10 Ways to Banish the Writing Blahs

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on January 25, 2016 • views: 2638

Writing blahs

You’ve probably heard of “seasonal affective disorder” or SAD, that form of depression that can take over in the winter months.

But what about the “writing blahs?”

Symptoms of SAD can include lack of energy, a low mood, social withdrawal, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.

Sometimes winter weather can be a factor in the “writing blahs,” too. Symptoms include fatigue, lack of writing motivation, negativity, and a general distaste for the WIP or blank page.

But the solutions for SAD may not work for the writing blahs. If not, what can we do?

Solutions for SAD May Help…Or Not

In the winter, the sun rises later and sets earlier, so we get less exposure to natural light, which plays tricks on the brain. It can also mess up our natural circadian rhythms, leaving us dragging through our days.

Getting more exposure to light can help, either by going outside during the brightest time of day (between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.), or by spending some time under a light box, like one of these.

Other potential solutions include:

  • take more vitamin D (between 1,000 and 2,000 IUs), which may help alleviate depression
  • continue to exercise daily (even if it’s at a moderate level)
  • meet up with friends
  • get active in winter sports (like skiing and snowmobiling)
  • snack on foods high in tryptophan, which helps the body produce more “feel-good” hormones (examples include turkey, fish, cheese, beans, oats, lentils, and eggs
  • take a day or weekend trip to somewhere warmer or sunnier; just anticipating a quick break can lift your mood
  • play some lively, happy music

This is all great for the standard winter blues, but writers know that the writing blahs are a bit different. Are there solutions specifically for that?

Writers Regularly Struggle with the Blahs

Writers struggling through a long winter season—or simply from a low writing period—know what it’s like to have the “writing blahs.”

“I like to curl up in January and forget my writing,” says mystery writer J. L. Greger.

“I am having one of those days when I just don’t feel like writing….” says freelance writer Andria Perry.

We’ve all gone through them—those periods when the desire to write seems to fly out the window. Though they can happen at any time, we’re probably more at risk during the winter season, when the odds for depression and fatigue are already stacked against us.

Writer Kristen Coros notes the similarity between the two afflictions:

“The ‘winter blahs’ are a real phenomenon, and something similar can occur in writing. A kind of cabin fever may crop up, not necessarily in winter, but whenever we’re cooped up too long with stale ideas, uncooperative stories, or worse: a blank page with no ideas to liven it.”

Writer Karen Woodword says that for her, writing blahs are common, no matter what the season:

“I find that, every project I do, I get a fit of the ‘blahs.’ When I get an entrenched case of the blahs—when I feel singularly unenthusiastic about my WIP and start dreaming about how lovely it would be to write a short story, or a piece of flash fiction, or perhaps paint a picture or begin a gardening project or do absolutely anything unrelated to my WIP—then I know I’m in trouble.”

In fact, writing blahs can attack any time, for any reason. Writer Tony Lovell felt them coming on after dealing with a health issue:

“…when this happens—when the blahs settle in and show no sign of checking out for quite a while—I lose all energy and all interest in just about everything, including writing. Seriously, even writing this post is a struggle, much less trying to write a short story or poem.”

Risk Factors and Symptoms of the Writing Blahs

It’s not only the weather that can cause the writing blahs. Other factors can include stress, equipment problems (your computer crashes), anxiety over your career, health problems, burnout, a lack of ideas, and more.

Whatever is causing it, symptoms include the following:

  • You just don’t feel like writing, no matter what.
  • Your motivation for writing has flown the coop and you can’t track it down.
  • Every time you sit down to write, your mind wanders to everything else you’d rather be doing.
  • You feel stressed over the fact that you’re not producing.
  • You have an overall sense that writing is a struggle.
  • You worry that you may not get your writing mojo back.

Even if you do get something written, you may feel quite sure that it lacks any redemptive qualities.

“A fellow Bad Girl and I recently discussed the phenomenon in a writer’s life known as The Blahs,” says romance writer Heather McGovern. “Some call it being stuck in a rut, the doldrums, a bit of ennui. Regardless, it all presents itself with the same symptoms: You feel like crap about your writing, mainly because you think you are crap and all you write is crap.”

Coffee BookA common cause of the writing blahs is the “middle-of-the-book” syndrome. Most of us know that the middle of a novel is the most difficult part, and the writing blahs are often waiting to attack as we do our best to keep the tension high and the plot going.

Mystery writer Kaitlyn Dunnett knows this feeling intimately:

“So there I was, approaching the midpoint of the ninth Liss MacCrimmon mystery (no title yet), when I hit another of those obstacles that crop up every single time I write a novel. Yes, that’s right. I ran headlong into the middle-of-the-book blahs, where the plot is chugging along okay and the characters have all taken on distinct personalities and I know who the villain is and how the book is going to end but…and that’s a BIG but!…I was having a really hard time dragging myself to the computer every morning to crank out the next scene.”

It may be somewhat helpful to know that most writers, at one time or another—during the winter or not—go through the writing blahs. If you’re suffering from them, you’re not alone.

But that can only comfort you for so long. What really matters is finding a solution.

10 Solutions for the Writing Blahs

The good news is that there are a lot of potential solutions. Though the writing blahs affect most writers, we’re all different, so what may work for one writer won’t necessarily work for another.

That’s why I’ve included 10 options below, to give you lots of places where you might get started. Here’s wishing you good luck in your experimentation, and the fastest train possible out of blah-land!

1. Try writing something else.

Many writers find success switching projects. Try swapping to another story or novel you have in the works, start a new one, or try writing a poem—even if you’re not a poet. “Writing poetry is like working a puzzle,” says poet Carol Despeaux. “It jump-starts our brain synapses.”

Dunnett agrees that swapping projects can help:

“My subconscious would noodle whatever problems I was having with Book one while I was working on Book Two. When I hit a wall with Book Two, I’d go back to Book One armed with fresh ideas and renewed enthusiasm.”

painting2. Try painting.

Sometimes using another outlet for our creativity can help us break loose from the writing blahs. Even if you’re not a painter or you think your drawing is terrible, picking up a pencil or a brush and playing with shapes and color can help you relax and open up any blocks in your brain.

Pushcart prize nominee Patty Somlo mentioned this in her feature for Writing and Wellness. During a low writing time, she decided to take a drawing class.

“Unlike with my writing,” she says, “I didn’t feel pressure to be good at drawing. By not being focused on being good, I ended up producing some decent work. The experience really helped me think about why I wrote. I wrote because I loved to write. And as much as I tried to convince myself that I was done writing, I missed it.”

After the class, Patty returned to writing, and went on to pen a story that was published by a women’s-only journal.

vegetables-cook3. Cook up a colorful meal.

Cooking is another type of art, if you approach it that way. According to writer and foodie Anastatia Curley, it can be the answer to the winter blahs, no matter who you are. She admits to suffering from the winter blues, particularly in January, and turned to making a colorful meal to lift herself up.

“There’s something about eating a colorful dinner that can’t help but dispel at least some gloom. I can’t decide whether to put it down to science—more color, as I recall from elementary school, means more vitamins, and a vitamin-packed meal must give you a lift—or to the pure sensual pleasure of deep orange and bright green on a plate together. This pleasure isn’t too far removed from that of looking at a painting or listening to a musical phrase: it’s a moment when food can be exciting, can make you smile, can nourish your senses. Either way, it cheered me up, and so if you are suffering from the Januarys, I recommend sweet potatoes and spinach.”

If you decide to try cooking, go for healthy fruits and veggies, healthy fats (like those in fish and nuts), foods rich in vitamin B (like avocados), and foods rich in vitamin D (fish, dairy products, beef liver, cheese, and eggs).

Aromatherapy4. Try adding some key scents to your environment.

Aromatherapy has been shown to help lift mood, if you choose the right scents. Studies have found that some essential oils are directly linked to reducing stress and enhancing mood. In a 1988 study, for instance, researchers found that three minutes of aromatherapy with lavender helped participants relax and increased concentration, while three minutes with rosemary increased alertness and lowered anxiety.

Other good scents to try while you’re writing include peppermint, verbena, vanilla, citrus (lemon and orange), jasmine, rosemary, and cinnamon. Try a scented lotion, a diffuser, tea, or add a few drops to a cotton ball and place it near your writing area. Simply inhaling the scents could help you banish the inner editor and settle into your enjoyable writing space.

5. Realize it’s part of the job.

Knowing that all writers can fall victim to the writing blahs may be enough to help you continue. The writing life is full of ups and downs. In fact, the blissful experience of having the words flow unimpeded is actually more rare than the day-to-day slog through the draft.

“For me and most writers I know,” writes Anne Lamont in Bird by Bird, “writing is not rapturous.”

“The Blahs are a natural part of the creative process,” says McGovern. “Painters, actors, dancers, musicians—they all get the Blahs. It’s the flip side of those days when creativity and art spill forth and you’re convinced of your genius.”

In fact, it may be best to try to refrain from judging your work at all when you’re in the midst of the blahs. Just getting words down is an accomplishment. Besides, your judgment is likely to be skewed. Try to just hang in there and keep writing until the feeling starts to lessen.

Calendar6. Create a new writing routine.

It could be that the routine you had before is no longer working for you. Maybe you’ve been staying up late a lot recently, which makes your early morning writing period near impossible. Or maybe trying to write after work is fruitless because of the stress you’re experiencing.

Revisit your writing goals, and find a new time to try. It may be helpful to find a new location, too. Maybe you’d do better sneaking in 30 minutes of writing at a café during your lunch hour, for example, than trying to write early in the morning before everyone else gets up. Or maybe right before bed would work better for you, when you’re a little tired and don’t care about quality anyway. (Sometimes that’s when your creativity really comes forward.)

Experiment. Write down three different times (and possibly locations) during which you can try writing in the coming week, and see which one works best.

Try Motivational Poster7. Stick to your writing goals, no matter what.

This can take a bit of tough love, and may not be for everyone. Some people need most of all to take a break from their writing, for example. But others need to buckle down and keep getting words on paper.

“Whatever your daily writing goal is,” says Andrew McAleer, editor of 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists: Insider Secrets from Top Writers, “stick to it even when you have the blahs. In fact, this might be the best time to write. Who can predict what creative juices may flow from your present state of mind. Moreover, writing when you feel a bit distressed might be the very thing to lift your spirits.”

In the same book, author Julia London agrees.

“The blahs suck. Words come like molasses, and they are usually monosyllabic. You feel like a hack and an ignorant one at that. You wonder why you ever thought you could write anything more than a check. And even though each word you put down on paper will feel like another step uphill in deep snow, you must keep doing it until you reach your goal for the day. Tomorrow, you can go back and add some syllables and some genius. Tomorrow, you can breathe life into the molasses. But you cannot breathe life into a blank page.”

Rewards8. Rack up the rewards.

Our brains thrive on rewards. Imagine what you’d do if a stranger appeared at your door and offered you $1,000 for five pages of writing? Think that might jolt you out of the blahs?

Much of the problem with the writing life is that we work so hard for so long with little to no rewards. Our brains can start to rebel, and our inner children are likely to engage in outright temper tantrums. What are we doing all this for?

Your higher self knows that you have long-term goals, but in the meantime, you’ve got to keep your lower self happy if you want to break out of the blahs. Long-term rewards won’t do it—that trip you’re planning to take when you get a publishing contract, for instance. Instead, you need some immediate feedback from yourself. So write down a list of what you enjoy, and set up rewards for yourself.

A favorite snack for your next 1,000 words, for instance. A weekend getaway for three finished chapters. Your favorite Starbucks drink for two hours spent working on your plot. A night at the movies in exchange for seven days of meeting your word quota. Decide what feels like a reward to you, and set up a chart if you need to. Make sure you come through with the rewards, or your brain will rebel!

success9. Try a progress tracker.

How much writing are you actually getting done each day? Do you know? If not, it’s time to change that. A daily writing calendar or journal can be just what you need to prove to yourself that you are making progress, even if it feels like you’re not.

Try getting a special calendar just for your writing work. Mark off each day that you meet your quota, or write down on the calendar a log of the time you spend on your project, even if you don’t write a word. Tracking your progress in this way can give your brain the tangible evidence it needs to keep you going through the blahs.

Learning10. Learn something new.

Taking a class (there are a lot of online writing classes that are great) may seem like the last thing you want to do right now, but it also may be the one thing that you need to do to get past the writing blahs.

“Lifelong learning is a way to banish the blahs,” writes Ingrid Cummings in The Vigorous Mind, “a move toward rediscovering your intellectual edge.”

It doesn’t even have to be a writing class, actually. Learning something new that relates to your work in progress can be a great way to stimulate your writing. I took a motorcycle class, for instance, while working on a book where the main character was an experienced rider. I loved it, and came out of it even more excited about the writing I was doing.

“Just as our bodies need physical activity to stay strong and nimble,” writes Cummings, “so do our brains need exercise to stay in shape. Otherwise we risk a bad case of brain malaise. We all know that arteriosclerosis refers to a hardening of or narrowing of the arteries. Similarly, psychosclerosis is a hardening or narrowing of the attitude. Psychosclerosis is the inability to perceive possibilities even when they’re all around you—a shutting off of the mind, spirit, and heart.”

To turn your brain back on, challenge it. Try something new. Learn something you’ve been wanting to learn. Attend a writing conference, take an online class, or sign up for an entirely different type of class in your hometown. If it has nothing to do with your current project, promise yourself you’ll write a story that includes your new knowledge as you’re working on your new skill.

Whatever you try to jerk yourself out of the writing blahs, do make sure you take some sort of action. Leaving things as they are will likely only make it worse. As British politician and writer Benjamin Disraeli once said:

“Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.”

Do you have solutions for the writing blahs? Please share your tips with our readers.

Diego, MA, et al., “Arometherapy positively affects mood, EEG patterns of alertness and math computations,” Int J Neurosci., December 1998; 96 (3-4): 217-24, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10069621.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Great ideas, Colleen. I think #s 2, 3 and 10 work best for me (though I might substitute photography for painting–it’s less of a commitment in case writing inspiration strikes!). I find that researching topics related to what I’m writing about is the best idea-stoker.

  2. Chere Hagopian says:

    Amazing solutions!! I feel less blah-y just reading them. I would never have thought of using scents, but they really do influence mood tremendously! Music too. My husband and I have just started playing soothing music during the workday, and it makes a world of difference.