Speculations: Recapture Joy in Your Writing

by Melanie Marttila
published in Community

Greetings, Speculators! Last time, I made my public autism disclosure. That article was written in the middle of August and since that time, I’ve been struggling creatively. Autistic burnout has made my go-to place of joy largely inaccessible. It’s ironic that the very thing that’s pulled me out of depression and anxiety in the past can’t budge the burnout. I’ve had to, as Gabriela says, honor my reality. Take stock. Figure out the best way to recapture joy.

As I’ve been slowly finding my way back to writing joy, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned in the hope that it will help someone else. Goodness knows this pandemic life hasn’t been easy.

Here are my top tips (so far) to recapture joy in your writing:

1. Give yourself a break

I’ve learned from bitter experience that pushing through isn’t always the answer. I kept working through 2020 thinking nothing was wrong (I’m an extreme introvert—I love staying at home), but, looking back, the quality of my work was lacking. And, if I’m being honest, my heart wasn’t in it. It felt like work.

If you’re feeling something similar, step away if you can. Give yourself a vacation. And maybe a social media and news vacation while you’re at it. How long depends on how you feel. When your project starts whispering in your ear and filling your dreams again, it’s a good sign that you’re ready to get back at it.

If you have an external deadline that you’re working toward, you may not have much choice but to power through, but I’d suggest asking if you can have an extension. If you’re upfront and give plenty of warning, most editors and publishers will understand, especially now. Just don’t make a habit of it.

And if your external deadline is for a contest or an open call, ask yourself what you’ll regret more: rushing to submit work that may not be your best or waiting for the next opportunity. There are always new anthologies, submission windows, and contests opening up. Sometimes you have to choose your battles.

2. Tidy/simplify/organize your writing space

If you firmly believe that a messy desk is the sign of a brilliant mind, you may want to skip this one. I’m an organized chaos kind of gal, so I get it. But I find that once in a while, I need to clean, especially now that my writing space is doing double duty as a work-from-home space.

I have a Rubbermaid tub in the basement that houses stuff that I don’t need anymore but want to hang on to. I’ve filed away past years’ important documents and shredded the rest. If I haven’t looked at it or referenced it in a year, and there’s not a creative or personal business need to keep it … it goes. 

It’s amazing how much all those pieces of paper can weigh and how light you’ll feel when you get rid of them.

Have too many devices, cords, etc.? See what you can move/remove without negatively impacting your process. Loose pens? Put them in a small jar or cup. Notes everywhere? Get a corkboard or a magnet board.

You don’t have to go for the full Marie Kondo treatment, but clearing out some of the clutter will make your writing space more pleasant to work in, which can help you recapture joy in your creative process.

3. Small changes can make a big difference

While you’re tidying up, consider the tools of your trade. Is there something you can change that would make a big difference? Is there a piece of technology that’s hindering your creative work?

I’ll give you a couple of examples, so you can have a better idea of what I’m talking about.

Example one:

When I got my last computer, I invested in a wireless keyboard and mouse. I didn’t want the clutter of extra cables. Unfortunately, over time both became glitchy. I was also concerned about the environmental impact of using so many batteries.

I went back to corded peripherals. They’re much more dependable. I didn’t realize how much stress I was experiencing from using the wireless ones until I stopped.

Example two:

Years ago, I purchased a standing desk. It’s adjustable, so I can sit or stand, but at the time, sitting was an issue. I would get so focused on a task or project that I would lean forward, hunch over my keyboard, and tense up. I was so sore after sitting for 30 minutes or an hour that standing at my desk was the solution.

Now, I’ve been writing while standing for eight years. I’m not sure if it’s still benefiting me the way it used to, so I’ve decided to try sitting again for a while. I’ve adjusted the chair, so the seat pan and chair back are both tilted to encourage me to lean back and relax. It’s only been a week, but it’s working out well. I’m not sore, and I’ve already seen better productivity.

4. Every word’s a victory

If your practice has been shaken by the pandemic or your productivity is not where it used to be, take heart. This too shall pass.

Taking a break can feel like defeat, but when you start writing again, adopt the beginner’s mindset. Every word you write, every sentence, every paragraph, is a victory. It’s a word, sentence, or paragraph you didn’t have before.

Build on that foundation as you start to recapture joy. Set small, reasonable goals. Stay flexible. Stay positive.

5. So, celebrate!

Writing is hella hard. Take some time to recognize the work you’ve done each day. It may seem silly to celebrate a sentence or two, but soon, you’ll be celebrating paragraphs, pages, and even chapters.

When you first start writing again, your initial gains may be small. Reward yourself accordingly. A piece of your favorite candy for a couple of sentences or a paragraph. Fifteen minutes of YouTube for a page. Thirty minutes of gaming for a chapter. A nice dinner (or take out) with a loved one for a short story edited and submitted.

You get the idea. You’ll want to decide what an appropriate reward is for each accomplishment based on your own preferences and life circumstances. Recognizing your writing accomplishments will go a long way to maintaining your motivation moving forward.

6. Be kind (to yourself) and stay strong

And now, we enter the self-care portion of the column. Self-care has been getting some flack lately, but what I’m talking about here isn’t about a spa day (though that’s nice—maybe use it as a reward?). It’s about making sure you stay healthy. That’s the best kind of self-care.

  • Sleep: Make sure you get a full night of it, that’s seven or eight hours for most people. Develop a sleep hygiene routine (I’ll let you Google that).
  • Physical activity: Fit (see what I did there?) some in every day. I walk my dog twice a day. After work, to separate work time from creative time, I do a little weightless workout or some yoga. A simple, ten-minute routine. You don’t have to sweat. Just get moving.
  • Feed your body and mind: I’m not recommending any kind of restrictive diet here. Just eat well-balanced meals, and work in as much “brain food” as you can. Leafy greens, oily fish, avocado, nuts, etc. “Brain food” is another thing you can Google.
  • Foster self-awareness: This is all about listening to your body and what it needs. Uncomfortable? Get up and stretch. Hungry? Have a healthy snack. Sleepy? Take a ten-minute “power nap.”
  • Breathe: This is the simplest way to make yourself feel good. Counted breathing, progressive relaxation, all the way up to meditation. All you need is five minutes to relax and refresh.

Take care of your body and your body will take care of you.

7. Bonus: Prepare for tough decisions

If you find you’re still struggling to recapture joy and get back into the writing groove even after you’re healthy, well-rested, motivated, and have organized your schedule for prime writing time, there may be something else interfering that you haven’t considered.

The last 20 months of pandemic have affected the mental health of a lot of people in negative ways. If you suspect that you may need some support, see a doctor and talk about options. If your employer has an employee assistance program, reach out. Call a helpline. See if there is a support group in your area (or elsewhere—you can attend by Zoom).

Take a hard look at your commitments. Are you doing too much? Is there anything that you can cut back on? For example, if you volunteer 15 hours a week, consider volunteering fewer hours and make up the difference with a donation or in-kind contribution. Could a family member take on some of your responsibilities and free up some of your time? An older child with a driver’s license could ferry younger siblings to lessons or games.

Sometimes it’s a matter of priority. We’ve gotten into the habit of doing different things with our time because of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns. Do you really need to binge-watch a whole season of that show? Do you have to make that perfect loaf of sourdough bread from scratch? If you genuinely enjoy these activities, use them as a reward (see number 5).

My tough decision is saying goodbye to my DIY MFA family. Though I love writing these columns, I think it’s time to focus on my mental and physical health. Finding out that I’m autistic was a blessing, but it changes everything.

The pandemic has been a game-changer for a lot of reasons. While the pieces of our pre-pandemic “normal” lives are slowly drifting back into place, we have to recognize how much the world, and how much we, have changed. There’s no going back. Now is the perfect time to take control of your life and process and transform them into something that will serve you well into the future.

And try to have some fun in the process, will you? This column is supposed to be about joy!

Remember to keep speculating and see where it leads you!

Tell us in the comments: What have you done to recapture joy in your creative life?

Melanie is an instructional designer by day, SF&F author-in-progress, and ink alchemist by night. She is the third generation of Marttilas to live in her little house on the street that bears her family name. She blogs at https://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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