Six Steps to Generate Enthusiasm to Overcome Writer's Block
This is a guest post by Jessica Bayliss.
“I haven’t had writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly.” ― Jennifer Egan
Hello, Wonderful Writers. Welcome back to Post 2 of It’s a Writer Thing: Writer’s Block Series! [Here is part one]. This is a long one, so grab your drink of choice, a snack, maybe a blanket, and cozy up.
Last time, I defined the dreaded WB as the inability to make progress on a WIP (which anyone can experience if they’re struggling to make progress in an area of work or life). I shared my viewpoint that WB comes from one or more of any number of basic challenges in MOTIVATION, CONFIDENCE, and/or CLARITY.
Last time, we talked about how recalling the WHYS, our own personal reasons for writing, counteracts the negative emotions that arise when we’re stuck. When we’re stuck, we feel terrible, right? Sadness, anxious, frustrated, irritable. This definitely doesn’t help us move forward on big goals like writing a book. Recalling our WHYS of writing addresses barriers in the categories of MOTIVATION and clearly (no pun intended), CLARITY.
Did you go and write out your list of reasons for writing? If not, be sure to do that soon. If you did, yay! Why not go back and see if there are any new reasons you can add to the list? (Hint, for many of us, the list is always evolving.)
Not only does WB cause negative emotions, but our emotions and thoughts feed one another. Where there are mucky emotions, there too will be mucky thoughts. Therefore, today’s post will focus on HOW TO GENERATE the kind of EMOTIONS that are HELPFUL for writers. The way I see it, writers need the ability to kindle three important emotions: enthusiasm, joy, and determination.
Today, I’ll tackle ENTHUSIASM.
HOW TO GENERATE ENTHUSIASM
GIVEN 1: Thoughts and emotions are inherently linked.
I talked about this in last month’s post, and this notion is literally the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy. Changing our thoughts changes our emotions.
Here’s an example. Years ago, I had a contract for a book with a teeny-tiny press. I wrote the novel (a full 80K book), and I got through multiple rounds of editing, and then—bam!—they closed. Goodbye book.
Of course, it was an immense disappointment, and I could have chosen to focus on thoughts that fueled that emotion: negative thoughts about my abilities, about my luck, about my measly chances for success in the future. Not only would I have experienced disappointment, I would have invited in a whole cocktail of negative, unhelpful emotions: anger, frustration, discouragement, sadness, depression.
Instead, I chose to reframe the experience. Sure, I was still very disappointed, but I focused on thoughts related to what I got out of the experience: essentially, free mentorship from a professional editor, who I very much respect. I learned various editing techniques, practiced writing a book to spec on a deadline, practiced the skill of negotiating revisions I was going to make, and practiced revising on a deadline. Later, when my agent had significant revisions for me on a book, I knew I could do the work because I’d already practiced all the skills needed.
By focusing on what I gained instead of what I lost, I generated a cocktail of positive emotions: satisfaction, hope (because I was assuming I’d use these valuable skills again), and one of the most important emotions ever, GRATITUDE.
One thing to keep in mind: our thoughts don’t have to be either-or. It’s entirely normal to entertain BOTH the negative ones AND the positive ones. Even if we do that, we will still generate more positive emotions than if we dwell only on the negative thoughts. Right? And, if we practice reframing, we can get better and better at focusing MORE on the positive thoughts, maybe a split—80% focus on positive thoughts and 20% focus on the unhelpful ones.
GIVEN 2: Writers must generate positive emotions toward their work.
Yeah, yeah, the prototypical tortured artist is still romanticized, but I hate that archetype. I don’t think we need to suffer for art. In fact, I believe we should experience the opposite of suffering in anything we claim to be passionate about. This doesn’t mean that writing will never suck. It will. Hard work will always be … well … hard. Marathon writing sessions will be draining, exhausting, and we may hate the world at times; but if this is our passion, our purpose, then underlying all the struggle should be intrinsic joy, fulfillment, satisfaction, and love for what we do.
We may lose our connection to those positive emotions, though, for various reasons. Writing a book is hard, it takes time, and requires a willingness to be quite vulnerable. Often we must delay gratification and face rejection—over and over and over. So, yes, these things cause negative emotions, but all the more reason to learn how to establish a foundation of positive emotions to fuel you in your writing and to get you through The Suck.
WHAT IS ENTHUSIASM?
I’ll start by talking about motivation. I love Miller and Rollnick’s (2012) conceptualization of motivation. They break motivation down into two core facets: Importance (remember last month when we talked about the WHY of WRITING?) and Confidence. Motivation requires both high importance and at least some element of confidence.
For our purposes, I’ll define ENTHUSIASM as: The emotional translation of IMPORTANCE.
YOUR ACTION STEPS
STEP 1: Define your actual task.
This is a little bit of its own mind-trickery. Thinking of the enormity of writing a book or launching a career as a writer is often overwhelming. So, first, we need to just define the one discrete task we need to accomplish right now. It could be: to get two chapters drafted; revise two chapters; send three queries; respond to a week’s email; open that critique (vs. read the whole thing and come up with a plan for revisions); write one blog post.
Keep this small, just one chunk of the larger whole.
STEP 2: Remember your WHYS OF WRITING.
This may seem simple, but this is literally the foundation our writing careers rest upon. You can also get more specific here. WHY do you need to do the specific task you defined? For example, I find my newsletter software to be a struggle to work with, which creates procrastination, but I value the promise I made to my followers to get out a NL as close to monthly as possible, partly because I also promised I’d pick a monthly winner. That’s my WHY for writing my newsletter; I want to honor my promise to give away a chapter critique or a free book to the people kind enough to be with me on this journey.
Your reason might vary greatly from task to task.
STEP 3: Chase some RAINBOWS.
What are the good things you hope will come from your writing and/or the task you defined? These things may or may not be on your list of WHY. Perhaps you dream of seeing your book on a bookstore shelf or sitting in front of an audience of readers. Maybe you envision a lucrative career. Maybe you just want to share the joy of a fabulous story with the world or want to tell a story that has never been shared before. We can spend hours talking about this. The key here is that your list will include some rainbows that other writers are chasing along with you, but some will be very personal to you.
STEP 4: What STORMS are you dodging?
We can be motivated by the good things (rainbows) we’re after, but also by the negative things that we are trying to avoid (storms). Maybe you don’t want to disappoint your agent, editor, or readers by missing your deadline. Maybe you set a goal for yourself, and you want to keep your promise to yourself. Maybe you know that Pitch Wars is right around the corner, and if you don’t get your pages ready, you won’t be able to enter. Again, this list will consist of things common across writers, but also include some storms that are highly personal to you.
STEP 5: What are your book’s MAGIC COOKIES?
I’ve borrowed this idea from Susan Dennard, author of the WITCHLANDS series, and if you’re not already following her or on her mailing list, you should. She shares a TON of writing wisdom, which you can access RIGHT HERE.
I love her concept of Magic Cookies. She defines this as the parts of your book that you can’t wait to write. Those delicious scenes, moments, or emotions you just dying to get on the page or the emotional experience you want to give your reader. It might be a character you are in love with. It might be the kissing scenes (hehehe). Maybe it’s the setting. (I recently based an entire book on my longings for a Jersey Shore beach vacation. One of my magic cookies was the boardwalk.) Each book should have a list of them, so get brainstorming. Then, make sure you put at least one or two cookies into EVERY SCENE. Don’t wait for the fun parts to come; purposely insert your cookies everywhere. For my Jersey Shore book, in addition to the setting, my cookies included: twists, intense action moments, portraying a toxic interpersonal relationship, more twists.
STEP 6: Envision Success.
One of my biggest writing slumps happened about a year ago, and I realized as I was coming out of it that one of my big problems was I’d stopped being able to envision future success in my career. I’d been wallowing in The Suck for too long, and it created that negative emotion cocktail I mentioned earlier. Needless to say, I turned that around as soon as I got wise to myself.
When I say ENVISION success, I mean just that. We must create a mental representation of reaching our goals. You can make this as detailed as you like. For some, this step involves literally mental imagery (e.g., imaging typing THE END on your WIP or signing your name to that representation agreement). For others, it might involve journaling or even speaking aloud to oneself about the success you’re going to achieve. The important thing is that we do it. Inability to see ourselves actually reaching our goal can be a big subconscious barrier to achieving it. Have you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Does this sound silly to you? It can feel silly, sitting there, picturing your first book-signing or practicing verbally pitching a book you haven’t even written yet, but there is a TON of research on how imagery and mental rehearsal work on the brain and how these, along with self-talk, can have a positive impact on performance. That said, you need to figure out the best way to envision success for YOU. Once you’ve figured that out, set aside time every day—even just five minutes—to engage in your personal exercise.
You may find you want to try all six steps today, but it’s not necessary to do them all every time. One or more of the steps above may work better for you than others, OR they may work better under certain circumstances. (I find that remembering the STORMS I’m DODGING helps me generate enthusiasm for specific tasks, while recalling my RAINBOWS and ENVISIONING SUCCESS are better at helping me cope with disappointments, like rejection.) Once again, the key is developing YOUR PRACTICE for fueling ENTHUSIASM.
Want a glimpse into how this might look in action for a specific author feeling stuck writing a specific book? Check out the SUPPLEMENTAL POST to this one right here on my blog for an example from my very own writing journey.
That’s it for this month. I hope these action steps allow you to generate legit momentum-building ENTHUSIASM for whatever you’re working on at the moment. And remember, these steps are applicable to any goal you might be working on, not only writing. Next time, we’ll talk about the next emotion, JOY.
Until then, remember: You can do it! You can write!
Check out Jessica’s other posts:
“Let’s Talk about Feedback”
“Seemingly Inconsequential Events”
“How Christopher Pike Saved Me From Drowning (Seriously)”
“Let’s Talk Some More About Feedback”
“Why Breaking into Publishing is Like Pac Man”
“Goals Vs. Outcomes”
“What Project Runway Taught Me about Being a Writer”
“The Many Faces of Critique Partners”
“My Process for Responding to Feedback”
“Harness The Power of Stimulus Control in your Writing”
“Turbo-Charge The Power of the Environment”
“It’s All About Control”
“Do Not Fear Rejection”
“Preparing for Pitch Wars”
“On Productivity and Finishing What You Started”
“On Plotters and Pantsers”
“Is THIS Why You Are Struggling to Finish that Book?”
“Why I Write”
“How I Write”
“Six Myths of Revision”
"Writer's Block: Part One"
"Writer's Block: Part Two"
Jessica Bayliss is an author of commercial fiction who loves nothing better than getting lost in a good story, whether in print or on film. When not busy with her latest fiction project, she can be found loving her friends and family—especially her husband, Eric—playing with one pesky Havanese, or trying to appease an ornery cockatiel, typically with a cup of coffee near at hand.