Writing Under Duress

No, I don’t mean that anyone is forcing me to write. Frankly, my muse isn’t even talking to me right now, although my Evil Muse has been trying to help. He’s rather good at it, so I have flickers of productivity… Just not enough. Because the duress is outside life stuff interfering with my ability to write fiction. I can do this – non-fiction for a blog, or for a school paper – but creating uses a whole ‘nother part of my brain and I can’t seem to tap into it lately.

So what to do to keep the pipeline open with stress pinching it off? I have been working on peripheral stuff. Plotting for the novel in progress, writing words in it when I can, and working out “what comes next?” in my head when I can’t. It seems like the words start to flow on long car drives but that’s a different challenge.

I can, and probably should, force myself to sit down in the chair, put on music (which helps me. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but I need to have the music, or every other sound in the house has me getting up to check on it) and just write X number of words a day. For me, that number would be fairly small right now, like 500.

With mid-terms I let the writing go away. Stress suppresses creativity, and until I made a decision this week, I was enormously stressed, and completely unable to deal with it. I’m better now, and Thursday I made fiction words on a page happen, which was a good start. Now in terms of you, the writer, I can’t say what the stressors are, but you can analyze them, figure out how to alleviate, and how to work around them if you can’t eliminate them.

Next semester, for instance, I have signed up for what I’m calling a “sanity” class. I’m going to take a drawing course, and for three hours a week, I will set aside the whole world and all the burdens of life, and just create. I find drawing, painting, creating to be a good thing for my soul. For you it might be something different. But take a little time to do something that heals you, because that will affect your writing. All the nonsense about having to be depressed to write is total BS.

Really. I have been unable to write for years at a time because of depression. Even if I had written anything (poetry I wouldn’t admit to) I would burn it, bury it, make it go away, because it’s not worth unleashing that sort of pain on the public. You can’t write Human Wave when you have no hope. And there is always hope, even if you can’t see it right now.

I had a bad night last night. Just as I was drifting into sleep, I was awakened by a woman screaming outside our house. I immediately had a flashback, and had to go get my partner to hold me until I could sleep again. Stuff of a story, yes… and it will likely make it into one because I was able to go get help, I have hope, and no matter how bad it was, I got through to the other side. It’s not all rainbows & puppies here (thank g*d, I couldn’t deal with the mess of many young puppies!) but it means I can worry about the little stuff. Like how many words a week I’m getting on paper. And whether Human Wave is about writing hope into stories, that humanity has downsides, but mostly, we’re the only species in the Universe that cares, (that we know about right now) and if we lose hope, what is to become of us?

23 thoughts on “Writing Under Duress

  1. So, I suppose a long random road trip with a little voice recorder and transcription when you get home is out?

    Eh, some people have found the pomodoro to work – not worrying about number of words, just focusing on the twenty minute writing interval. Calmer Half says it helps him… as long as he remembers to set the timer. Music definitely helps, to block the world.

    I don’t write, but when I’m working on a problem for logistics, I like to do something that keeps my hands busy – at home I will just start cleaning, mopping, laundry, etc. While my brain chews the problem over. At work, I’ve been known to grab a broom and sweep. I know at least one writer who likes to plot while weeding. Kevin j Anderson dictates while hiking, proving both the thinking in motion and that he’s fantastically in shape.

    I’ve read other writers talking about changing the place they work, or the layout of the room, to break the mental habit of sitting and being dry for words.

    Whatever you try, we’re rooting for you!

    1. Next week, since I have been hired as a tutor, I plan to take a couple of days and spend them at school – I normally come home if I have hours between classes, because we only live 5 miles from college. But with the tutoring I will have an hour, maybe two, so not worth driving home. That may spur me into production. And I committed to writing a short story for a class, due in a week, so that means I *must* write this week!

    2. Something that works well for me is repetitive, mindless and boring work (which describes my day jobs pretty well). Bonus if it’s possible to listen to music while doing it. With me, that’s often movie soundtracks, those which have no songs, or very few songs and are more the background mood music, and are from movies with the type of stories I’m trying to write. But perhaps not music from your favorite movies, rather something you have seen once or at most twice so you have some connection between the music and the scene it was on, but no really strong associations – so something which kind of says perhaps ‘fight scene’ or ‘love scene’ but not ‘Star Wars and Luke fighting Vader’ or ‘Rhett kissing Scarlett’.

  2. Back when I was writing fiction and non-fiction simultaneously, I focused on fiction in the morning, when my imagination was wildest, non-fiction in the afternoon (focus, precision, but also lots of rummaging through notes for citations), and for one hour at the end of the day, I read something totally unrelated to anything else I was doing. Granted, I had the luxury of time, but some version of that system seems to help me. And then music for drowning out the outside noises if necessary. (This time of year, it’s “go,go,GO,GO run, don’t look back!” Yes, some people get a wee bit caught up in the game of the week.)

  3. I do things outside my writing – things like going to a house concert last night – that are wonderful. But they are not relaxing, mindless – or mindful; just getting there (and wearing CLOTHES instead of pjs) has its own extra stresses.

    At least you’ve got me thinking about the possibilities. I have very little functional time and energy, and I keep using them to try to write, so the thought is a serious one: how can I get a break from writing without using all my writing time to do it?

    It may be better when DH retires in a month – or it may be a lot worse. I’m hoping he will take over some of the tasks, such as dealing with the paperwork, that I’ve been doing for years with my little piece of brain simply because he had no time.

    I guess I could start with short periods of ‘time off’ and see what I can find to do. I’d love to work my way through the rest of the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain exercises that I did with the kids when we homeschooled.

    Enjoy your drawing class and your writing class – I’m not even AWAKE for three hours at a time. Sounds lovely.

    1. I hope that transition to retirement works well. After it happens if you have insights on how it why it went smoothly (or not smoothly) they’d sure be useful.

  4. I just want to know why my muse has decided that shameless fanfic (and kiddie MMO fanfic at that!) is what HAS to happen now. It’s not like I don’t have other things I should be writing.

    1. Kate, one of my old friends from college had a somewhat… similar issue. Okay, maybe not at all similar, but it’s what I thought of when I read this. *chuckle*

      Brittany was a chemical engineering student minoring in math who rebuilt classic Corvettes in her spare time. She also happened to be absolutely smoking hot gorgeous. Britt did not want to be the classic “hot girl” with an entourage of drooling males following her around, with a coven of jealous vixens plotting her poisoning in the background. Thus the chem/eng track, the utterly non-feminine attire, the standoffish attitude. We got along because I was in a relationship and not interested in sabotaging that, and were both incurable geeks for Firefly.

      One early Sunday morning I come across Britt giggling like a toddler with a fistful of candy at the old Student Union.

      *giggle. Snort* “Oh my Bog, this is so wrong.

      I *have* to interrupt. Not only am I a gentleman, friends don’t let the opportunity to rub it in pass. Shuffle, cough, ahem ahem…

      “Dan! I swear I’ll kill you if this gets out. I have blackmail. You know I will use it.”

      “So what’s this I’m sworn to secrecy for? At least I should know what I don’t know, you know?”



      One scuffle later, I get enough glimpse…

      “Pixie porn?!”

      “F-fairy erotica. Not porn. There’s no pictures, Bogdammit!”

      “You do fairy erotica? Badass Britt?”

      Color me flabbergasted. Knock me over with a feather.

      “How long has this been going on, may I ask?”

      So I find out that she’s been doing this between class and work, just daydreaming on paper, and chortling the whole way along. Occasionally cackling like a manic. I say do whatever works for you. If this kills the stress, makes you feel better (even if you feel guilty or like you are betraying your ideals…) it’s probably better in the long run just to get it out and over with. Dunno what she ever did with the Pixie po- err, fairy stuff, but at graduation I *did* see a tiny leather-jacketed pixie graphic on her Stingray’s side window… *grin*

      It’s probably been a long enough time and far enough away I can survive putting this out there. Names have been change to protect the guilty, any similarity between this tale and any actual person is *completely* in the reader’s imagination and all…

      1. Heh… if she *kept* any of it, she could probably put it out as ebooks and make a few bucks. 🙂

  5. Kate: Robert Aspirin said that he started the Myth series because his mind couldn’t handle the stress of writing ‘the Cold Cash War’ as such. It could be that your muse wants to kick up its heels before it goes back to the daily grind. I know my mind gets ideas like that when facing serious stuff. Woke up Thursday with the plot of a middle aged man making buds with a older dragon and a strong urge to write at six AM. Because I had a two-fifty mile bike ride in 45% weather later in the morning. I find gooood excuses for slacking. Getting serious though.-
    But, in regard to the muse being illusive; I agree with Cedar, stress is the main cause. I haven’t got the habit yet but, I think the key is to harness the stress. The half full glass over the half empty. Not happy thoughts stuff; but, the knowledge that you’re using the imagination anyway (concern of some sort) so why not use the imagination for creativity?
    I went through a ten or better year period of stress. When I stopped and faced reality, “Hold it- will it really go to hell?” I began to get well. Then, I started writing. High blood pressure keeps dropping, reduce the pills, keep writing, everything gets better. Some stories start slow, build, others end on the back shelf, no problem; I’m cool. So, I think the key to ‘writer’s block’ is to release fun loving sprite; and later throw the trash away. Who knows, the Myth books did much better than the cold cash war.

  6. One of the reasons I stick around these communities, there’s still some people who believe in hope. Added bonus that they believe and are trying to write stories to bolster that hope!

    As to the stress and writing, I’ll be following this closely, and seeing what strategies folks may have. I’m in desperate need of some stress alleviating/channeling strategies. It’s making my muse look evil and deranged.

  7. I started getting my creativity back when we got my youngest on meds. Then we got the dosage off and my creativity went good-bye again. Hopefully we’ll get it settled and I’ll find my brain back for good. Sometimes a creative activity is a nice break, but sometimes the stresses are such that it’s just not possible to get those creative juices to flow. In those cases a mindless romance is nice.

    Speaking of kid stress… gotta run to do the mom-taxi thing for a violin lesson…

  8. I actually started writing the Rada Ni Drako stories as a way to vent my frustrations during an especially tough period (let’s just say I was a few millimeters from a full-on nervous breakdown). I wasn’t in a position to talk back, thump heads, or leave, but Rada could (and did). There’s something soothing about writing battle scenes to a death metal and steampunk soundtrack after a long day of forced civility, especially if the good guys win in the end.

  9. Stress can also help, although perhaps it’s not stress if you sign up for it. I’m a NanNo addict. The fact that for several years it was only one month a year made that a very precious month. The liberating sense that only the word count mattered, the progress of the bars on the graph for each day you hit your tally, the understanding that if you didn’t take advantage of this one precious month you’d not get it back, all that created a lot of good writing stress. It would even spill over into a few days of December sometimes. And then it would stop. Completely. My creative side would miss the NaNo charts and go off and sulk.

    That might not be stress, although it sure sound like it. It might just be racing the clock. One of the most difficult parts of writing for me is not always knowing where I’m going. I know how it starts, I know how it ends, but what the heck happens in the middle. What is weird about NaNo’s clock is that my brain fires a lot better in November. I may not know what’s happening in the next scene, but at least I’ve got this one and I’ll take it for now. Then, just when I’m going to panic, I know what happens next.

    I’m very excited this year, because right now I am sick to death of editing.

    If I’m having real work or life stress (not the self-imposed stresses of NaNo), it can have different effects. In the first variety, I want to escape, and writing is good for that. So is just reading, of course, and it’s easier. In the second, I can only think about the causes of the stress, and all writing goes out the window.

    1. NaNo sometimes works for me, but sometimes I end up with such dreck that I don’t have the energy to revise it.

      1. I’ve had several false starts. But I’ve also had several good ones I’d likely not have gotten otherwise. Two months of NaNo (and then lots! of editing) got me the current WIP, which I have hopes of publishing very early this coming year.

  10. There are various ways of dealing with stress, and what works for different people _and_ different times changes. You just sort of have to experiment. Sometimes writing out battle scenes and bashing ogres who coincidentally happen to look like your boss, or that idiot you have to work with, works. Some times that just augments the anger, and writing something soothing and cozy is what you need. Some times _not_ writing–taking that time to just veg–is better. Sometimes the writing is the stress, and stopping for a few days is helpful–I find after a break that the Muse has built up a head of steam and I can blast ahead.

    NaNoWriMo can be fun, but if I’m busy, I won’t do it, because it adds stress. I’m going to do it this year, just because I feel like I’ve been revising and editing and publishing forever, and it’s time I got back to doing some original work.

    1. They’ve started holding NaNo in the summer for two or three months. I don’t usually do those, although one was very fruitful. You have to pick what works.

      I do find it stressful, but I love the deadline.

  11. I have never done NaNo. For one thing I don’t handle stress all that well, especially not during this time of the year. I can set target dates, but I should not think of them or I’ll do nothing. What works is to think that I’ll do just a little bit today and no stress, got plenty of time. After which I may end up writing several hours without noticing the time (good point is I can do that, only obligations I have are work, and right now giving the other cat his medicines. And wish that cat luck. Next x-rays in two and a half weeks. Either he had inflammation at the root of left lower fang, and pulling that tooth and the antibiotics will be enough. But cancer is the other possibility, and if the x-rays show that the area has started to spread instead of shrinking he will probably be put down. I just plain don’t have the money for further treatments).

    But yes, I can not think of the target dates for doing something. Neither does the decision of doing something every day work, because then I start to stress too and may end up postponing the day I start every day. I have to be sneaky. Just a little bit today. Just a few sentences. Let’s just take a peek, and then I’ll maybe add a few sentences. No stress. No hurry.

    I may have problems if I some day break through and suddenly find myself with demanding fans and the idea of the next book bringing in sure money. And heaven help me if I were to become famous, as in reporters hounding for interviews type of famous, I might freeze up completely (so I fantasize about being a steady earning almost bestseller, but never that high profile. Somebody whose books and characters may be somewhat known, but nobody is all that much interested in the writer). That ‘no demands, I’m just doing this for the fun of it’ no stress approach might not work that well under those circumstances. But it works pretty well now.

    And then there is the preliminary work, which includes sitting in a comfortable chair and daydreaming, often while listening to some appropriate music which might fit what I’m looking for. Again, no stress, no demands. I’m not trying to think of something to write, I’m just fantasizing about something fun. Maybe something I’d like to see in a movie (very visual imagination, I see things, occasionally nearly literally), something I disliked in some story and what I would have preferred, what I would like to see happen to somebody I don’t like, or to somebody I do like, or what kind of hero I might like to see in a story. What kind of world might be interesting to see in a story, or what kind of future I might like to live in myself, or what would be the worst kind of nightmare future and how to escape it. Just relaxing. No demands. And often, that can easily get me on the computer, when I hit on an especially interesting character or scene I will want to get it down. I may write a short description of that scene. Then I’ll have to figure out how it came to be, and what’s around it. That story I’m writing now started as that scene on Snow White where the princess is dead and inside the glass coffin. Only this time it was a man, and the glass coffin turned out to be a cold sleep device, and there was a boy – not a child anymore, but not quite fully grown – leaning on the thing and looking scared.

      1. Thanks. 🙂

        I can actually write pretty fast with that system. Two novels this year, if I manage to finish this last one, and got the third, something I had written earlier, edited. I think I may have some chance to get to about maybe four, at least three, with some more practice.

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