Writer Fuel: How to Get in the Writing Mood

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Sometimes we lose our writing mojo and, try as we might, we struggle with building momentum around our writing. No matter what we do, we can’t seem to get in a writing mood. This state of creative paralysis can happen for any number of reasons, including:

  1. You hit a point of burnout and your creativity fizzles
  2. Your non-writing life is full-to-the-brim and your writing gets squeezed out
  3. You are multi-passionate and have a hard time focusing on one project
  4. A looming deadline has got you stuck and shaking in your boots
  5. Something with your health (or mental health) is impeding your writing
  6. You’re just not “in the mood”

In the last Writer Fuel, I talked about creative burnout, which is the first item on the above list. While the techniques I’m about to share may not help with all the creative struggles mentioned above, they can help with creative burnout, when we’ve lost that “writing feeling” and we’re just not in the mood to put pen to page. These are all techniques that I’ve used at various points in my writing career, and while no one technique is a cure-all, using a few of them in concert can help get you out of a writing rut and get you back in the writing mood.

1) Create Writing Rituals

Perhaps one of the best ways to get yourself in that writing mood is to create a ritual around it. I know writers who light a scented candle before they begin a writing session. Others might have a special hat or accessory they wear when they’re writing. Some folks might even listen to a special writing playlist. 

Right now, my own writing ritual is that I like to brew a pot of tea and bring it to my desk so I can sip while I write. I’m especially loving the Literary Tea Collection from Simpson and Vail, with my favorite varieties being Jane Austen (obviously), William Shakespeare (of course!), and Edgar Allan Poe (why not?). These teas make me feel like I’m channeling my inner Austen, Shakespeare, or Poe and give me that extra kick of inspiration.

The point of writing rituals is that they need to be simple and quick to complete. If your ritual is too complex or takes too long, then that will only get in the way of your writing. Instead, you want it to be something fairly easy that you can build into your writing routine and do without thinking too hard.

It’s even better when these rituals tap into one or more of the five senses. This is because sensory cues create a visceral, almost automated response in us. They tell us: “Pay attention, writer! It’s time to get to work.” For me, the tea ritual fulfills all five senses. Taste, smell, and touch are obvious, but the teapot also serves as a visual cue and when my cup clinks against the saucer, it gives me a little auditory reminder that it’s time to work.

2) Use Classical Conditioning

The reason writing rituals work so well is because they can sometimes act as a form of classical conditioning. Let me explain. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? Pavlov, an experimental neurologist and physiologist, discovered that when he rang a bell and simultaneously fed his dogs, eventually the dogs would begin to salivate at the sound of the bell alone.

We can create a similar effect in ourselves as writers. If we pair a certain sensory cue with our writing practice, eventually just the presence of that cue will snap our brains into “writing mode.” The key to classical conditioning is pairing the sensory cue with the desired behavior enough times that the link between the two becomes automatic.

Also, you want to avoid using that same sensory cue for other behaviors aside from writing. For example, if you wear a special writing hat, you want to avoid wearing that same hat in other contexts. This creates a stronger association between writing and the hat.

Not all of your writing rituals will serve as a form of classical conditioning. My tea ritual, for example, doesn’t pass muster because I can’t just reserve tea-drinking for writing time alone. I must have my tea at all hours of the day! I can’t help myself. For this reason, my tea drinking is a ritual but it doesn’t create classical conditioning.

Instead, for classical conditioning I have used a writing playlist. When I was writing the DIY MFA book, I had a special playlist that I listened to every time I sat down to write. Seriously. Every. Single. Time. That playlist started with the song “Everything Is Awesome” from the Lego Movie and after a few weeks of listening to that music, as soon as that song would start to play, my brain would snap into writing mode and I’d find the words starting to flow.

3) Think Beyond Routine

When I’ve spent long periods of time writing, routine has been my best friend. When I wrote the DIY MFA book, I had a toddler and a baby at home, so I needed a routine to help me stay organized and motivated. I got into the rhythm of walking my son, Little Man, to preschool, then going to a coffee shop around the corner from his school. Then I would write, write, write until the time came to go pick him up. (I’ll admit, there were times when I got on such a roll with my writing that I had to sprint to get to pick-up on time!) That routine saw me through six or seven months of solid writing and it helped me get that book done.

That said, sometimes routine can get you into a rut. In those moments, the best thing you can do is break out of that routine altogether. So if you usually write at home, try writing in a coffee shop or library. If you listen to music when you write, try working in silence. Even something as simple as turning your writing chair so it faces a different direction can help rev up your creativity and give you a new perspective.

Keep in mind that rituals and routines are not mutually exclusive. You can still incorporate writing rituals while breaking out of routine. For example, one writer I know does a three-minute meditation before she starts writing. That meditation practice is 100% portable, so she can take it with her whether she’s writing at home, at the library, or somewhere else altogether. As you come up with your writing rituals, try to come up with something that you can take with you across different writing contexts or environments. This way, you can tap into the benefits of having a writing ritual while also being able to shake up your regular routine.

4) Clock in the Time

Sometimes the best tool in our arsenal is a good, old-fashioned clock. There are days when my writing mojo is completely gone, but I know I need to get some writing done. When that happens, I sit myself down at my desk and set a timer for 10 minutes. I don’t necessarily have to write during that time, but also I’m not allowed to do anything else. I can sit at my desk and stare into space, or I can start writing. Usually, I start writing out of sheer boredom.

Another way to use a clock to boost our writing is with the Pomodoro Technique. With this technique, you do one—and only one—task for 25 minutes, then take a five minute break. The key to making this technique work is training yourself not to do anything else during those 25 minutes. (I won’t even let myself get up to go to the bathroom! It’s just 25 minutes after all.) During the five minute break you can do whatever you want. Then when the timer rings, you go back into another 25-minute sprint.

A clock or timer can be a powerful tool, and these are just a couple of ways to use it with your writing. You can go old-school with a kitchen timer, or you can use the timer on your phone or mobile device. And if you want to try Pomodoro, there are some great mobile apps out there as well. My personal favorite is an app called “Focus Time.” Not only is it great for writing, but it’s also super-helpful in helping my kids practice their instruments.

5) Engage in Stealth Writing

My favorite thing to do to rev up my writing is to do it when I’m supposed to be doing something else. I call this “stealth writing” because I’m sneaking it in when I’m really meant to be working on something entirely different.

I first developed this habit in college, when I had to juggle a lot of different writing assignments for my various courses. I realized that if I worked on the assignment that was due next, I always found myself getting stuck. But if I worked on another project due later on, suddenly the words started flowing. The original assignment that was due sooner always seemed to get done somehow (it’s amazing how motivating last-minute panic can be!) but the benefit of this productive procrastination is that I would make headway on a later assignment, so when the time came to work on that, I already had some momentum.

As I write this newsletter, I’m actually supposed to be working on something else. I have a series of documents that need review and I have back-to-back meetings filling up my day. But, I’ve decided to sneak in some writing before reviewing those documents and also squeeze it in the downtime between meetings. Between all this stealth writing in fits and spurts, I’ve already eked out about 1,600 words. Not bad for a day when I thought I wouldn’t get any writing done.

Make Your Own “Best Practice”

One of our catch-phrases at DIY MFA is “There’s no such thing as a ‘best practice,’ just what works best for you.” Writing advice is not one-size-fits all. What works for one writer might not work for another. You have to try out the advice and determine whether it works for you.

This is true for all advice, including the techniques I’ve shared here today. Some of these tools will work for you, some might not, and that’s okay. What matters is that you find the right advice and put it into action. You can understand the techniques, but that knowledge is academic if you don’t apply it. Tools are meant to be used. They are meaningless if they stay stored up in the toolbox. So, choose the advice that’s useful to you, and implement it.

Most of the techniques I’ve shared here today focus on external factors, like when/where/how you write. But, it’s also important to consider internal conditions—your mindset, your emotional state, or other factors that are unique to you. Sure, external factors can give you the tools to unlock your writing potential, but the way you will make lasting change to your process is by internalizing these techniques and making them part of your regular repertoire.

Remember: there is no such thing as the “right mood” to write. You create that mood. So get going and create something awesome!

Until next time, keep writing and keep being awesome!

P.S. For more info on Gabriela Pereira, the founder and instigator of DIY MFA, check out her profile page.

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