Words Fail Me – How to write when you can’t

Kris stress

From 2010 to February 2015, I wrote as if possessed. Every spare moment was writing. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. Even reading became difficult because inevitably I would stumble across a sentence, theme, or plot twist that would inspire me and catapult me back to the laptop.

After five years of hammer-fisted practice, I had found my groove. No drug can capture the feeling of those years, the pure elation of surrendering completely to story, with the knowledge that my skills were finally up to the task. I was hope. I was determination.

Then, March 2015.

I won’t re-hash the story that I have repeated in these Chronicles until even I’ve grown weary of it. For newcomers, I will only say that I lost two members of my family to illness and death, uprooted my life to move, and found myself under financial strain that still wakes me up at night in the proverbial cold sweat.

When all the bedlam began, my co-author and I had just published the third novel in our series. We had a novelette that required editing and publishing, and we were about two thirds of the way into the first draft of book number four in the series. Because of my partner’s work schedule, we had limited time for real time discussions or writing, which meant that I had to fit my life around his and the bulk of the editing and marketing work lay on my shoulders—an arrangement that had worked well for us for three novels. In the space of a phone call, all that changed and work came to dead stop.

Years of self-discipline helped me pick up and carry on, eventually, though at a fraction of my usual pace. With luck, the fourth novel should be published by late June or early July. What has not returned, however, is that steadily burning fire that drove me.  I do the work but it’s an effort. The characters that once shouted in my head day and night sit quietly in the corner. I procrastinate about writing. I have never procrastinated about writing. I used to hold millions of tiny details in my head but now I find myself forgetting, asking my partner Josh to remind me.  For a year, I have written like a zombie—the fingers move but the mind is absent.

But, I write.

As crappy as the whole process feels, as tedious and meaningless as the work seems to be, I do not stop.

Here is reality:

  1. Sometimes you can’t write.
  2. Sometimes you don’t want to write.

If there is anything I have taken away from this awful year, it is the importance of recognizing those two facts. Learning to tell the difference between the two is critical when you’re in the middle of trauma.

Can’t write…

Birth, death, illness, marriage, divorce, relocation, all these events come with specific tasks, tasks with deadlines. Of course you can’t write when you’re in the hospital for those final moments of a loved one’s life. Of course you can’t write when you’re walking down the aisle to join with your partner. Of course you can’t write when a doctor is telling you to PUSH! These are the firm and clearly definable parameters of “can’t”.

But there are other, less black and white, “can’t”s.

I was not prepared for the enormity of grief. There were days when simply getting out of bed and putting on clothes was enough of a challenge. I am sure new parents are similarly overwhelmed by the emotional sea-change of a new living creature in their space, dependent upon them for survival. Illness comes with its own set of life-altering routines. Writing through these obstacles can be physically or emotionally impossible.

If you are a disciplined writer, putting aside your work during these moments—the less-than-clear “can’t” moments—feels like weakness, like quitting. You’ve carved the words “never stop writing” into your consciousness and you see them there every second of the day, judging you.

And yet, we are not machines. Stress has real and debilitating consequences. Sometimes you have to take care of yourself and let the work wait or you’ll break.

Don’t want to write…

An old running buddy of mine used to talk about “the window effect”. Simply put, you look out the window and it’s grey and rainy and windy, so you decide not to go for a run because you would be cold and uncomfortable. Or you say “what the heck”, dress warmly, strap on your shoes and head out. As you start to run your body heats up and the wind and rain and cold cease to matter. In fact, you feel better for having ignored what you saw looking out the window from inside.  When you finish, the pride of your small achievement infuses the rest of your day with happiness.

I’ve thought of this metaphor often in the past year. All those times I’ve stared at my laptop and thought, ‘It’s too hard right now. I’m sad. I can’t focus. I have too many other chores I’ve neglected. What’s the point? I don’t feel creative’, I stop and ask myself if that’s just me looking out the window and convincing myself it’s too wet, too windy, too cold.

You know what? Sometimes it is too wet, too windy and too cold. I’ve been running for twenty years and there have been plenty of days that I’ve had to turn around and head home.  Sometimes because of the weather, sometimes because of injury, sometimes my body just says NO so loudly it can’t be ignored. The important point is that I “tried”.

As often as possible, when I question whether I can’t write or whether I don’t want to write, I make myself sit in front of the keyboard and try. That’s it. No magical secret. Just try.

If I start typing and my brain warms up and feels good, I keep going. Even if the work lacks that incredible rush of endorphins I remember, even if part of me pouts like a toddler, even if what I’m writing is garbage, I keep going. As long as I’m comfortable and feel the tiniest spark of creative urge, I keep going.  When I’m done, regardless of the rubbish I’ve left on the screen, the pride of that small achievement gives me hope and happiness.

If, on the other hand, I start typing and each keystroke is painful and makes me want to cry, I stop. I tried. My brain and body said no. There’s no shame in that.

Maybe this won’t work for everyone but it has helped get me through three manuscript drafts, editing and publishing a novelette, and writing another novelette (of which I’m quite proud).

It’s not a foolproof system. Some days I know I can write but I don’t want to write, and I don’t even make it to the “sit in front of the laptop” stage. This system also has yet to bring me out of my funk and back to that place of creative joy. Which brings me to my next point.


When people ask me lately how sales are going with the books, I want to crawl into a deep hole. I used to brush this question off with a simple “Good”, because it was too much work to explain that Josh and I have a long term plan of audience building and that sales numbers are not entirely important to us at this early stage. But these days the question is like a kick in the gut because I have, in the past year, so completely and utterly dropped the marketing ball. On the list of life’s priorities, marketing is only slightly above “clean behind the stove” and well below “floss regularly”.

As an indie author, I know that I should always be engaged in some form of marketing, even if that’s only the occasional blog post or tweet. As a human person, however, I’ve been hanging on by my fingernails and all I care about is not losing my grip.

Forgiving myself for failing is something I work on every day. It isn’t as if I haven’t failed at things before but something about this feels different. Whatever the reason, I make a conscious effort, every single day, to remind myself that I’ve done the best I can under the circumstances. Maybe someone else would have done better but I can only worry about me.

And that’s where those small acts of trying when I don’t feel like writing come to the rescue. If I know that I have tried, sincerely tried, that’s a nugget of hope, a token with which I buy my own kindness, my own forgiveness.

A few tips…

I don’t have concrete answers for how to keep writing through difficult times. I’m not yet out of the difficult times. But I can share some of the things I do to keep moving forward.

  • Write anything. If you can’t summon the energy to work on your manuscript or finish that short story, write a blog post, write something on Facebook, scribble a sentence on a napkin, play a game of Mad Libs. Anything. Think of it as physical therapy. Don’t let those muscles atrophy.
  • Read, listen to music, watch movies, go to an art gallery. Even if you don’t feel one molecule of your own creativity, stay immersed in the creative life. Let other people’s work carry you. You may feel numb but you will still absorb the ideas around you.
  • Get outside. If you can, go out into nature. I am not prone to woo-woo but I can tell you that nature heals—body, mind and spirit.
  • Reach out. It may be the last thing you want to do. It is so much easier and comforting to stay huddled in the warm blanket of your world, even if that world is dark and sad. But conversations, especially with other writers or creative folks will, at the very least, serve as a reminder of what you’re trying to get back to. And sometimes we all need a good kick in the ass to get us going.
  • Give yourself the space to indulge. We’ve been conditioned to believe that if we are not being productive then we are bad, lazy, and selfish! It’s a lie. Plan time, now and then, to indulge in all the lazy, selfish, unproductive stuff your lizard brain craves. Don’t make it a habit but don’t ignore your body’s need for time off.
  • Keep making that to-do list. There are items on my list that have been there for a year but seeing them reminds me of my commitment to the work.
  • Get help. Some problems require more than a list of helpful hints. Find a therapist or a psychologist. Don’t be afraid to admit you can’t do this alone.

The bigger picture…

I will always write. I may not always write professionally. I know that I will not be writing full time shortly, as finances dictate that I must work at a job with a regular paycheque.  I’m okay with that.

Your worth as a writer, as a human, is not determined by how many words you produce, how many books you publish, how many awards you win, or how much money you make. Your worth as a writer is determined solely by the value it brings to your life. If writing makes you happy, makes you feel like a better person, it’s worth it. If it makes you miserable, there are better ways to spend your minuscule slice of time on this planet.

If you need to walk away from writing for a while—to grieve, to bond with your child or your spouse, to heal your body, to get out of debt—walk away. Words aren’t going to disappear while you’re gone. You can always come back, art is forgiving that way.

Be kind to yourself.

As for me, I will be over here, trying and trying and dreaming of the day when I am once more possessed by the god of words.

This entry was posted in Grief and Mourning, Indie publishing, On Scribbling, Warpworld and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Words Fail Me – How to write when you can’t

  1. Well that sucks, eh? So sorry, sorry for all the pain life managed to dump on you and sorry that a thing that gave you nothing but joy is a bit of a burden of late. That’s ok, it’ll be back… different, because, after all that, nothing will or can be the same, but still wonderful.
    On a different note, I finally read your first book! Can’t believe I lost track of the fact that you write books – duh. OMFG! I freaking loved it! Though I was yelling at my kindle at the end – NOOOOOOO. I can only hope somewhere in the other books you set things right (well, ok, ‘my’ right) Thank you so much for writing it. Did you do a post or posts about how 2 people wrote a book together? Did one person write a whole chapters?

    • clubfredbaja says:

      Thanks, TC! I’m so glad you enjoyed Warpworld #1, even if we left you hanging a bit at the end. 😉

      I haven’t written a post specifically about writing in partnership with Josh but I am doing a presentation on that very topic in one month, at the Creative Ink Festival. Perhaps I’ll blog about it afterward?

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