Beginning in March, my life became a long string of upheaval, including a global pandemic, a personal spiritual crisis, and a family death. I couldn’t write—nor did I want to, which deeply troubled me.
Writers don’t live in a vacuum. We create within the context of the everyday, and happenings in our own homes, as well as the world outside, can affect our rhythm. Sometimes normalcy transforms into a beast that knocks us flat on our backs. When a loved one dies, we face job loss, or a friend hurts us, the creative flow trickles to a stop. Motivation, consistency, and energy evaporate.
Maybe you’re in similar straits and wondering whether you can ever write again—or if you should even try. How do you recover when unexpected events hit you so hard that you’re left with jagged pieces of the present and future?
I asked myself (and my Story Embers teammates) these questions and came up with five approaches writers can take depending on their specific situations. These suggestions won’t fix the brokenness around us, but hopefully they’ll ease the struggle to be productive during it.
Approach #1: Draw Inspiration from the Pain
For some people, grief pushes them to work harder. When chaos surrounds us, creative activity can offer us a sense of peace and control. It enables us to process our complicated emotions on paper. Though writing under stressful conditions can be difficult, it often produces more compelling results.
In Tosca Lee’s keynote at the Authentic Characters Summit Story Embers hosted in April, she said that giving characters real hopes, fears, dreams, failures, victories, and sorrows requires writers to be brave. This is because we’re forced to not only examine but express our own suffering in writing.
Many of King David’s most powerful poems came from moments of anguish. Saul chased him relentlessly, Doeg the Edomite betrayed him, and he fell into murder and adultery. In each psalm, he confronts his trials and mistakes and cries out to God.
Every moment shapes your perspective—especially the low ones. When you write in sadness or anger, you inject those raw feelings into your piece. The age-old advice to “write what you know” is how you achieve authenticity. You can mine your own experiences for depth you didn’t have before. Odds are, you’ve made your protagonist run the gauntlet, and your own troubles will add another layer of understanding and connection to hers.
Approach #2: Create New Content
While a few people can plow through hardship, many can’t. Motivating ourselves is a challenge during the best of times, and it becomes near impossible during the worst of times. One member of the Story Embers team jots down songs and poetry or explores different story ideas to pull herself out of slumps. When tragedy slams into our creative momentum, the excitement of a new project can propel us forward again.
For a solid month, I couldn’t make myself work on my novel. I lacked interest and mental space. So I revived a short story from my college years and began editing it. The change of genre (from fantasy novel to contemporary short story) and action (from writing to editing) enabled me to fill pages with words again.
Switching gears mid-draft isn’t ideal for finishing a story, but it can rejuvenate your creativity. Set aside your current project to experiment with a thrilling new premise. The heart behind your story is you. Do whatever is necessary to keep it beating.
Approach #3: Lower Your Expectations
Creativity consumes energy, specifically mental energy. Long periods of brainstorming or outlining or writing leave us exhausted, and rightly so. When turmoil disrupts our lives, we spend most of our mental energy attempting to cope and manage simple daily tasks. How do we continue creating when our tank is empty?
In 12 Rules for Life, psychologist Jordan Peterson encourages readers to define success as small increments of progress in pursuit of a larger dream. He stresses the importance of allowing ourselves to feel accomplished when we reach a milestone, however minor or major it might be.
If you’re unable to write with the same speed or volume you once did, assign yourself a goal that you’re unlikely to fail, then gradually broaden it. Maybe you can’t meet your usual four pages per day. But how about one? If that’s still too much, reduce your quota to half a page or a paragraph. Decide what you can do, even if it’s a single sentence. Just tick it off your list and be proud of it. Tomorrow, write two sentences. And the day after that, write three.
Approach #4: Take a Break
This seems like an obvious tip, but it’s one that writers tend to overlook or balk at. Are you scared to step away from writing because you might never return to it? If so, determine how long of a hiatus is reasonable, ask someone to hold you accountable to your deadline, and relax. Would you feel guilty if you don’t maintain your writing regimen? You have a book to finish, and life must go on, right? Yes, but you aren’t limitless.
Everything you do each day involves mental or physical exertion. When one of the demands on your energy increases, the others decrease by default. If you jog for six miles in the summer heat, you’re depleting a huge amount of energy. Tragedy turns your life into an emotional marathon. Heartache won’t last forever, and you’ll grow through it. Pause to catch your breath. Your story can wait.
Approach #5: Consider Quitting
Strange advice for a writing website, isn’t it? (Or not, since another team member has addressed the topic at length.) But seriously dwell on the possibility of quitting for a moment.
If your gut reaction is horror, let me ask this: Why not? What’s nailing down your commitment?
When I was fourteen, I’d been a competitive swimmer since age six and excelled at it. But my heart wasn’t in it (and never had been). Though I didn’t regret participating in the sport, moving on was the right decision.
“Quit” isn’t a dirty word. Not everyone who enjoys writing is called to make it a career. It can be a hobby. And that’s okay. You don’t need to doubt yourself or wallow in guilt. Dropping a burden you’re not meant to carry will bring immense relief.
After graduating college, I dabbled in writing and talked about getting published someday, but I wasn’t actively pursuing it as a calling. Three years ago, I contemplated quitting. I knew it would free up an enormous pocket of time for something else. When I discussed the matter with my husband and God, however, I formed the conviction that writing is my vocation.
If you do consider quitting, be cautious. Seek counsel from God and people you trust. Thoroughly mull over the benefits and consequences. Abandoning a God-given calling will bring incredible regret. I can’t tell you why you should keep writing—only you and God can do that. We all must have the courage to wrestle with this excruciating question and prayerfully find the answer.
After a massive upheaval, a blank page becomes doubly intimidating. We fear our writing won’t be the same. That’s true. Our lives have changed, and so have we. We worry that we’ve lost our creative spark and will never finish our novels because of laziness. That’s a lie. God uses every circumstance to teach us about Himself and about life. Jesus never promised us easy. He promised us Himself.
Receive His promise, lift your pen, and persevere.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.