I'm talking about those times when writing seems impossible but so does everything else: when your heart - your life itself - is stapled to the page and no one wants it. And that heart, the life itself, is a miserable, clichéd, shrivelled thing, and you a deluded, talentless fool for ever dreaming that you might have something worth saying which people would want to hear. Just as the Guardian's Work-Agony Uncle Jeremy Bullmore inspired me to track down Jerusha Cowless and recruit her to This Itch of Writing, this brilliant post about that feeling in your life as a whole has inspired me to a writerly equivalent.
THINGS TO DO BEFORE GIVING UP ON WRITING
(With huge thanks to Eponis/Sinope's original post on Tumblr.)
1) Have a glass of water. Dehydration affects your mood and concentration long before you're aware of being thirsty.
2) Eat something sustaining. Low blood-sugar has the same effect as dehydration. "Sustaining" means protein (including nuts and seeds), not the sort of carbs which rocket your blood-sugar up and then dump you. Though I wouldn't myself disdain a bit of caffeine if it gave me the energy to do some self-rescuing:
3) Move. Get up from the desk, stretch those limbs, get the blood going round quicker. Stand and move as if it's a good day not a bad one. Body-mind feedback-loops are strange things.
4) If it's day-time, wash and get dressed. Writing before you get up can be brilliant (I'm writing a new novel that way at the moment), but there comes a point when being grubby and rumpled does more harm to your energy and confidence than staying in bed does good in keeping you in the zone. Dress (or re-dress) as if it's a good day. It's worth saying again: body-mind feedback-loops are strange things.
5) If it's night-time, get ready for bed slowly and gently. Everything looks better the far side of a decent sleep so put yourself to bed as if you deserve all the treats in the world. Put away the electronic stuff and be kind: hot bath or cool shower according to climate, a hot water bottle or cold drink ditto. Find something friendly and undemanding to read, or no words at all, and make the bed so it's tempting to get into. If half an hour after the lights are out you're still not asleep, let yourself get up and take the book to another room.
6) Have a bit of exercise. Not that killer gym session that you've been meaning to do for months, but simply moving the limbs in the outside air, with a few trees or some grass around you. If you live least air which isn't the emotionally stale stuff within your own four walls. Walking is fine, iPod is great for keeping your mind off your misery. Do that bit of exercise every day.
7) Put away the conviction that you haven't done enough writing today and "ought" to do more. The Must-Write Demon can dress up as a your Inner Coach, Schoolmaster or Mentor, but he does not have your interests at heart. Hillary Rettig's book on procrastination and other not-getting-on-with syndromes is brilliant on the loop of unrealistic targets.
8) Find three things which are in some way nice, good and re-fuelling about your immediate circumstances, even if it's just that you like the pattern on the rug, this is really quite a tasty banana and you'll be seeing your brother next week. Focus quietly on them for five minutes.
9) Take what you found in that focusing and express it creatively in whichever way comes to you least effortfully, and with no goal in mind except expression: writing in your catch-all notebook, drawing, photographing, humming, singing, dancing, dreaming, cooking, gardening.
10) Look for comfort and support, but thoughtfully. Dogs, babies, guinea pigs, horses and teddy bears are all good because they don't answer your misery with either a blast of their own, or agreement and gruesome details about why yours are so thoroughly justified. People do, too often. Mind you, it helps if you tell them at the outset what you need: a hug, a shoulder, company for a distraction such as a film or a walk, a non-judgemental listener, a fellow-writer to help you think aloud. If they're not in a position to give you what you need, for whatever reason, then thank them and move on.
11) Go to your best, kindest, most trustable, closed support group on Facebook or elsewhere. But for goodness sake bypass the emotional junk-food of all the places where the offensive, the offended, the pessimists and the pollyannas get off on each other's (knee)jerking-off.
12) Do a small job of normal life-stuff which is easily achieved, and then let yourself be pleased that you've answered that email, cleared out that box of junk, bought those flowers for the kitchen table or made some soup. (Making bread is even more therapeutic). Don't set yourself an impossible goal of either time or job: I used to clean up the kitchen to The Archers, all 15 minutes of it. Then I was allowed to stop, however much I'd (not) done.
13) If you really need to work at a writing job, break each job on the to-do list down into manageable chunks, and do whichever chunk of whichever job will be easiest to tick off. It really doesn't matter which: what matters is that you achieve it. (Why do you think I blog?). Then congratulate yourself and enjoy the achievement. Only let yourself start another job once you've enjoyed your achievement, and then only if you want to. And, as with life-stuff, set an easily-achieved structure for your time.
14) Check if life lately has been extra-demanding, personally, professionally, physically or socially. Everyone needs time to rest and re-fuel. I now know that after a big event - the York Festival of Writing, say - diving straight back into work and decisions and self-propulsion on the Monday is asking for trouble: all I achieve is bad decisions, everything seeming impossible, the future looking bleak, and usually a bad bout of procrastination as my brain tries to get me to stop and refuel and the Must-Work Demon refuses to let me.
15) Ask yourself if your project is wallowing in the Thirty-Thousand Doldrums, and know that when you're feeling stronger, you can get out of them, and you will. If that post and the links gets your story-brain whirring again, then go for it.
16) Remember that there's scarcely a writer in the world who hasn't felt like this at some point: even Neil Gaiman has. Maybe it was after the fiftieth rejection of their first-ever story, or because the bailiffs were banging on the door and the publishers weren't, or because just the thought of writing the thirtieth book of their brand made them feel sick and miserable ... but everyone's been there. The smug ones who say they never have are either not willing to admit it, or have forgotten (and Freud said there's no such thing as forgetting).
17) Let yourself tread water for a week, doing all or most of these things, (and keeping off alcohol, as it's a depressant and will only make things worse) and then have another look. To quote Eponis, because I can't put it better: "Sometimes our perception of life is skewed ... and there’s no obvious external cause. It happens." If your mood has risen and levelled, but you still feel that your writing life is in a muddle and needs clarifying, then you could think about looking for professional help from some kind of formal or informal mentoring.
And if things are still terribly dark, then please don't just attribute it to external causes, but take it seriously as something which needs tackling: Matt Haig is only the most recent writer to talk about depression and related issues. Please, please, please get professional help.