By Rachel Weatherley
“Unbroken happiness is a bore: life should have ups and downs,” notes Richard, one of the protagonists of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Paraphrasing Molière here, Richard is a writer working in 1960s Nigeria, frustrated by his inability to finish a manuscript during a time of major social upheaval. Faced with COVID-19 and its accompanying challenges, reading this passage reminded me that we should at least try to maintain some optimism at this time. Difficult times are an enduring feature of life, which we must embrace and adapt to the best we can.
Of course, this is no mean feat. In times of unprecedented personal and collective difficulty, turning away from the world to start writing a book can feel insular and indulgent. Even with the best intentions, adapting to new challenges, and keeping on top of day-to-day life, can distract us from the writing projects we would otherwise love to focus on.
Preventing that temporary distraction from turning into long-term disillusionment is a task in itself—I hope the following tips can keep you engaged, focused and productive!
1. Reorganise and refresh your work space
As cafes and libraries close their doors, and I find myself staring at the same blank wall every day, Janet Jackson’s lyrics ring ever truer—you really don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. This new monotony hasn’t exactly been conducive to getting words on the page—but it did get me thinking about how I could adapt my environment to make it a more inspiring and energising workspace.
Perhaps counterintuitively, I need a workplace with distraction. In my university room, I had a busy and colorful wall covered in all sorts of adornments: postcards, letters, photographs and posters—the more eclectic the better. This wall was the next best thing to a change of scenery: it reminded me of happier times, took me to faraway places, and often served as inspiration when I was stuck for ideas.
2. Consider work that will aid your writing
Every writer worth their salt knows that a significant amount of research and thinking time goes into producing the shiny finished product. So if you’re suffering from a case of writer’s block, you can still make productive use of your time with the following tips:
• Scour blogs like Reddit, home to thousands of illuminating threads where people share anecdotes, experiences, feelings and opinions, ranging from the poignant to the hilarious.
• Call a friend and ask if they have any opinions or feelings about a certain subject. You could even work together and bounce ideas off each other.
• Watch documentaries and video clips that pad out the factual details and context of your work.
This will provide some respite from typing, and maybe even a spark of inspiration for the next stage of your story. Inspiration is found in the most unexpected of places—so get creative with your free time!
3. Re-adjust your expectations
As the appointments in our social calendars dwindle and we spend more time at home, it’s easy to feel like we should be seizing every opportunity to smash our writing goals. However, this pressure can soon become burdensome and demoralising if we let overzealous goal setting become a stick to beat ourselves with when we inevitably fail. We must acknowledge that these are difficult times. Writing is hard enough without having to adapt to new challenges, so cut yourself some slack!
Setting small, achievable writing targets is much more encouraging, and a flexible means to getting work done. If things don’t pan out one day, be forgiving and take the opportunity to reset and re-calibrate. A good night’s sleep can do wonders for brain fog.
Consistency isn’t always key. Sometimes you need to go with the flow and embrace a more chaotic routine — allow time for procrastination, rumination, and er, snacking. There will be days when you write faster than the wind, and other days when you only write a word, capture a feeling, or jot down an interesting quip you heard in the post-office queue. That’s okay. Ultimately, you need to find what works for you. Some people will benefit from strict routine, while others need to harness their intense bursts of creativity.
4. Give yourself time off
Sometimes the only cure for a word drought is putting your writing aside and distracting yourself with a mindless task. It’s important to accept that your writing process—like life—is cyclical. You have to allow for periods of rest as well as periods of productivity—they both play their part in your wider process, and they will both pass.
Catch up with a friend, make that elaborate pear and blueberry cake, watch that 3-hour film you haven’t yet found the time for, and try to wind down in a way that relaxes and re-energises you. When you return to your work with fresh eyes you’ll be surprised at the gear changes that went on in your subconscious, which now allow you to look at your work with a new perspective. You’ll know exactly how to plan that novel, re-write that dialogue, or re-boot that introduction.
5. Harness these difficulties for creativity
While the ‘tortured artist’ cliche might be a bit over-labored, some comfort can be found in reminding yourself that great work has been achieved in adverse circumstances. Take stock of everything going on in the world and let moments like this focus your mind on the importance of your project. How can you become a writer whose work has a clarity of purpose? Who and what are you writing for? Whose story are you telling?
Though challenges come in many different forms, it’s worth remembering that sometimes it’s this very struggle that shows us just how fortuitous we can be, and serves to inspire us in other aspects of our lives. Most of all––have faith in yourself and what you can achieve. Good luck!
What great advice! Thank you Rachel.
If you missed it, you can learn more about Rachel Weatherley in Celebrating the Journey of Rachel Weatherly (Writer).
You can also check out some of the articles she wrote on Reedsy below…