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Psychic Distance: how terrific writers actually use it

"Everything About My Writing Is Awful And No, I'm Not OK."

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.

(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. It doesn't have to be beautiful, although there's good evidence that  a few trees or some grass around you makes a difference. The main thing is that it 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 are rather inclined to want to "help", if only to defend themselves from the contagion of misery. 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 ... 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, perhaps via your doctor, from a counsellor or therapist.

Good luck!


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Katrina Mountfort

Fantastic post, Emma. I'm going to print this out because I regularly need this advice!

Miranda Morris

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Emma. Like Katrina, I am going to put this somewhere prominent. I loved your exposure of the Must-Write Demon appearing in the guise of a Mentor or Coach.


So much wisdom here, Emma. I think the self-discipline and openness to emotion that enables writers to both create and keep developing can work against us when we hit a hard place. Those times when we most need to go easy on ourselves can be the times when it's hardest to do so. I'm a great advocate of bracing walks and a bit of green leaf you can find it. I'd just add that it's also worth considering whether part of the problem might be that the subject matter we've chosen is too challenging or too close to unresolved issues of our own. In which case, don't rule out the option of therapy, which I just so happen to be writing about on my blog this week

Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

This comes at an appropriate time for me, Emma. I am full of inertia, a combination of my fourth virus since Christmas and an inability to take action on both writing and 'normal' aspects of life. Looking up a train time seems beyond me at the moment, let alone working on a character. Your post is comforting.

Joanna Campbell

Such very wise advice, all of it, well and thoughtfully expressed. Many thanks, Emma, for such a perceptive and helpful post.

Sally Zigmond

Thank you, Emma. Your perceptive camera lens must be pointed at me right now! So, time to have that shower I've been putting off, get dressed in something other than my sloppy scruffy casuals and get moving. I might even edit a few hundred words. Then I shall reward myself by baking my favourite cake with a smile!

Emma Darwin

Anne, you're so right - having learnt to keep the seat of your pants on the seat of the chair whether you want to or not, and do the emotional equlivalent of staying inside your own tenderest places whether you want to or not ... you then have to learn when to hear the part of you that's saying "STOP!". So difficult. As Susan Howatch (of all writers!) says somewhere in her CoE series, it's no wonder that people pray for the grace of discernment...

And yes, sometimes what's telling you to stop is that actually you really are too close to your own bones. Love your blog - thanks for posting that link.

Emma Darwin

Glad you liked it, Katrina. I think we all need reminding of these kinds of remedies - there's something about depressed states which wipes them from your mind and makes you feel your current state is How Life Will Be Forever!

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Miranda. And yes, the Must-Write Demon is an under-publicised little bugger, and sometimes just as lethal as the Anti-Writing Demon.

Emma Darwin

Four viruses since Christmas is really tough, Lindsay, along with all the ordinary writing-and-life stuff. Take it easy...

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Joanna. Good luck with it all!

Emma Darwin

One of my personal alarm bells, as it were, is when getting washed and dressed seems suddenly impossible. Sure sign that I'm feeling over-burdened, and need a breather. Best of luck with it and yes - the only thing more therapeutic than eating cake is baking a cake and then eating it.


Oh my gosh, there's so much good stuff in here that I don't know where to start! I've bookmarked it for all the other links and suggestions, too. Thanks for sharing it!


My one trick when I hid that wall that says, "You shall not write here," is to go back and read the bit I wrote earlier and do a little bit of editing. It takes the pressure away, you are still being productive and with any luck by the time you reach the point your stopped, the wall has faded away into the mist...

Hannah D.

Excellent post! I'm reading the 7 Habits of the Prolific which tackles the psychology of perfectionism and procrastination. I never realized perfectionism's many faces, a lot of them being behaviors and thoughts you've perfectly described here.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Valerie. Glad it was useful, and you carry on exploring.

Emma Darwin

Yes, I think that can work very well ... as long as going back to existing work doesn't just become a way of avoiding the problem. In a first draft, have a rule with myself that I never go further back than the previous session's work, edit my way forwards to the sticking point, and then force myself onwards. But, as you say, very often the problem turns out to have sorted itself out, or at least you've seen a way to ride over the bump (perhaps with a note that more will need doing another time), and start moving forwards again.

Emma Darwin

Isn't it good! I'm so grateful to Susannah Rickards for recommending it. Like you, I hadn't thought of some aspects of not-writing as having their roots in the same place as more obvious procrastinatory messes, but they do..

larry dieli

Emma: This is the first day that I have visited your site. I expect to be many times. You have love for the written story, a depth of knowledge to share,and compassion for those who share your craft. Thanks for all the resources, as well as the passion of your voice.

Emma Darwin

So glad you're enjoying the blog, larry, and thank you for those kind words!

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