Why You Don’t Feel Like Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

As Yogi Berra once observed, “90% of the game is half mental.” That’s why I wrote a book called The Mental Game of Writing. We have to master the space between in our ears in order to produce our best work on the page.

I’ve noticed many blog posts over the last five months talking about what a struggle it is to write in Virus World. These writers talk about a lack of energy, spark, interest, creativity. The feeling is described in a post by Peter Olson: “A frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you … journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.”

Every now and then a scribe wonders if there’s something wrong with them. Do they really want to do this anymore? Is the joy gone for good?

Turns out there’s an understandable, biological reason you feel this way. Your brain is experiencing “culture shock.” From the above article:

When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explains how our brains work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Here is a summary:

  1. Your brain is a great decision-making engine.
  2. Your brain has two distinct processes it uses to make decisions.
  3. One of these systems operates quickly and automatically and does not require much energy.
  4. One of these systems operates slowly and deliberately and requires a lot more energy.

Kahneman gave names to the two processes your brain uses. He called one the “fast” system. This kind of thinking has also been called the “subconscious” system. The other he called our “slow” system. “Slow” thinking is what you are doing when you say that you are “thinking” about something.

What’s happening is that our brains have to do a lot more “slow” thinking these days. We used to just run out to the store for groceries with a simple routine: Park the car, get out (without fiddling with a mask), grab a cart, stroll around, thump a cantaloupe, look over the meats, etc. But now we have to think about masks, distance, touching, not touching, hand sanitizing, keeping an eye on that guy coming down the aisle and keeping our feet on the floor stickers in the checkout line. Thus, even this once innocuous little slice of your life drains your brain.

Think of “slow thinking” a bit like ‘turbo’ from the old video games. You need it to power through some parts of life. But use it all and you’ll need to wait for it to come back again. This is why you have perhaps said that your brain feels ‘tired’ after a long meeting, an intense discussion, or after much studying. That ‘tired’ feeling is your brain calling for a break so it can replenish the sugar it just used up.

***

Hundreds of times every day we are now facing moments where fast & cheap was handling your decisions for you … but can’t anymore. Last year greeting a friend didn’t require us to use the limited capacity of slow thinking. But now it may. With many of our autopilots disabled, we are facing a world where we are being forced to think in ways we are not accustomed to. And it’s draining your brain of capacity you used to have for other – more meaningful – things.

Meaningful things like writing!

Or maybe somewhere in your tired brain there’s a voice whispering that fiction is really not all that meaningful.

Shut that voice down! People need stories more than ever. We are the ones to lighten the load of our fellow citizens dealing with the stark, often irrational, and sometimes violent nature of current reality.

As Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Share that dram with your readers!

To avoid slow-brain sluggishness, let me suggest the following:

  1. Prioritize morning writing

Awaken, get your morning beverage, then write something. I know some of you claim not be “morning people,” but it’s morning and you’re a person, right? Instead of immediately hopping onto Facebook or Instagram, play with words.

I don’t care what words. Maybe it’s a scene in your WIP, but not always. Try jotting in a journal, or starting a short story based on whatever is in your mind at the moment (the Ray Bradbury Method). Don’t judge the words, just produce them.

I like writing flash fiction (under 1,000 words) and often use early mornings to start stories…some of which I may not finish. But that’s okay. It gets me in the writing mood.

  1. Quarantine the news and social media 

Decide when and for how long you’ll glance at the news and social media. The news can get you sad, mad or both within seconds. Social media is, in the words of Cal Newport, “digital fast food.” The instant Dopamine rush you get leads to a crash later, which may result in a massive case of the blues.

Really. Set a timer. Do anything to limit the input of these two stimuli.

  1. Get together with real people

This is a bit difficult in the California compound, where I often feel like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. In L.A. you can’t have some people over to enjoy a backyard barbecue, but you can have 6 people at your table at a restaurant with outdoor dining. Go figure.

So do what you can under the rules of your locality to get real with real people. We need flesh and blood interactions more than  Zoom and Skype.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for wire cutters and a motorcycle.

So how is your energy to write these days? Any tips on staying motivated?

20+

43 thoughts on “Why You Don’t Feel Like Writing

  1. It’s nice to have an explanation for what I call pandemic brain. However, I still find that my creativity flourishes–as much as an output diminished by about half can be called flourishing–is still better in the afternoon. It’s as if my brain has to get “all the other stuff” out of the way so it’s not afraid of being interrupted.

    Not to mention I simply can’t type three words without eight typos in the morning. I can’t even do the mini crossword until my fingers wake up. I know the words, know the letters, but they don’t go into the right boxes.

    Then again, I’ve never been a very social person, so having excuses NOT to have to interact with people has been working for me.

  2. I always thought there was a reason my hands and feet got cold when I was intensely focused on something – I’d assumed the blood was just rushing to where it was needed most… seems I was sort-of right – running the glucose to keep the slow side running – I noticed this “phenomenon” all the way back in high school when not a few dates either commented on or “deferred” holding cold hands coming from an intense movie (I tried not take it personally, but teenage angst being what it was… 🙄 ), and now at the day job, hunkered over the keyboard working on an X-Cell file or CAD drawing (with, as Joe listed yesterday, good tunes drowning distraction), I’ll see it’s past quitting time and I’m freezing from the neck down… I’ve had this a time or two when working on a WIP… It’s not circulatory, according to the docs – as once I get into “fast” thinking (you know, commuting or cutting the grass or doing the dishes), things warm right up…

    These daze – though my job considers me expendable, er, essential, because construction in a hospital is “on-call” – I’m sequestered in my office across the street, masking when I have to visit a job site, and yeah, I’m still jotting ideas or notes now and then, but haven’t found the finishing pushes I miss (and feel guilty for not having) – despite my routine still being somewhat routine – the challenges of learning Zoom and fiddling with the mute buttons and such more than offset the face-to-face (now occasional mask-to-mask), interruptions and interactions…

    This seems like something to keep in mind (so to speak) for characters in transition going forward… dealing with change(s)…

  3. Thanks James. This makes sense. The first few months I felt washed in tiredness. Overwhelmed. I pushed through and did what I had to do. I had a lot of deadlines to meet.

    Now I feel less pressure, but I’m burdened by foggy thinking. Misplacing things, losing files, finding I’ve lost my mojo. Talk about imposter syndrome. I doubt myself. My thinking is laboured.

    I push through… arrive where I should eventually, maybe hours, days longer than I’d normally take.

    I guess the lesson is to accept the weirdness, try to take time out for conscious self-care and keep moving forward while allowing for diversions.

    There’s always procrasti-cleaning. But I can’t blame COVID for that weirdness.
    Cheers from Australia.

    • You’re not alone, Jay. And you’re right. Conscious self-care in league with moving forward, even if it’s just a little, each day. A page a day is a book a year!

  4. My writing energy has reached an all-new high. I’m nearing the end of my WIP. Yay! What I don’t want to do is everything else–marketing, social media, leisure reading, other types of writing–until I finish this book. Is there a name for that? 😀

    • Sue, I feel the same way. Producing like mad.

      With so much of our lives spinning wildly out of our hands, perhaps the page/screen is the one place we still have control.

      Plus, a burning desire to escape into a different world–even if it’s full of scam artists, thieves, and murderers.

    • I consider writing as much an adrenaline rush and addiction as dangerous sports, stage acting, gambling, etc. Looking at an empty page and then filling it is exciting. Being in the zone as you write offers the same perfect rush as a runner high.

      Toward the end of a work, some people lose interest because the ending is there perfect and complete in their heads, no more creative rush, so that addiction starts offering newer and better ideas for something else. That’s why some people never finish what they start. They confuse the sweet whispers of adrenaline addiction about the next work with failure at what they are doing. This work is crap, no one wants to read it, I’m an imposter and a failure, etc. Those of us who are experienced enough to understand this take notes on the new ideas and finish our work.

      The other side of this are those who experience an extreme rush of energy as they see the end. It’s the same as a runner seeing the finish line and having a final rush of adrenaline that gets her past the other competors to win.

      So, the final adrenaline push?

      • Good analogy about runners, Marilynn. Seeing that finish line is when you’ve got to dig deep, even when the lungs are burning. It’s not as much fun as the early stages, but it is so satisfying when you cross that line and know you’ve got something completed.

      • Perfect analogy, Marilynn! I’m SO close to that finish line, I can’t wait to bust through it. Happens with every book. My husband will be pleased to know I’m not crazy, going from “I suck” at the beginning to “Hey, this isn’t bad” in the middle to “I love this book” once I cruise past the 3/4 mark. I’m just an adrenaline junkie. 😀

        • I’m not a runner but I know there’s an endorphin thing called “runner’s high”. I’m starting to think there’s a “writer’s high” as well.

  5. Thanks, Jim, for a great post and the information on culture shock and brain physiology. I like your suggestions for staying motivated.

    Here are a few things that have helped me:
    * Sunlight exposure – getting outside
    * Aerobic exercise during the time when I would be least productive
    * Manual, brainless work where I can brainstorm while working and feel good about a task completed
    * More caffeine and chocolate. Less alcohol (or none)
    * Setting deadlines and goals that are achievable, so I can feel good about success

    • I like all of those things, Steve. I’ve been getting regular sun for my vitamin D, and regular walking and strength training for the noggin. Caffeine, of course. And every now and then, before dinner, a Gilstrap (Beefeater gin, vermouth, shaken or stirred)…always remembering what James Thurber said: “One martini is all right. Two are too many. And three are not enough.”

  6. Timely, JSB.

    My mental fog starts at about 11-11:30am. I start work at about 5:30-6:00am, and my goal is to stop at 2:00p, with a couple of breaks for breakfast and an orchard walk with the man and the dog. I hate it when I start feeling Fatigue creeping in before 2:00p. I feel like I’m shirking or something.

    My motivation at this point in time is to get the dang MS made into a book and on the shelves. I’m almost there…finishing touches are close to being done. But I do have other “writing” jobs, also: helping a PhD candidate-friend edit her dissertation, and writing small monthly pieces for another website.

    And then, on to my 2nd WIP…

    Stay the course…can’t last forever, right? (As my husband says, forever isn’t as long as it used to be.) 🙂

    • You and I have the same zombie zone, Deb. I’m worthless between 2 and 4 as far as creativity goes. I schedule some biz then, maybe a little marketing. And a nice power nap.

      • Just this morning, after reading your post, I decided that 15-20 minutes on the treadmill during the zombie zone, with my Kindle propped up in front of me, might just do the trick most days. I’m going to give it a try this week…

  7. Jim,

    Thanks for demystifying this aspect of brain function. Makes sense that “slow thinking” takes much more energy than “autopilot.” No wonder I put off grocery shopping and feel wrung out when I get home.

    Recently, I lost my Costco card and I generally don’t lose things, even keys.

    Maybe I dropped it in the store while I was juggling the checkbook, receipt, wallet (remember to wipe off checkbook and wallet later), and answering the clerk’s question (No boxes, thank you–big decision)

    Or maybe I dropped it while I was unlocking the car. Remember–don’t take the mask off until I use sanitizer, squirt sanitizer on my hands and rub it on the key fob, take off the mask, hang it on a hook for next time, put groceries in the car, remember to use more sanitizer after touching groceries, return the cart to the corral, remember use more sanitizer after touching cart handle and car door handle, wipe off the steering wheel and gearshift in case I accidentally touched them with unsanitized hands, answer incoming call, remember to wipe off phone, etc., etc.

    It’s wonder I have enough energy left to drive home.

    • Yeah, Debbie…and you’re not alone. There’s a story about G. K. Chesterton, who was one of the most productive writers and thinkers of his time, getting off a train and wondering why. He had to wire his wife: “Am here. Where ought I to be?”

    • Debbie…I’m fatigued just reading your comment! We do the same things. Seeing the whole dang thing out there in words…no wonder going to the store is such a chore. But I refuse to order my food online. That would take me to a whole new level of glucose-depleting brain work… 🙂

  8. Happy Sunday, Jim

    My energy to write has definitely waxed and waned. I wrote the fifth and final book in my Empowered series in the first five months of this year, releasing it in late May. In June I then tried revising the 25K I’d written on another urban fantasy last year. No dice–the story was flat. I outlined a new version, began drafting it in July, and it was a struggle from the start. I can normally draft about 10K a week, I was lucky to get 4K a week, often it was 3K. By late August I was just under 20K.

    Meanwhile, I’d been journaling on my library mystery and had reached the point where it was time to fish or cut bait. I had a huddle via video with my writer’s group (a brainstorm/support group) and came away deciding to put down the urban fantasy and go all in with the mystery.

    I’ve been having a blast. It’s set in 1990 and the plan is to show the arc of library change over the years since in a number of books, along with murder and mayhem.

    Switching genres has reinvigorated me. There’s still quarantine brain to deal with–Yoga and Zumba at home with my wife (with video instructors), rekindling my love of star gazing, and reading and watching mysteries all recharge me.

    • So glad to hear you’re having a blast, Dale. When we can find that place, we need to play around in there for all it’s worth!

      I miss libraries. L.A. had a great system and some nice branches to hang out (and stay cool) in.

    • If you need info on the front lines of ebooks and libraries during that period, I’m your source. My entrance to the subject was simple enough. The local newspaper ran a feature on my first book which was published by a small publisher who specialized in this new world of ebooks.

      The city’s head librarian contacted me and asked me to do a 3-hour seminar on ebooks and what they will mean for libraries for an organization of head librarians for the state. As someone with lots of degrees and a love of learning new things, I stupidly said yes and began my research.

      Many, many research hours later, I gave the seminar to a bunch of people who feared ebooks and hated my guts because I represented the end of their beloved libraries. My seminar ended with a standing round of applause because I had shown them a future where ebooks and libraries were happy partners.

      All this led to articles, etc., and a chapter in a seminal book on ebook publishing before the subject was taken over librarians themselves.

  9. Thanks for the insight into our brains’ reactions to these strange new times, and for the suggestions on how to react.

    Covid-19 has actually provided me with some benefits:
    1. I don’t watch or listen to the news anymore. If I want to know what’s going on in the world, I’ll take a brief look at an online site and get on with my work. More peace of mind.
    2. I don’t go to the grocery store anymore. We have the stuff delivered. Time saved for writing!
    3. My husband and I usually travel several times during the year for reasons we love: athletic competitions, writers conferences, visiting family. But I find I’m enjoying this season of enforced stay-at-home rest.
    4. I’m running more local races this year than usual because the races are “virtual.” You can run them when and where you want and report your time. It’s a great benefit *not* to have to get up at the crack of dawn and drive somewhere in bad weather just for the privilege of putting your body through 3.1 miles of pain. Now I can suffer at the time and place of my choosing. 😊 Seriously, though, aerobic exercise is a great boost to energy and outlook. Those endorphins are good weapons against the ennui of covid.

  10. Thanks for this blog, Jim. I’m a news junkie, and it’s hard to tear myself away from the news. When my writing bogs down, I water the houseplants, clean the cat box, or put away a load of laundry — anything to get away from my desk. I’ve joined a socially-distanced aerobics class three times a week, and it’s been a real mood changer. It gets me out of the house and I talk to people, even if we’re wearing masks. Also I have a deadline — a real deadline — for my next Angela Richman mystery. I work better when I have a deadline.

  11. Thanks for an excellent post. I guess this is what’s been happening to me. In addition to the pandemic, my life has been upended. My house was supposed to have been finished last November. After months of put-offs, unkept promises and poor performance, I fired the builder and am looking for a new one. Many companies are busy with pandemic remodeling, and some don’t want to “clean up” after someone else, but I’m persisting and hope to have someone on board soon. Meanwhile, I’m living in a garage apartment and coping as best I can. All this upset has cratered my writing. All I’ve managed to complete is a monthly author interview for a magazine, but I haven’t made any progress with my fiction. I’m well aware many people are in worse shape than I am, but thanks for the space to whine. Somehow, I have to get back on track.

    • Wow, Millie, things piled on top of other things. It sounds like you’re persisting and hanging in there. Sometimes that’s all you can do. Write 250 words sometime soon and celebrate that!

  12. That was a fascinating post, Mr. Bell. Culture shock – I never would’ve thought of that. It makes sense.
    .
    When I was 15 years old, I took off to live and study in Japan for a year (Rotary Club exchange). Countries don’t get much more foreign than Japan to an American. It was my first time overseas. I remember it very well – I’d been there about three months when I crashed hard… I’m talking about a near nervous breakdown. And it was because every day, from morning to night, nothing made sense to me. Language was the biggest problem.
    .
    I’m nowhere near a similar breakdown now, but I do have a familiar feeling. My 1,000 words / day quota hasn’t been met since February. I can’t seem to motivate myself. I puff on the opium pipe of Youtube videos where people seem to prove all of my political beliefs. Somehow this still just seems to piss me off (I think this “opium” is there for people of any particular set of beliefs – it’s like a quicksand trap or something).
    .
    I have a birthday coming up in a few days and I’m making a resolution for my “new year”. I will get up at 5:15 in the morning every day (excepting Saturday and Sunday), walk and feed my pups, then dive into my writing until I need to get to work. I’ve done this before in the past with some success. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

  13. Those of us whose lives haven’t drastically changed seem to be doing better on the creative side of writing. Friends who have retired or already worked at home as writers seem far happier and more productive than those who didn’t. Adding in kids and a partner working at home has messed up that for some.

  14. I notice that if I pose a problem to myself and then go on to some other task apropos to my writing, an answer appears. The last time that occurred, i was having trouble with external conflict in my WIP (a two-timeline novel). While I was finishing the revision of a short story, I realized that a murder in the modern timeline would fill out the middle of the novel and afford room for character development and action.

    • Isn’t it great what the Boys in the Basement can do? Asimov used to do this. He’d work on a story and when it stalled he’d go to another typewriter and work on some nonfiction. Then he’d come back to the story with some new material.

  15. Thanks for the suggestions, Jim, particularly #1 concerning prioritizing morning writing. Eat the frog first. As the day progresses people get up, start their days, and begin interacting with yours. Things go right and things go wrong but things go, regardless, and life gets in the way. Get the day’s scribbles done before that happens. Great advice.

    Have a great Labor Day!

  16. Your brain science analogy is fascinating, Jim. I think you nailed the energy suck caused by change – to wit: Covid19. Hadn’t thought or heard of this before. The effect seems realistic to me, and I think it’s more than a writing procrastination excuse – I really do. I think it’s a true block.

    I also agree with peak-productivity / time-of-day varying between people. I’m a morning creative, and I subscribe to the Gilstrap method of liquifying the day’s end to relax and just shut it off. I’ve tried Hemming’s “write drunk, edit sober” and it doesn’t work. 🙂

    • Ha, Garry, not even Hemingway tried it, as this is one of the things he never said that’s constantly attributed to him! He also never said, “Sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” That was actually Red Smith, but the line is so good a writer gave it to Hemingway in a TV movie.

      In any event, the only guy who could do that long term seems to be Fred Faust (aka Max Brand). For all other writers I do not recommend it.

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