Making a return to writing after a long time away can feel overwhelming or even bewildering. Depending on the reasons for your break, you may be confronting a wide array of emotions—everything from anticipation and excitement to trepidation and confusion. If you find yourself worried or uncertain about how to proceed, the first step is simply to acknowledge those feelings.
As you may know, I recently returned to fiction writing after a lengthy break. My break was precipitated by the stress of difficult life circumstances, combined with writer’s block from a complicated story. The first few years of my break were filled with lots of fighting with myself about the fact that I should be writing; the last few years were spent in what I called a “conscious sabbatical.” Needless to say, rediscovering the desire to write was a long and arduous journey, full of unforgettable vistas and plenty of plot twists.
By the time I knew I wanted to write again and knew I what I wanted to write, I had lived through four years and two moves. I wasn’t the same person as when I last set down the pen. So much difficulty and pain had surrounded my writing during those years that even though I now wanted to write and was ready to write, I knew I would have to carefully reintroduce myself to the process. I would have to be willing to not just remember how I used to do things, but also to discover and invent brand-new approaches.
5 Ways to Set Yourself Up for Success When You Return to Writing After a Long Break
I share this post today not just because it is pertinent to where I am in my own writing journey, but because I received a request from Annette Taylor on the same subject:
My question is, how to start writing again after time away? I took care of my mom and was too exhausted to write. Now I work and still have no time but an hour or two on Saturday. Where do I start? I forgot half the knowledge I learned when I first started. I am writing but something is missing. Should I give up?
For starters, I will say that only an individual can determine what is right for his or her circumstances. But if you decide the time isn’t right (or may never be right) to return to your writing, this isn’t giving up. Rather, I would say you are choosing to embrace change. You are choosing to be present with who you are now and to nurture that person—until it is time for the next change.
However, the resistance and confusion you feel could also just be the result of returning to a place you have not visited in a very long time. Couple that with the weight of all the reasons you needed to take a break, as well as the pressure of regathering all your ideas, skills, knowledge, and discipline—and… it’s a lot. When you’re first dipping your toe back in the water, it’s important to take it easy and to make sure you’re avoiding any piranhas.
1. Start Slow and Easy
As I geared up to return to a regular writing practice, I knew I needed to be both gentle and strategic with myself. I needed to make plans and create systems that would set me up for success. When we think about “writing,” most of our focus often goes to the finer points of theory and technique—to getting the story “right.” But the process of writing deserves just as much of our attention. If we haven’t set up a process that encourages our own individual creative flow, we can sabotage ourselves before we even get to technique. For me, I knew I needed to at least temporarily dial back my own natural intensity by starting slow and easy.
Partly, this meant choosing a story that felt “easy” to write—one I was excited about but also one that was not too complex or outside my comfort zone. One of the final turning points out of my writer’s block was my decision to write an idea I had for a fantasy story that was more in the style of a “fairy tale.” Really, this was just personal semantics, but it helped me zero in on a less complex version of the story’s plot, geography, and magic system. This was particularly important for me, since I’d burned myself out on all of these things in the story I’d been working on previously.
More than that, I didn’t want to throw myself into a difficult writing schedule right off the bat. An anecdote: years ago, I used to skip rope for ten minutes every morning. When I first started, I felt like there was no way I could keep going for that long. So I didn’t even try. Instead, I started the first day by skipping for just one minute, which was totally within my power. Every day, I added just one minute. By Day 10, I was skipping for ten minutes with little to no mental resistance. Ever since then whenever I’m feeling resistance to the time or effort involved in a new undertaking, I always try to apply some variation of this approach.
In the old days, I disciplined myself to write two hours a day, five days a week. When I was first getting back into my writing, that just felt like too much. I decided I would write for an hour, since I knew from experience I generally need at least that long to really get into my writing and feel I’ve made progress. But an hour isn’t so long that I feel resistance or the urge to procrastinate whenever I sit down. From there, I knew I could build up to lengthier spans of time with much less resistance.
Your Takeaway: Each person’s “easy” amount of time to start off with will vary. For some, an hour may seem way too challenging or even unavailable. If so, start with half an hour or ten minutes. Start with one minute! If you add a minute every day, as I did with my rope skipping, you can up your time relatively quickly with little resistance.
2. Choose the Right Time of Day
For me, timing is everything. And the right time may change depending on what else is going on in my life. For many years, the right time for me to write was from 4–6 in the afternoon. Then I switched to the mornings. Then I switched to the evenings. Then I switched back. If I can find the sweet spot in the flow of my day, I feel so much less resistance and am much likelier to actually sit down and start writing on time without procrastinating.
This time around, I decided the best time for me to write would be late mornings. Another reason I decided to start with one hour instead of two is that this was much easier to fit back into my daily schedule. For two years, I hadn’t even tried to write, which meant it was not a part of my daily routine. And as a very routine-oriented person, part of the resistance I felt to getting back into my writing was just the fact that I would have to change up my day.
So I hacked it. I waited a few weeks until Daylight Saving Time ended here in the U.S. in early November. Instead of sleeping in for an extra hour as I usually would, I kept my sleep schedule the same and got up an hour earlier on the clock. This gave me an extra hour in the morning in which to write. (I “lost” the hour in the evening by going to bed an hour earlier on the clock.) Not only did this allow me to blissfully skip the messed-up sleep schedule everyone else struggled through, I also got to keep my morning routine exactly the same up until the point where I found myself with a whole hour for writing before lunch.
Your Takeaway: Think about your own daily schedule and your energy flow. Everyone’s scheduling challenges will be different, but try to identify what available slot will be best (and easiest) for a return to your writing habit. Select a chunk of time in which you won’t feel too pressured to do something else. Returning is hard enough on its own; you don’t want to give yourself any extra reasons to avoid it.
3. Create Ritual
As I say, I have always relied on routines. But in the last four years, I also began to learn the value of ritual. In many ways routine and ritual are the same, but ritual puts more emphasis on being present and savoring the moment. Routine is something you have to do; ritual is something you get to do. A habitual ritual is also a good way to train your brain to click over into writing mode. Just like you have to be in the perfect sleeping position before your brain shuts off at night, you can also accustomize yourself to slipping back into your writing zone by creating cues.
While routines can include important tasks such as reading over what you wrote the day before and maybe doing a little editing, rituals are more elective. My top priority was finding ways to stay grounded and focused, so I created a little ritual to help me stay present in my body by activating my senses. I start with a little grounding exercise, in which I imagine sending all my energy into my core and then down through my feet. Then I light a candle, turn on some ambient music I downloaded to my phone, and indulge in the scent of essential oils.
Your Takeaway: Your ritual should be personalized to you. The trick is choosing cues that are simple enough to remember and implement without having to think too much about them. Keep any tools handy at your desk, so they are immediately within reach at writing time and you won’t be distracted running around the house to find them.
4. Learn From Past Mistakes
You may have stopped writing for any number of reasons. Some of those reasons can be good—like getting married, having a baby, or taking an exciting new job that requires all your energy for a while. But often, the reasons are less-than-great. Maybe something difficult happened, such a prolonged illness or the death of a loved one. Or maybe you just got discouraged or burned out on your writing. Whatever the case, you may want to spend some thought on how you can implement any lessons learned during your break.
My time away from writing showed me three specific things I wanted to do differently this time around:
1. The first was simply avoiding some of the self-inflicted complexities that had caused my plot block with the previous book.
2. The second was being aware of the potential for burnout and not over-pressuring myself to perform. Rather, I wanted to approach this new story purely for my own enjoyment and to take it at my own pace.
3. The third, and perhaps most important, was that I wanted to stay grounded and not let myself be distracted by the Internet (more on that in the next section).
Your Takeaway: Before you return to writing, consider why you quit in the first place. Are there things you wish you had done differently back then? The answer may be “no”—in which case, carry on as before! But you may identify a few habits that weren’t serving you. This time, start as you mean to go on.
5. Prioritize Self-Discipline to Create New Habits
Octavia Butler said:
Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.
I will be the first to acknowledge that quotes like these can be misleading. At first glance, they sound as if they are discounting the ebb and flow of creativity and the sometimes delicate needs of inspiration. Having driven my chariot with the twin steeds of Discipline and Willpower for many years (until it crashed), I spent the four years of my writing break re-learning how to bring gratitude and gentleness to my interactions with my creativity.
However, the fact remains: discipline is necessary to sustain any long-term writing practice. The trick, as I have learned it, is to use that discipline to work with our own rhythms and intuitions, rather than against them. There’s a huge difference between, say, forcing yourself to write two books a year to keep up with market demand, versus disciplining yourself to sit down and write for an hour rather than twiddling away the time on celebrity gossip.
If there was one habit I knew I wanted to implement into my new writing practice, it was simply not allowing myself to be distracted. This will be an ongoing challenge, but during my initial return to writing, I carefully chose how and where I would write to help myself fulfill this goal. Because I like to write my outlines longhand in a notebook, I decided to take my writing practice to an entirely different room from the one in which my business computer sits. I do have my phone at my elbow, playing music I download from YouTube, but I leave it on airplane mode. I make sure all of my writing papers and pens are in a handy drawer so I never have to hunt anything down.
Every time I find myself thinking those old dreaded thoughts, Oh, I’ll just hop on real quick and make sure my blog posted or I’ll just zoom around Pinterest for some inspiration or I’ll just run a speedy little fact check… I don’t. Instead, I remind myself how horrible it was when my brain was constantly distracted just by the possibility that I might divert my attention from my writing for five seconds here and ten seconds there.
Now, writing time is writing time.
Your Takeaway: Whatever your challenges were the last time around, consider how you can now transform them into new and better habits. Doing so will not necessarily be easy. But for right now you have something rare in your possession: a clean slate. How can you take best advantage of that to remove the things that tripped you up or created resistance the last time around? You might decide to crack down on distractions, or you might decide your biggest stumbling blocks were gaps in your writing knowledge, or you might realize you were subtly sabotaging previous stories by letting yourself out of writing the really tough scenes. Whatever the case, now’s the time to implement new habits of self-discipline and to use your past struggles an incentive to stick with them.
Ultimately, I believe the biggest secret to making a successful return to writing is timing. Returning before you’re truly ready can exacerbate all the reasons you took a break in the first place. But once you’re sure you’re ready to get back in the game, take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned and how you can leverage those lessons to create a writing practice that is even more solid and enjoyable than it was before.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever made a return to writing after a lengthy break? What was your biggest challenge in returning? Tell us in the comments!
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