Sharon Van Epps

How to Keep Going as a Writer When Things Aren’t Going So Well

Share this article:

Professionally, 2016 was a great year for me. I got an agent. I got invited on my first press trip. espnW hired me to make fun of the Olympic mascots! I published a piece about racism in women’s soccer that I’d been trying to work up the courage to write for more than two years. The New York Times picked up an essay. I got invited to speak at the ASJA Conference. I went on a writing residency in Italy. I was on a roll.

And then I stopped rolling.

True confessions: We’re halfway through 2017, and I’ve published only two pieces so far this year. My agent and I had planned to take my memoir out on submission at the end of January, but when she asked me for a few tweaks to the proposal,  we pushed that to February. Then I got sick and fell behind.  Worst of all, I realized that what I really needed to do was rewrite the chapter summaries for the proposal,  which has turned out to be a colossal amount of work.

Despite my poor health, I really wanted meet that spring deadline. I attempted to polish my proposal while:

coughing and sneezing/running a fever/writhing with abdominal pain/squinting from blurred vision/fighting brain fog like nothing I’ve ever experienced before

Finally, I gave up. I was staring at the computer, miserable, accomplishing nothing. I needed to rest.

Other than identifying what was making me so sick (a bad reaction to a medication!) 2017 hasn’t brought much tangible success. I’m feeling much, much better, but I’m still tired a lot of the time, mentally and physically. I’m still spending more time with doctors than I’d like. Even on “good” days, writing or just caring about writing is a struggle (and reading the dismal national news doesn’t help.)  And yet I want to write. I want to care. I want my proposal to go out in the fall.

What has helped me persevere through a difficult time is remembering the wisdom of writer Anne Lamott. She says that when you think you’re blocked, really you’re empty and need to fill up. I worked so hard last year that I ignored a lot of things, especially my body. You can only defer maintenance for so long before stuff starts breaking. I’m paying more attention to my physical self now, and taking time to be more present with my family. I’m getting stronger and starting to work again.

Retreats and conferences have been my professional bright spots this year, because they’ve brought a sense of community, and honestly, more time to rest that I get at home as a mom. In January, I visited one of my favorite spots on the planet and joined one of Linda Sivertsen’s magical Carmel Writing Retreats. I wasn’t feeling great that weekend but didn’t recognize I was ill at this point. Somehow I managed to do an amazing amount of work on my memoir. I also made some lovely friends, like Norma Rubio, who took this gorgeous picture as we walked the beach together and I mused aloud about how nice it would be to own a house on that hillside….Still dreaming.

In March, I enjoyed a writing weekend on the Washington coast with two friends who are  professionally on fire right now: Jennifer Fliss and Kira Jane Buxton. I was starting to feel crappy at this point but didn’t know what was wrong, yet being with friends felt so bolstering that I had a creative breakthrough with my proposal. Thank you, friends! Also, Kira converted me to Irish butter that weekend; my palate will never be the same.

I lost the entire month of April feeling crappy, but once I stopped taking the problem medication, I instantly improved. In May I dragged myself to the ASJA Conference in New York because a) I couldn’t get my money back and b) I would have been so sad to miss participating in the panel, Tackling Tough Topics. I didn’t have energy to pitch any editors at the event, but I had a terrific time connecting with other writers. I scheduled a couple of lunches with New Yorker friends I’d met at other conferences, and got to acquainted in person with colleagues I’d “met” online. The trip wiped me out, but visiting NYC as a “real” writer was an experience I’d always dreamed of, and it finally came true.

This month, I took a solo DIY writing retreat at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, a Catholic retreat center about a mile from where I grew up. I’ve been so frustrated this year, and found myself literally craving a trip to the desert to get my head on straight. I’m going to write up another post about the center and how to create a DIY retreat like that, and try to bring THIS missive back around to the point I raised in the headline:

What do you do as a writer when things aren’t going well?

  1. If you’re running on empty, fill ‘er up.  Unfortunately replenishing your creative mojo isn’t as simple as filling the car with gas. It takes time. Once you get to this point, there really aren’t any shortcuts. You’ve got to take care of your physical body and try to reign in any negative self talk. Taking care of problems in your living space that you’ve been ignoring can also help. I’ve recently re-discovered the therapeutic value of pulling weeds.
  2. Reach out to your writing community. If you don’t have a community yet, take steps to find your people. I realize this post may sound very privilege-y. You may not be in a position to run off a writer’s retreat in Carmel or take a writing weekend with friends…but there are online groups for writers where you can find support, and meet up opportunities in many towns. Your local library, bookstore, or rec department probably offers affordable programming of interest to writers where you can meet people. You need places to go for encouragement and people to tell you not to quit. They’re out there.
  3. Consider a freelance editor, a coach, or an accountability partner. If your budget allows, try hiring a freelance editor if you’re stalled with a piece, or maybe contact a creativity coach to help you create action steps to get back on track. A couple of my writing friends are now offering project management services, which I plan to post about soon. If your finances are tight, finding a friend you can exchange with work with or use as a sounding board can help too. We writers tend to be solitary, glum creatures on our best days; totally isolating ourselves when we’re at our worst can be a really bad idea. Bouncing ideas off someone else brings fresh energy into the process.
  4. Find inspiration in books, blogs, and podcasts about the creative process. I’m going to do another post strictly about these resources. They exist; many are FREE.
  5. If constructive solitude is what you crave, find a way to get it. When you’re down, you have to guard against isolating yourself out of discouragement and/or depression. That’s why I’ve been stressing community and connection. Sometimes, though, you need alone time to restore that creative energy. Maybe you can’t run off to the desert, but perhaps you can spend the afternoon in the park with your notebook, or allow yourself an hour to soak in the bath. Maybe you can wake up 20 minutes earlier to sip your coffee in peace before diving into the day.
  6. Don’t fixate on a timetable for success and recovery. Yes, time matters when it comes to getting creative work done. None of us will live forever. As a late bloomer, I’m really conscious of the ticking clock. However, no one is productive and successful all the time; we all have fallow periods. You can’t compare your season of rest/reflection with somebody else’s harvest time.
  7. Finally, take strategic breaks from social media. I love reading about other people’s successes, but when you’re stalled, the carefully curated timelines of others can sometimes stoke anxiety. It’s ok to step away from the Facebook when you’re feeling discouraged or jealous. Success isn’t a finite commodity. You’ll get yours eventually if you don’t give up! Put time into yourself now and rejoin the fray when you’re ready.