• Brooke Warner
  • How to Turn Your ‘Off’ Writing Days Into ‘On’ Days
This blog was featured on 08/29/2016
How to Turn Your ‘Off’ Writing Days Into ‘On’ Days

When it comes to the discipline of writing, there’s a lot of talk about showing up. Butt in chair. Schedule the time. Keep your dates with yourself. All of this is good advice, and the most successful and prolific authors have the disposition or the drive or the self-governance required to stay the course on the long and arduous journey of writing a book, or multiple books.

What we less often talk about, or hear about, is the degree to which our energy impacts our writing sessions, or how much power we have to sway our own energy to be better and more prolific writers. As a runner, I liken the experience of writing a book to my running practice. And you might compare it to any practice you have that requires persistence and time and commitment. What I know to be true of running is that there are days when I’m on and days when I’m off—and my best days have rarely been predicted by the quality of my energy prior to my workout. What I mean by this is that I’ve often gone to a workout feeling completely exhausted or depleted, feeling like I didn’t have it in me to do the run, and then surprised myself by how much I was able to rally, how much reserves were there for me to access.

The takeaway here for writing is that we can’t and shouldn’t try to predict, based on how we feel, how good a given writing session is going to be. It also behooves us to remember that we need to set up conditions that will foster our success. I encourage my writing clients—just as my running coach encourages me—to warm up. It’s not a great idea to go out and run even a few miles without a warm-up of some kind. And the same is true of writing.

Consider a vigorous writing session you’re about to embark on, even if it’s the anticipation of four or five hours set aside to dive in. You might ask yourself before you start, Where do I land today? If you keep a writing journal, answer the question and let yourself free-write for a while to see what’s there. If the energy you’re bringing to the session is positive, make a couple notes and then go for it. Then, if things turn negative during the writing, create space for yourself to take a break, to get up and go for a short walk, or to turn your attention to another writing exercise—like your free-writing—for the specific purpose of clearing energy. Do not turn to email or social media.

We have way more control over our personal disposition than most of us think we do. I’m sure you know well the experience of going from feeling elated to pissed off in two seconds flat—generally prompted by something or someone, like other drivers. But the opposite typically feels less accessible. To go from feeling contracted and angry to engaged and open requires a willingness to let go, to clear what made you contracted and angry in the first place, or what’s keeping you there. Toddlers are very good at doing this because they’re not invested enough in their anger to hold onto it, so they fluidly move to happiness when enticed by something more interesting than the thing that sent them into a tantrum.

We still have access to that fluidity. And being able to move on from negative emotions, or to let them go, or to park them someplace—like in your journal—is a skill to practice. Our energy (and therefore our mood) is not something that happens to us, or that’s put upon us. We have agency to create change within ourselves, even to shift our mood on a dime—just like a toddler. It may feel weird, like we’re supposed to hold on and wallow in our self-imposed hardship, but we don’t have to.

Allow yourself to engage with your energy, and don’t deny the truth of your experience when you sit down to write. If you feel mad, see if you can name it; if you feel happy, acknowledge that. Naming what’s there is the first step toward being able to clear what needs to go and being able to harness what’s there to support you, to see you through this project and the next one and the next one after that. Good luck!


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  • Thanks for this post Brooke. Anne Lamott, who gave us "butt in chair," also said she has a tiny frame on her desk. Her agreement with herself is that she will only write enough to fit in that frame. She hopes that once she gets started, her writing will flow. Most of the time this works and if not, she says, she makes lunch. 

  • Cathy Krizik

    Brooke, thanks for this topic. Call me Pollyanna but I have come to see the "off" days as not only inevitable but also a harbinger of good things to come. Don't get me wrong, the bad days are torturous. I want to throw my computer in the garbage disposal. On the "off" days I can spend four hours on a single paragraph that, on the end, is total bullshit. Not well-written or even true. Not really. On those day I feel old and like my life is slipping away and I wonder why I am waisting my life in front of a computer. Plus, no one cares about me and my crazy mother. I mean, I barely care, right?

    Then, the next morning comes, I sit down with my computer and everything I was trying to say the previous day is right there. The ideas and the words. On the page. All the previous slogging, the obfuscating, the dodging, the crap was necessary. It had to be stirred to get at the truth.

    So, I now know, on those "off" day I keep at it. I slog through the mud, knowing my labor will be rewarded. Finding the truth is often not very pretty so why would writing about the truth be any different?  Or--to switch metaphors from running to hiking--you have to climb the mountain to enjoy the view.

    My last few days of writing have been "off". It doesn't feel very good but the expansive view will come. It always does. In the meantime, I've ignored your advice to avoid social media and taken a short respite here in this blog.It feels good to know I am not alone in this ridiculous thing called writing.

  • Kandace Chapple

    I love the idea of comparing writing to running. I feel like I need to sit down ready to write something amazing. Of course, it's always a lot of floundering to start!! Kind of like my running LOL!!!

  • Laurie Prim

    Someday I will write a book about all the ways running teaches, affirms, and sustains me, including, of course, writing! :) 

  • Thank you both for your comments. Martine, thanks for this remembrance. I love this and it's affirming. We do have some control in these matters! :)

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Brooke, This is brilliant, thank you. And Martine, your story, too, spot on. So important to stay in the moment, and to remember than emotions come and go like passing clouds. I know from yoga practice that I can go to the mat feeling exhausted, like I don't want/can't do this - but then once I'm in it, the energy arises, and then afterwards I feel so much better. Same is true for writing. Thanks for the reminder to practice letting go, clearing energy. And NOT letting email and social media fill the void.

  • Martine Fournier

    Thanks so much, love this post! It's so helpful and beautifully written. The advice to channel that inner toddler is priceless. I have a great memory of a day when I was able to do this, not in writing but at least with my life. I was in Houston at the time, picking up my son from preschool with my young daughter in tow, and was helping them into the car and strapping them in. I remember feeling tired, possibly like I was coming down with a cold. It was a late fall day, so in Houston not too hot, and a gentle rain was dripping down around us. I felt deflated, blue, contemplating the mounds of laundry awaiting me at home. Then by some miracle I reminded myself to stay in the moment. I was not actually folding laundry, only anticipating it. I forced myself to focus on where I actually was, the intense green of the wet leaves, the scent of magnolias in the yards. I was instantly uplifted, and ever since try to remind myself how powerful this tool is. I've never applied it to writing before, but of course it now seems so obvious.