Life Rolls: When the World Tries to Kill Your Writing

My writing group is always coming up with new ways to egg each other on: contests and challenges, awards and speakers to inspire us.

One of our strategies is to pass around a sheet every week where we write down what stories we’ve submitted to markets. Knowing how many stories we have in the mail, seeing the group statistics of submissions vs. sales, bemoaning rejections, it keeps us accountable and makes us want to write more, and submit more.

That is, except for Anne.

Anne joined our group for just a little while. During her short stay, every week she’d scrawl on our submission sheet in all caps:

Which wasn’t the question, really, but okay. Needless to say that got old after a few months. Eventually she quit, never having submitted a story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had writer’s block. It sucks. Sometimes it seems like every time I get into a solid writing groove, something comes out of left field and knocks my feet out from under me.

Here come the Life Rolls

Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith have an analogy for our writing careers they call The Game. They literally set up a board and have writers move along their career, try to get by, writing stuff, getting it out to markets, maybe even someday *gasp* making a living from writing. The Game chugs along and you roll dice to emulate good and bad stuff that happens. Life Rolls.

Unexpected, unplanned bad stuff that happens. Stuff like getting a divorce or your grandma  dying. It derails you, demands your attention,  possibly leaves you too wrecked to even think about writing.

Wonderful, delightful things can kill your writing dead too: getting your dream job, selling a story, winning an award. When I got into Clarion, it was a dream come true. The six weeks I spent there was one of the most powerful times of my life.

Then it ended and I didn’t write for a year.

Life Rolls are pretty much anything that drag focus away from your writing and career.

Learning to surf

Life’s going to throw stuff at you. I guarantee it.

Life is kind of like the ocean, it’s huge and can seriously knock you for a loop. You can try to stand tough against it, but it’s going to hit you hard. When dealing with life, we need to be flexible. We can make all the solid plans we like, but something is going to go wrong sometime, count on it. If we’re going to keep writing through our Life Rolls, we have to learn how to surf.


Life surfing takes a little planning. Sure, there’s no way you’ll be ready for when someone plows into your car or your lover pops the question, but you can make your writing strategy realistic and modular. You can break your plans into small pieces that can be moved around inconveniences and put on hold when things get crappy (or awesome). Set reasonable goals and break them down into little steps. (More about that in a minute.)

But you know what? You don’t swing with cancer. Okay, I know one guy who just pushed through it and kept writing, but most of us need to give ourselves time to mourn and reflect and just plain feel sorry for ourselves. Another writing friend who had cancer kept trying to make herself finish her damn novel until she was even more sick and miserable. It wasn’t until she let herself stop that she really started to heal.

Sometimes the very best thing we can do is let it go. I have a friend who needed to say, “I’m just not a writer anymore.” He cried, moved on to other things, and eventually felt better … and then he picked up writing again, stronger than ever.

It might help to give yourself vacations, sick days, whatever allows you to recharge and get back to it. You could set a date to check back in with your writing self. Set up a small, reasonable project to start with. In the meantime, do things that make you happy, things that feed your soul and give your life meaning.

Personally, I have A.D.D, and it keeps me sane. When I look on my current artistic plate, I see that I have a novel in the works, two others on the back-burner, and about thirty short stories I need to finish. When I just can’t look at the novel, I pull  out some short fiction. When writing feels too hard I record music, or  bind books or draw. Something. Anything.

That way, when I’m procrastinating, I’m still doing something. I’m doing things that feel good and get my artistic juices flowing.

But sometimes nothing helps.

Asking for support

You’re not in this alone.

Pretending you are isn’t doing yourself any favors. I’m blessed with friends and family and peers and if I don’t reach out to them, I’m just hurting myself. Even if I didn’t have people around me, there are thousands of people out there who understand what it’s like to feel stuck and blocked. Look for local writing groups. Go online, find forums and blogs. Find support.

Writer’s block

Anne was right: it sucks, it really does, but it can be dealt with.

My friend Ray pushes himself to the one page rule. He has to write 250 words every day. One page, every day. My sister does this in her own writing, but she lets herself write anything she wants, even just to rant about how much she hates writing in that moment. Sometimes that clears the way for fiction writing. My friend Damon’s rule is one sentence. Even on the worst day, he can still write one sentence. And on a lot of days he just keeps writing.

Some people write in the company of other writers. Some folks get energized by challenging other writers to see who can write the most.

Try different things. Some things will work for you, others won’t. Some things will work sometimes and not others or work for awhile and then stop. If you keep a toolbox full of tools to help you write, there’s a better chance that something will work.

A series of very small goals

So what do you do when you’re immobilized by fear or sadness or overwhelm?

My friend Bruce’s idea is atomizing: Break every task down into a series of tiny digestible pieces. Goals so small that they can’t possibly overwhelm you.

For example, you are never at one single moment writing a novel.

You’re writing a bunch of scenes. Wait, no, you’re writing one scene at a time.

But you’re not, you’re writing paragraphs that make up scenes. Or  actually sentences that make paragraphs.

Actually, all you’re ever doing at any one moment is writing words that make sentences, and, you know, any of us can do that, right?

Maybe your goals should always be very small. Oh, sure, they should fit together to make something glorious and huge, but maybe the focus should always be something like, “for the next twenty-five minutes I’m going to write a number of words.”

Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird:

Often when you sit down to write…it’s like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. … panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job … I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I … remember that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.

I suggested working in twenty-five minute increments intentionally. There’s a whole system called the Pomodoro Method that creates structure to break any goal down into twenty-five minute chunks. It’s off and on done wonders for me.

Try this with your writing. You could also spend small chunks of time planning the larger structure for those words. (Or if you’re not into planning ahead, maybe use small chunks of time to smooth those words into something larger, or a little of each.)

I wish I had thought to say all this to Anne, because obviously writing was making her miserable. Hopefully she’s found her own set of tools to deal with what life throws at her writing.

Maybe a system like this will work for you, maybe another will. The point is, when life tries to kill your writing, go ahead and feel crappy, go ahead and mourn. But if you plan ahead a little, if you let yourself be flexible and cut yourself some slack, you can get through life rolls and writer’s block.

And don’t forget, we’ve all been there (and probably will be again). You’re not in this alone.

4 thoughts on “Life Rolls: When the World Tries to Kill Your Writing”

  1. When choosing your quote, whether a sentence or a page, it’s wise to choose an amount that will normally get you warmed up.

  2. Hi Mary, do you mean “quota”? If so, I totally agree; having a huge quota is just daunting, but a tiny quota is often enough to give you some momentum!

  3. Ah the post-Clarion slump. I didn’t have it nearly as bad as some, but after the most intense six weeks of your life — and I’ve written an Applied Physics doctoral dissertation — it takes time to process everything and get through the shell shock.

    Why wasn’t my Clarion slump worse? Probably because I chose to send out one of my Clarion stories during Clarion — and that keeps the momentum going. (grin)

    Dr. Phil

  4. Thanks for this. I’m in the middle of an international move, haven’t written for ages, and feel like I may never write again. It’s hard to emotionally understand that there’s a lot going on and that’s okay.

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