How to Write When You Feel Like You Can't

As we speak I am sitting in my home office wearing earplugs because the house on one side of me is under construction and a leaf blower is droning full blast on the other side. Also, there is a popcorn kernel that I’ve been unable to dislodge for the last hour and a half stuck painfully in my throat. The earplugs don’t keep out the din, and the kernel may soon become part of my anatomy, so I’m just going to have to embrace it and write this blog post anyway. In fact, that’s precisely what this post is about: writing through your distractions. Here are some quick tools to trick yourself into writing when your body, mind, and environment are conspiring against you.

1. Take Whatever You Can Get

There was a time when any old cold or a lack of sleep would be enough to dissuade me from even trying to write. Those people who got up at 4:00 a.m. to write before work? Crazytown. But then I had kids and found that if I let myself succumb to every little discomfort (or even the bigger ones — hello, flu season!), I’d never write at all. In fact, for a time after the birth of my second child (a full year), I didn’t write. I was too frazzled and chronically exhausted to even have a lucid thought. But, eventually, things settled down just enough that I could write bad poetry on my cell phone while on the toilet (the only time I had to myself back then). It was terrible, terrible poetry, but it was what I could do at the time with what I had, and the important thing was that it quite seriously brought me back into the practice. Bad poetry led to rudimentary flash fictions, which then evolved into competent prose and decent short stories. Fellow Carve blogger Sejal Patel says her motto is, “Embrace the ten-minute slot.” She has a demanding career and is a parent, yet she’s learned to take advantage of her idle time that used to be wasted to produce new material. Sometimes, you’ve just got to lower your expectations so you are able to do the work and trust that, eventually, the work will improve. It’s how practice works. And don’t worry about the quality; that’s what revision is for.

2. Incorporate Your Distractions into the Work

Is there a jackhammer obliterating your concentration? Describe it. Have you got the plague? Conjure your feverish state. Are you too tired to form a coherent sentence? Translate that into a character’s surreal state of confusion. I once developed a condition that struck me with unpredictable waves of crippling nausea (otherwise known as pregnancy), and I frequently couldn’t even get off the couch, but I could open a laptop, so I wrote a story about a young woman who decides to stop eating because she hates the feeling of swallowing food. It’s a nutty little story, but I’m fairly proud of it because I took my crappy circumstances and made something out of it. Similarly, in the 2015 edition of The Best American Short Stories, writer Arna Bontemps Hemenway describes in the contributors' notes that he doesn’t even remember composing his lauded story, “The Fugue.” He knows he wrote it during the sleep-deprived time after the birth of his child, and that fractured mental state of the author is projected quite powerfully into the character of a former soldier suffering from PTSD. The key is to harness your struggle into flashes of insight and to get it onto the page.

3. Delve into a Different Style or Genre

Remember my poetry on the potty? That in itself didn’t develop into good writing, but it kept me going, and it inadvertently sharpened my attentiveness to language once I got back to writing prose. When today’s noise next door started to really get on my nerves, I closed the file of the short story I was working on and infused this blog post with my frustrations. Pain, suffering, and even just plain aggravation can all be tools to free yourself from your standard self-imposed restrictions and allow you to write in a new medium or mode. Here’s your chance to try a passage in stream-of-consciousness or to write that humor piece you’ve had in the back of your mind or to craft something for that microfiction contest you’ve been reading about. Whatever’s distracting you from your “normal” writing might actually lower your inhibitions enough to precipitate a breakthrough you might not have otherwise had.

To be sure, there are times in any writer’s life when things can get too difficult to produce work: the birth of a child, a chronic illness, the death of a loved one. Don’t beat yourself up over it if you need to take a break — I did for a solid year, and it made me appreciate writing that much more when I was able to do it again. Frankly, I feel that the words come much easier now because of that sabbatical; it was as if a damn burst when it was over, and I have to scramble to get things down before the words flow away. So go ahead and take your vitamins, invest in some earplugs, but when the going gets rough, just write about it.