Too tired to write – self-care for writers

Physically, writing doesn’t require much energy. You need to push a pen or pencil across the page, or tap your way around the keyboard. That’s not a lot of effort. In a pinch, you could probably do it lying down with your eyes half closed (though the resulting prose might be somewhat lacking in brilliance).

No, the difficult part of writing is the part that happens on the inside – coming up with ideas, sorting out how to convey them, winnowing out the just-right words and arranging them in patterns that are both meaningful and beautiful. Writers may not need to be super-humanly strong on the outside, but they definitely need a certain intellectual fortitude and stamina.

At the moment, I’m feeling a bit drained of both fortitude and stamina. My commercial copywriting business (and the marketing strategy that accompanies it) has been going gangbusters all year. I am not complaining (at all), but I am worried there might be a brick wall looming in my headlights soon.  For months, my days have been whirlwinds of client calls, planning, research, copywriting, editing … and that doesn’t even include all the blogging. I sat down today to write this post and spent nearly a full half hour staring at the screen, waiting for a topic to pop into my head. Nothing. Crickets.

Pretty ironic given that I just wrapped up a four-part series on writer’s block.

But, this isn’t a case of writer’s block. I’m not feeling fear or pressed for time (any more than usual) or unsure of how to write a blog post. I am just tired – plain, old tired. The eyes are open, but the mind is not firing all cylinders. I’ve been running and running and running and now I’m running out of steam.

Something’s gotta give …

… and it’ll probably be me.

There is more to being a writer than finding your muse, learning your craft, and building your platform. Writing is a creative practice, and – like any creative endeavor – writing requires life energy … juice … mojo. If you run yourself so ragged that you can barely manage to crawl up to bed at night, you’re way past the point of being able to feed your creative fires. You’re in survival mode – dealing strictly in self-preservation, not inspiration.

So, when you find yourself too tired to write – stop. I know it’s hard. Life slows down for no one. There are still bills to be paid and deadlines to be met and children to be fed, bathed, and put to bed. If you’re like me, you’re pretty damn sure that you don’t have time to indulge in self-care for your inner writer. You just have to get things done – forget the woo-woo ways of writing coaches and creative gurus and just power through it. Keep moving. Right?

Wrong.

If you choose to blow past the warning signs you will certainly pay the price. You may not pay it today or tomorrow. You may not even be fully aware that you’ve paid it, but your work will suffer, your creative process will stall, and you will start to lose sight of the joy of writing.

Giving your inner writer a little TLC doesn’t have to be a big deal. You don’t need to go on a two-week retreat. You don’t need to dedicate fifty percent of your time to writing the novel you’ve been talking about for years. You don’t even have to do your morning pages or take yourself on artist’s dates (though I highly recommend both). All you need to do is give yourself a little time to breathe, daydream, play, and rest. Replenish your creative well by making room for fun. Goof off without guilt. Let your mind wander off the rails and see where it takes you. Schedule down time – just a little. Take five deep, intentional breaths. Go to bed early.

A writer’s tools are many and varied – software and hardware, favorite pens, special notebooks, style guides, frameworks, and a good thesaurus. When it comes right down to it, however, the most important tool a writer has is a well-rested mind that is ready to explore, examine, and express. So, when you’re feeling too tired to write, go ahead and indulge in some self-care. You can thank me later.

How do you know when you’re about to hit the wall? How do you bring yourself back from the brink? Do you have a favorite ritual or routine that helps you replenish your creative well? 

Image Credit: Danielle Elder (with color edits)

85 thoughts on “Too tired to write – self-care for writers

  1. I wrote an article on Street Articles similar to this, the hitting the wall scenario worries me all the time, the “what ifs” and “whys” that go with the worries, can be sometimes the cause of hitting it. Loved the article and the dogs face cute.

    • Hitting the wall is never something I look forward to, and yet I seem to set myself up for it over and over.
      Glad you liked the dog – I thought he captured how I felt just perfectly! 🙂

  2. on the road often, caring for an ill parent, raising two boys and working full time, this was exactly what I needed to read. many thanks for your insight and suggestions. i’m going for a nice long walk now.

    • I’m sorry for all the burdens currently bearing down on you, but so glad if my post inspired you to take a moment out for yourself. Take care. Truly.

  3. When I am about to hit the wall, I first of all pray and give my worries on His hands, then i give myself what I call a lazy day……..where I only do what I feel like doing and not what I have to do. It usually works so well, I even take half day for it.
    If the situation is too bad….I go on a trip. No big trip, taking a plane to go see my family and old frieds works best fo me. I usually buy cheap tickets and even enjoy the wait in every airpot in case I hava to stop in more than one place.

    • I love the idea of a “lazy day.” It’s sometimes the most difficult thing we can do, but stepping out of the chaos and giving ourselves some time and space to breathe can make all the difference. Wonderful.

  4. I have too much on my plate lately, and I’m trying to build more of a writing career. Sadly, for me it seems the writing is the first thing that takes a back seat when I’m exhausted. The way I realize it is I start to work on a writing project, and instead of the words flying from my fingers, my brain starts doing a hamster-wheel and I’m thinking about everything but.

    The way I “take a break” from the mental exhaustion is I go into my kitchen and start creating. If I don’t have fun ingredients in the house, I take a little trip to the local grocery store and pick out a few things I think I would enjoy working with. Although I’ve incorporated my love for cooking into a blog, I don’t focus on that while I’m in the kitchen working off my stress. I take my photos through the steps, but I leave the writing portion out of the equation.

    To many, that would seem like more work, and more exhaustion but cooking is a passion for me, and I find I unwind while I’m creating, and then sharing a great meal with my son.

    Thank you for writing this…I hope you’re able to give your mind a bit of a vacation and refresh yourself. I think all of us creative types tend to feed our passions, and our responsibilities and forget to take care of ourselves in the process!
    Tami

    • “The way I “take a break” from the mental exhaustion is I go into my kitchen and start creating.”
      I love that. I have a post forming in the back of my mind about the joy of making something. My beau and I built a treehouse for my daughter a couple of weeks ago. It was a project unlike any others I’d tackled lately, and it felt wonderful. There is something about that creative process that sparks our hearts and souls. Though others might look at it and think it work, we creative types know that “work” is actually a form of energy that keeps our engines running. While it’s sometimes nice to sack out in front of a movie (preferably something I’ve seen a dozen times before) and just “zone out.” I inevitably find myself more energized and rested when I have given myself to some purposeless creative endeavor – something I’m doing “just because.”

      Thanks for sharing your experience and tips – love them!

  5. I have activities that I practice to avoid burnout, walking, meditation, horseback riding, but the one thing that my writing can not live without is reading. When I start to feel what you described, I know I have not allowed enough time for my first passion, reading. My favorite is to give myself an entire day just to read, I try to do this once a month. Thanks for the post it was very timely, I will be reading, The Left Hand of Darkeness(a fav of mine) in it’s entirety on Wednesday. I have a deadline Tues and am feeling a little burnout. 🙂 paz Abby

    • Hello, Abby! I LOVE that idea. I’ve been CRAVING long hours of reading for pleasure, but it’s difficult to fit into my schedule. Happily, my daughter’s love of reading has begun to blossom in earnest and so now she and I are able to read together, side-by-side. It’s such a gift. I am never more thrilled than when she announces a desire to go to our local library – a beautiful, old building only four minutes walk away from our house – to read. Perfect! Mama’s all over that! 😉

      Enjoy your reading day on Wednesday and good luck with your deadline!

  6. This is a greaqt article. It expresses what so many of us probably feel! For me, it isn’t only about resting my body, but somehow resting my mind. One of the things I do is crochet. The repetition of it is one of the few things that will take my mind off of everything esle. Once I do that for a while then I feed my spirit in a different way. As you express, it’s difficult to be creative when the body is tired! Thanks!

    http://clpgutierrez.wordpress.com/

    • Hello, Cathy!
      I agree that non-writing activities can be an excellent way to give our minds a much-needed rest. I have never learned to crochet or knit, but for a while I did a fiber art called needle felting. It uses carded wool (not yet spun into yarn) as a sculpting material. I used to make small, animal sculptures. It was – like crochet – a fairly repetitive process. It was perfect for letting my mind wander quietly and slowly while I shaped the wool.

      Thanks for the reminder!

  7. Balance is key to each aspect of writing. Inspiration comes most easily when the mind rests and processes ideas slowly after a walk or a day off. It is least frustrated when balanced with work and the Day-to-Day. And it is its most productive after the pen is set aside in resignation. Cherish replenishment.

    • Balance is an important part of the process. I agree.
      I am happiest when I can work at a saner pace – one which provides for time in which to read, write for pleasure, and spend time doing nothing at all.
      Too often, we find ourselves swinging too far one way or the other – to never-ending productivity or stuck-in-the-mud paralysis. But when we can find that perfect rhythm that moves us forward in our work while allowing time to replenish and enjoy … that’s the really good stuff!
      🙂

  8. I so needed to read this today! My copywriting (aka “the bill payer”) has been (thankfully) so busy lately – plus I tend to a house of crazy boy creatures on a daily basis. I’ve had very little time lately to nurture my creative side (or shower before 7pm, but that’s beside the point). Frankly, it’s been bumming me out a bit. I’ve totally been ignoring the looming wall – but I’m going to take your advice and regroup a bit. Thank you!

    • I feel your grind!
      Hang in there and DO take a little time for yourself. In my experience, it doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Just the act of carving out a half hour for yourself can feel like a coup.

      Hope you avoid hitting the wall.
      Here’s to being busy with the bill-paying stuff … AND to making room for the creative stuff, too!

  9. This was great timing! I just finished up a writing project over the weekend and am totally drained. I’m trying to build my writing career while working a full-time job and raising a two-year old. Some days I wonder if I’ll make it! At least, I’m pretty good at knowing when I need a break. I’ll take the night off from writing and watch TV or play with my daughter. This was a great reminder of a writer’s most valuable asset.

    • SO glad to hear you’ll be taking a night off. Most writers I know drive themselves pretty hard, but I have to say that moms who write seem to have a particular penchant for self-misuse when it comes to granting themselves downtime. I hope you thoroughly enjoy your respite. 🙂

  10. It’s not the writing part that burns me out as much as the business development, and the stressful process of keeping abreast of what is needed to earn a living by writing. For example: I’m trying to break into more lucrative paying markets now that I have quite a few syndicated articles under my belt (a modest but concrete beginning of a writer’s resume). Researching the markets, figuring out what their demographic audience is, the type of articles I should query editors about, the process of managing deadlines as they increase, etc. I’m finding all the prep work to “do it right” is time consuming and digs into my creative writing time.
    To combat being overwhelmed by having to learn blogging, social media, the demands of the craft and standards of the industry, and a million other things that go into the business of writing I do simple things: First, I tell myself to breathe, and give myself an internal pep talk. I read – blogs like this one, or inspirational books (Anne Lamott and Ann Patchett come to mind). Sometimes watch author interviews on Amazon or a Ted Talk – like the one given by Elif Shafak: (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/elif_shafak_the_politics_of_fiction.html).

    I know it isn’t really getting me away from the demands, nor will it do anything to advance my career, but somehow it always makes me feel better to listen to other writers talk about their process, challenges and achievements.

    • You bring up an excellent point, Laura. There is SO much more to writing than writing. There is the research, the hustling, the networking, the administration … all these things that take up that most precious commodity: time.

      Unfortunately, there isn’t a silver bullet answer to make all those things disappear. Each of us has to find her own system for dealing with all the ancillary demands of a writing career. One thing I try to do (though I don’t always succeed) is to be realistic about the fact that I will have to do these things and actually book time in my schedule for them: invoicing people, watching a webinar, reading blogs, etc.

      I also love learning about how other writers cope with and overcome challenges. Sometimes, I can apply their learnings to my own life, but evenif that doesn’t work, it’s still good to know I’m not alone.

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  12. I was feeling down and out and then I came across this! There have been times when I have been drained..physically mentally emotionally..all the lys 😛 and there have been times when despite all of that I have forced myself to write..And I must say, all of those things have come out really shitty…
    “Replenish your creative well by making room for fun. Goof off without guilt. Let your mind wander off the rails and see where it takes you. Schedule down time – just a little. Take five deep, intentional breaths. Go to bed early.”
    After reading this, i felt a little less guilty and I was hell, screw the world and its ways! It’s party time!! 😀

  13. My problem is keeping with the routine period right now. That being said, I know I’ve hit the wall when what I’m writing for the general public makes little to no sense from an outside perspective…but makes me giggle wildly! XD

    That’s when I know I need to put down the laptop, step away from the computer, and go for a walk.

  14. At the moment, I’m in the self-imposed position of purging what writing i haven’t done recently (much), so as to establish a career with something of more substance. One of the biggest challenges for me is the focus it takes to complete a project. An amateur obstacle, perhaps, but a significant one nevertheless. The something’s gotta give feeling pulls all the time.

    Thanks.

    • Focus takes practice. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Start with small goals and work your way up from there. It’s like training for a marathon!

  15. Thank you for giving me “permission” to do this — right now — at 3 in the afternoon. I have been going at breakneck speed but happy to have writing work! But after 10 feature articles in a row, yes, I’m very tired. And I didn’t realize it until I read your post just now.

  16. My life is a constant balancing act – and I guess most people could say the same of their life. I try to set specific time periods during the day for writing. I guard those blocks of time by considering them as appointments. I silence my phone, and retreat to my office above the garage. But I often find my creative juices flare after I crawl into bed at night, or while I’m driving, or while sitting in the dental chair. Really? I want to yell, “Time out!!” or place things into freeze frame and run to my computer. If only this were possible. Then, like many of my fellow writers, I can spend my sacred, blocked off writing time staring at the blank computer screen…heading banging the keyboard.
    I have found that spending some quiet, alone time on my front porch swing seems to provide a good brain massage and often gets my creative juices flowing. I’ll often do this prior to heading up to my office, or sometimes I’ll take a break from writing, swing for a bit, then get back to work.

    • Do you have a voice recorder, Tamara?
      Sounds like you get inspired at times when you are on-the-go and maybe not easily able to snag a pen and pencil. That happens to me, too. I’ve found that being able to speak a few lines into a voice recorder (I have an app on my iPhone) can help me capture those ideas and “write” even when I’m not writing.

  17. What a great article! I usually have to tell myself that it’s O.K. that I’m not checking mail every thirty minutes, and that if I skip a day on responses it’ll be OK. I’ve found when I pull away for a day, I come back with better ideas.

    • I have some mild OCD tendencies, so stepping out of my routine (read ALL the blogs, respond to ALL the comments, etc) is a challenge. However, I have found that the sky doesn’t fall if I miss a few days. 🙂

  18. I was going to reply to this earlier but my brain was tired and I couldn’t think of anything. 🙂

    I know when I’ve gotten too tired – words just seem to bounce off my brain or I’ll start typing the same sentence over and over again. If I am really tired I’ll start opening all my paragraphs with “so …” Then I know I am done.

    The notion of “breathing in” or renewing the soul is very important to my writing. When you give you need to replenish what you’ve given. I renew my writing soul by doing something physical – hiking in the woods, working in the shop or working in my yard.

    • Andrew,
      I often hit the wall at night when I try to keep working WAY past my productive hours. I read the same lines over and over, or write the same paragraph (badly) over and over. I’ve found that when I get to that place, it’s time to give up and turn in. Much better to start fresh in the morning. I can keep pushing forward, but – ultimately – nothing gets done, or – if it does – it’s done poorly and needs to be redone. SO … I just skip it and let my brain rest.

  19. Hi,
    That was a great article.It is so true and it can be applied to everything in life.When you are exhausted or just have brain drain,it affects all.Thank you for reminding me.I write part time and work full time at something else.Taking time to just breath makes a difference. Thank you again.Deborah

    • Breathing can make SUCH a difference. It’s such a small thing, but SO important and can have a huge impact on our sense of wellness, being grounded, feeling safe. Here’s to deep, calming breaths … I could use a few right now. 🙂

  20. Hey Jamie,
    I find that intellectual fortitude and stamina can be more tiring than actual physical labor. I have recently changed the way I go about my writing, actually giving myself a set schedule and keeping to it. I have also set time early in the morning when I am the only one up( not even my dog is up with he haha) to collect my thoughts and start getting them into a meaningful post. I have set time aside late in the evening when everything and everyone has settled down just for reading.
    I know what you mean about ignoring the warning signs and I almost did pay the price, I almost gave up, then I had my ah ha moment a while back and things have gotten so much better.
    Thank you so much for everything you have helped me with and your continued support 🙂

    • You always find a way, Jim.
      I used to be more of an early riser – trying to get back to that. Tough when I’ve been staying up so late, but I need to turn that around. My brain doesn’t work well at night!

  21. Strange how we all have lives to balance beside our writing and the time I find to write sometimes I find I can’t. I may well have an idea in the early hours of the morning whilst reclining in bed, thinking, when I know I should be sleeping, but trying to recall that wonderfully crafted piece when with cup of coffee in hand, I sit at the computer and I try to. Only to find there is a fleeting memory that there was a story but no longer the finished article for me to flow onto the screen. Thankyou for this post, it makes me realise that there are others out there who feel as I do
    Steve

    • You are never alone, Steve. I think we writers have so much in common … our desire to write is part of our DNA and I think it always comes with some other common personality traits. 😉

      Good luck finding that thread of thought while you sip your coffee!

    • Good luck with your 2-day push, Kate, and hope you DO get that TLC in there as well! 🙂

  22. Fantastic post. I found myself nodding and chuckling as I read this. I know I’m too busy and exhausted when my control freak kicks into high gear and I try to over-control every aspect of my life. My husband just loves that.
    Thanks for writing this!

    • I’m with you! I call that my “panic mode.” It clicks in when I start feeling so overwhelmed that I begin grasping at any little thing I can control and will spend hours on unnecessary busy work just to feel like I’ve accomplished something. It’d be much more productive if I just tackled the job at hand, but – somehow – when I get this run down, it’s too difficult to focus.

  23. Hi Jamie,
    Yes, I have a digital voice recorder – I just need to put it by my bed or in my purse! I do have sticky notes by my bed that I have jotted notes on in the middle of the night – not the same as writing when inspiration hits, but it can help spur my memory later on when I am able to write.

    • I’ve left myself some pretty funny late-night recorded memos. Things seem SO clear and brilliant at 3AM, but fall a bit flat when I listen again at 7AM. 😉

  24. Interestingly enough, I find that writer’s block doesn’t exist outside of fiction. I could be the only one, but if I’m writing an opinion piece I can usually put immense amounts of ‘nothingness’ down to laziness or distraction. Does anyone else find this? I consider blogging to be separate from opinion writing, just to be clear because it feels more organic.
    Right now, I feel as though my creative well needs replenishing. As for bringing myself back from the brink, I stop. Sometimes for a week or two I won’t write anything and when I come back to it I begin to flow again.

    Thanks for the advice 🙂

    • I haven’t been writing much fiction lately, but I do still find that I’m sometimes stumped by my commercial writing. It’s the same brain exercises – just a different context. I’d guess that people have more blocks with fiction because it’s more personal – you’re not just putting words down, you’re putting pieces of yourself down. That can definitely lead to all kinds of clever stalling techniques. 😉

      • I agree one hundred percent. When I write articles, the “block” comes with lining up your ducks in a row – making sure you provide the content the editor is looking for, taking an angle that’s fresh (if the topic has been written about before), and making sure you are hitting the target audience. But those are easier challenges to overcome because it’s a more methodical/strategic/formally structured approach. Writing fiction is much harder because you are digging dip and it IS personal. Vulnerability causes writers block then!

      • Hi, Laura.
        I agree. That’s part of why I get so jazzed about Larry Brooks’ Storyfix methods of story structure. I plan to lean on those heavily when I start work on my fiction projects. Having that method/strategy/structure is going to help me immensely. 🙂 (www.storyfix.com)

  25. I knew I needed creative rest when I started beginning every new poem with the same short phrases by way of intro! That was NOT like me at all! So I have been pulling back and studying others and catching up with correspondence–and with following/commenting on blogs–as you can see here! It worked really well for me–and some of my most ardent followers have been coming forward with suggestions and notions that sparked me write up again!

    • It’s amazing how quickly our muse returns to life if we just give her a little rest and TLC. Changing things up is a great tactic. Sometimes, I can’t really take time to fully step away from writing, but I CAN switch between projects. Sometimes that’s enough to keep me from getting mired in a same-old/same-old rut. 🙂 Glad to hear you got “sparked” again! 🙂

  26. This is just what I needed to hear. I recently started writing a memoir and then started blogging to build a platform for promoting the book. Whew! Little did I know how addicted to blogging I would get. I have so many ideas that I want to write about but not enough time in the day to do it. Plus, I can’t neglect the book, as that is the whole point! Anyway, I have been feeling burned-out from writing 8 hours a day but you just provided some awesome “writers advice.” Thank you! I am gonna take a bike ride, listen to the wind in the trees, and then bask in the light of my children’s smiles 🙂

    • A bike ride, wind, and the light of children’s smiles. Sounds like poetry to me!
      I hope you enjoy your break and that it brings you the energy and inspiration to keep moving forward with all your projects.
      Good luck! 🙂

  27. Thank you. I really needed to read something like this today. If I could hug you (or shake your hand if you aren’t the huggy type), I totally would. I’ve been beating myself up for weeks for not taking an hour a day to write, just jotting down notes–now I know it’s not as sinful as I thought.

    Hugs
    Angelica

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  29. I’m exausted. The physical effort for writer exists, of course it does. The human body was not adapted to stay on a chair typing for long periods of time. It is not very healthy to stare the computer screen for ours, that bright lamp, this is a bad, bad idea. And we depend this effort so much…

  30. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Conserving Your Creative Energy | Live to Write – Write to Live

  31. Interesting article, but I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration. I just keep writing until I’m ready to edit. I usually throw away or keep as background info. for me about 60 percent. The 40 that makes it into the novel is the reason that I write. I just keep writing …When I wait to be rested and inspired, nothing happens. Seriously. Absolutely nada.

  32. Pingback: Essential Self-Care for Creatives - MOM 2.0MOM 2.0

  33. I guess I know I’m at that spot when I have a hard time remembering words.

    Lol sounds crazy, right?

    That mindset of trying to push through keeps me from doing both things. I neither write, nor rest.

    But today I will!

    Thanks for your post.

  34. Pingback: Self-Care For Authors During NaNoWriMo -

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