I’ve been struggling creatively lately. Unsurprising, really, given everything going on in the world right now. I’ve been in this strange state where I don’t have the telltale mental symptoms of anxiety – primarily rumination and worried thoughts – but when I really pay attention I realise the anxiety is still there, in the tightness in my shoulders and in the weariness in my bones when I go to bed by nine in the evening.
I was talking to a friend recently about how annoying we find productivity bloggers who give prescriptive, even judgemental, advice. You know the ones I mean, the kind of people who say you just need to discipline yourself to get up early and who imply it’s a moral failing to prioritise adequate sleep over regular exercise.
As obnoxious as these bloggers can be, though, they’re successful because they tell people exactly what to do. Sleep in your workout clothes, put your phone on the other side of the room, and set your alarm for half-five so you have to get up to exercise. There’s no introspection required; just follow the instructions and you’ll meet your goals.
In years past, I’ve tried to follow this advice. I’d get up nearly three hours before I had to leave for work, so I had time to write, go for a run, shower and have breakfast before hopping in my car for a long drive. I got regular exercise and some writing done, but my evenings were shot. I’d arrive home, tired and hungry, and snack while watching telly instead of cooking dinner.
Getting up later causes the opposite problem. Evenings roll around and I have so much to fit into the time available – writing, exercise, dinner, housework, relaxing – that it can feel overwhelming.
I don’t have an easy answer to this, and that’s rather the point of this post. There isn’t an easy answer because we all have different, sometimes competing, demands on our time and energy.
For many people, this lockdown represents an unprecedented level of flexibility in our daily schedules, at least in our adult lives. Even for people like me who are still working a 9-5, my karate classes have been cancelled and my commute is the distance up my staircase, so I have far more flexibility in terms of my day-to-day schedule than I have had in years.
And yet I still can’t seem to ‘find the time to write’.
Because the problem isn’t the number of hours in the day. It’s a much more complex cocktail of motivation and mental energy. So much of my energy lately is being sapped by anxiety that it’s a struggle to write. It doesn’t help that I passed a manuscript onto an editor a few weeks ago and have been trying to dive into something new, something where I’m still struggling to learn the shape of the story and the feel of the narrator’s voice. Something I was so excited about until the time came to start writing it, and now I just can’t seem to find my way in.
I’ve started and abandoned so many blog posts this past month, posts that I had half-dictated in my head but when I went to write them they came out as stream of consciousness thoughts, with no coherent thread from start to finish.
I use a habit tracking app (Loop), and one of the habits is to write for 5 minutes. I intentionally left this broad, allowing myself to count both fiction and nonfiction under the same banner, and gave myself such a short time goal because it’s easy to hit 5 minutes. Really easy. And yet my overall consistency has gone from averaging over 70% in the first few months of the year to just 28% lately, down 21% in the last month alone. In the month of April I marked this habit as complete just three times.
Perhaps the solution is to force myself into it. Get up earlier and sit myself at my computer with the WiFi switched off, with the choice of either writing or staring at a blank screen. Perhaps that will be the kick in the arse I need to get some writing done.
Or perhaps it won’t. Perhaps what I need right now is self-care, to nurture my creative mind by doing yoga and weight lifting in the morning and reading in the garden in the evening. Perhaps setting some time aside each day to delve into journalling and story planning, with no pressure or expectation of output.
And that’s okay. It’s especially okay right now, when the world has gone to hell and there’s so much worry and uncertainty to deal with, but it’s okay at any time. I’m not an automaton, doing the exact same tasks in the exact same order with the exact same output every day.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in only writing when motivated. But I do believe in cultivating motivation, and in recognising that our minds need rest. We can cultivate motivation so many different ways – through seeking out inspiration, through self-care, and, yes, sometimes through just sucking it up and getting it done. There’s nothing more motivating than tumbling into creative flow and writing a thousand words in under half an hour – and nothing more demotivating than sitting for over an hour, picking at the keys like a crow pecking at a carcass, and spitting out only a couple hundred shoddy words.
So for now I’m letting myself take it easy, but with one twist. I’m pushing myself to mark off ‘write’ in my habit app every day – but I’m not going to push myself to write something. I’m going to focus on journalling and brainstorming instead of on producing anything, in the hopes that this helps to get me back into writing without the pressure of creating something. The idea is that some of these ramblings will make their way into blog posts or into a new book draft, but it’s okay if they don’t, if all they do is remind me that I love to write, to spill my thoughts out onto the page like an overturned inkwell.