to move to two a week and then three a week. Some writers get better results by starting with a session once a month or every other week, and adding more sessions as the urge comes back.

What I look for is the return of the urge to write. This does not happen if I try to force it; you cannot make yourself want something. If one watches too closely, trying to interpret every little thing as an increase or decrease in the writing urge, it won’t happen. It’s like planting a seed and then digging it up every five minutes to see if it is sprouting yet; you end up interfering with the natural process and making it less likely to work. One has to plant the seed and then get on with boring stuff like weeding and fertilizing and watering occasionally, and perhaps prepare ground for other seeds, or just dream about what the seed will grow into when it’s a mature, blooming plant, while trusting that down in the darkness, things are happening even if you can’t see them. Backbrains run on trust.

This description sounds a lot more organized and deliberate than it is in practice. I don’t have a procedure for getting back in the saddle after a crisis or a dry spell, though looking at this, I could probably develop one fairly easily (and I almost certainly should; I suspect it would be invaluable). What I’m doing here is thinking about what happened during and after various emergencies in the past 30 years, and trying to describe what I recall of how things worked for me. In thinking about it, I can say that sometimes the entire process has taken about five minutes, starting with reviewing notes and ending with me typing away furiously on the next scene or chapter; other times, it has taken weeks or months. It doesn’t seem to depend on the length of the crisis so much as it is related to the degree of emotional drain; when the tree came through my roof, it took a week to deal with all the practicalities and about five minutes to start writing again, while certain family news took five minutes to hear and two weeks to finish processing and get back on the horse. Which will, of course, vary depending on the writer. As always, it depends.

  1. Yep, whenever this happens to me, I’m like the blocked drain. And I love that seed analogy!! So apt.

  2. I think the bit where you realize that it’s okay to need time to process things and not beat yourself up is one of the most important steps. Thanks for this post. 🙂

  3. Glad to hear your dad is recovering well.

    Eminently sensible advice, and thank you; this is just what I needed to hear right now.

    a total shift in mental focus

    That’s it exactly. And the focus is the hardest part to get back, I think. I can make the time and the space for writing (at least, with no more difficulty than before), but getting my brain to zero in on making words instead of flopping around randomly is rough going.

    I did at least have the sense to start back with the easy project and the short story that’s almost done, not the hard project.

    I like the idea of gearing up with behind-the-scenes work. I don’t have an outline or, in this case, much in the way of research, but maybe I’ll have a go at some of the not-directly-writing tasks, like finding an ethnically-appropriate name for that minor character. And general de-bracketing, that’s always a good one when I’m stuck. Which, hey, I kind of am… [light bulb goes on].

    before the handbasket whisked me off

    LOL! Love that image….

  4. “Backbrains run on trust.”

    Indeed. If you’ve lost that trust, for whatever reason, writing becomes virtually impossible. Not only can you not get back on the horse, you can’t believe that horses even exist.

    Faith in the process is essential, and it can sometimes be a delicate thing.

  5. Glad your father is recovering well. My parents are in their 80’s, and medical issues are just a little trickier in the 80’s and up.

    As several upthread have said, this is a timely post for me also.

    When my mother was in the hospital over last summer, and I was there putting out fires for a month, I didn’t do any writing during the crisis. And I didn’t try to do any writing for the first two weeks after I returned home. I just recovered. And I needed that recovery time.

    But the instant my kids were back in school, I started writing every day. I’d been mulling over the story again in my mind before I started, but the next time something like this happens, I’m going to try your suggestions for reviewing my notes, opening the file, reading the project. I think that would make an easier transition. As I recall (it’s a little fuzzy now – that was August), the restart went pretty smoothly, because I’d already written the beginning fourth or so, and that is the part I always find to be the hardest, but I hadn’t yet hit the one-third-done-uh-oh-this-s*cks stage. I did have to stretch a little, but I could do it. I made it back to my normal 1200 words per day.

    Now I’m once again in the throes of restarting after a break. Nothing catastrophic this time – just a super nasty cold (or maybe it was flu) that took me down for two weeks. (Yes, over the holidays – not pleasant.)

    I’m restarted, but this time it is hard. I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m still in that early stage of the story that I find so challenging. Before I got sick, I’d been cranking along on a story (that I finished just before the holidays) at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 words a day. The story was just pouring out. Of course, endings have always been easy for me. I can just feel the current of the story and I’m typing as fast as I can to keep up.

    But now, in restart mode on a new story, I’m struggling to manage 800 words a day. Honestly, I’m pleased to be managing that 800. But – man! – I loved those big writing days of December. I want them back!

    In the meantime, I’ll just keep chugging forward. I trust things will start flowing once I’ve moved the story along further. But I like these restart tips. Bookmarking for future reference! 😀

    • Editing to add: I seem to be back on the horse myself today. 2480 words written and it flowed. Felt great!

      I think I was resisting immersing myself in the story a little. I’d gotten so attached to the heroine of the story I finished in December, that I didn’t want to get close to anyone else, ridiculous as that might sound. 😉

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