Do You Have to Be in the Mood to Write?
by Noelle Sterne
If you believe you must wait to write until the right mood strikes, you’ll never get much done. Many writers nevertheless believe in this myth, supporting it with impressive rationales. Some blame external circumstances:
“I can only write in the cold weather—it’s so invigorating!”
“I can only write in the spring. The warm breeze caresses my forehead and fingers, and I melt into the keyboard.”
Other writers are governed not by the outside, but their own insides:
“I’ve got to get nine hours of sleep. Otherwise, my eyes burn, my head fogs, and I can’t think.”
“I can’t work if I have the slightest headache, backache, stomach ache, earache, shoulder ache, wrist ache, finger ache, or toe ache.”
If you depend on cold winter air to inspire you, your writing will wilt in the summer. If you think you can write only with enough sleep or flawless health, you’ll spend most of your time not writing.
Do you assume you have to be in the mood to go to work? Does your employer? Must you be in the mood to feed your family? Do they assume this at dinnertime?
Once you renounce the myth that you must be in the mood to write, you’ve accepted writing as your daily business. This is the only way to complete your projects and reach your goals. Without regular, if not daily, writing, your zeal fades, you forget where you were, and you lose touch with your intuition. You’re sure you’ll never be a real writer and succumb to cleaning out the garage.
I used to give in regularly to the mood-to-write myth. After long struggles and reading of others’ battles, I developed some effective strategies for vanquishing the myth:
1. Schedule realistic times to write. This means more than yielding to spurts of excitement. A beleaguered mother of four I know scrawled in determined letters on the refrigerator chalkboard, “Put the kids down for their naps. Write 3:00 to 4:00!” What happened? Her hour was consumed with three calls about the car pool, the PTA, and the class’s play costumes.
The lesson? Schedule regular and realistic times for writing. Base your schedule not only on your daily responsibilities but your self-knowledge. You may fantasize about writing at 6:00 a.m. and savoring the hush and the new light. If you’re truly a morning person, you’ll have a great session. But if 6:00 a.m. feels like 3:00 a.m., schedule your writing sessions to honor your needs, body clock, and responsibilities. By the way, this mother revised her writing session to evenings after the kids were bedded. It worked!
2. Mark your calendar. Put down your scheduled writing time like you would a dentist’s appointment or car tune-up. Your writing session is an appointment—and possibly more important than any other.
3. Before the end of your session, plan exactly what to work on in your next. After I began scheduling specific writing times, I’d show up at my desk but always give in to opening email, checking my favorite websites, sorting through a few files, or bolting up to wash the three dishes in the sink.
When I complained to a consistently productive colleague, he shared his method: “Before I quit the current session, I decide exactly what’s next.” Exactly means the specific project and scene: the essential bar fight, the wife confessing she wants a divorce. So decide where you’ll start and set out the materials you’ll need.
4. Start with something easy. Despite your planning what to work on next, most of us need to warm up. As long as the task relates at all to writing, it’s fair game—printing a draft, addressing a query letter, investigating a potential market. However, these tasks won’t take long, and you may be tempted to scrap your exact starting point. So . . .
5. Set small goals you know you can meet. With your specific exact place to continue on your project, turn the timer to five writing minutes or vow to finish a paragraph or a page. If you clock your words, settle on a small daily quota. Want perspective? Hemingway recorded his output at only a day at 450, 575, sometimes 1,250 words; Irwin Shaw strove for 1,000.
6. Sneak into it. If you’re still having trouble starting, try a variation of
Number 4. Instead of beginning at the specific point you’ve decided on for new writing, go back a few paragraphs in what you’ve already done and glance at the screen or page.
Your editing reflex will spring up, unstoppable. As you casually delete one thing, add another, change the other, you’ll have eased into your session. If you need a more severe version, retype several previous paragraphs. You’ll sail into the new writing.
7. Make a list. A list of all the steps in the project keeps you organized and motivated and wards against overwhelm. Contrary to another myth, lists do not diminish your creativity or metamorphose you into a left-brain drudge. The artist has to keep a list of painting supplies, the sculptor an inventory of muds. Writers need to keep lists of paper, pens, ink cartridges, laptop batteries, scenes, characters, characters’ characteristics, etc., etc.
The list is your master plan, like a blueprint. For a book proposal that froze me, I finally made a list of at least fifteen necessary sections (introduction, promotion plan, competitive books, sample chapter, bibliography). And then . . .
8. Choose one thing from your master list. Despite the advice to Alice in Wonderland, you don’t have to start at the beginning. With my book proposal, I began near the middle, with what was easiest for me, the competitive/complementary book section. Starting at this point not only broke my ice, but also gave me a perk: I had to ask what my book had that the others didn’t—which is the point of a competitive books section. So examine your master list for what you can ease in with.
9. Use the “diaper method.” Take a pair of post-its, index cards, or sheets of paper and stick or clip them to your list. Position the “diaper” so it blocks out everything but the single item you’ve chosen. Now you and your mind can focus on what you see. When you finish this segment, move the post-its or cards so they show only your next selection. When you finish a segment, you’ll probably feel a sweeping sense of accomplishment, as I do, and excitement at the forward movement.
10. Keep a log of your writing time. You may groan at keeping more records, but a weekly or monthly log has significant benefits:
It helps you see what days you miss. Is there a pattern? Do your weekends off slide into Monday?
The log helps you become more conscious of where you’re choosing to spend your time.
The log helps you practice forgiving yourself for not writing as much as you think you should.
Analyzing the log spurs you to figure out how to devote more time to writing.
Keeping a log bolsters your conviction of yourself as a writer. As you enter each session, praise yourself for your steadiness, persistence, and increased (or intent to increase) hours.
11. Accept your “moody” feelings. Despite all these pointers, if you simply can’t settle down to write for any reason, accept the feeling. Berating yourself will only make you feel worse.
Instead of giving up, though, bargain. Ask yourself, “How can I tease myself into a just a leetle stint?” Your first answer may be to check out a website, draft an email, update your bio (see Numbers 4, 5, and 6). Fine.
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With these solutions, your writing schedule won’t be buffeted by changes in the atmosphere, either outside your window or inside your head. You’ll stick to your schedule, sit down, and write regularly because it’s your business to. And you’ll banish any restrictive myths that you’ve got to be in the mood to write.
Author, editor, writing coach and soother, dissertation nurturer, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 300 writing craft, spiritual articles, academic guest blogs, stories, and essays in print and online venues. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). Excerpts continue to appear in magazines and blogs. In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life, she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Noelle recently resumed her column for writers at Coffeehouse for Writers, “Bloom Where You’re Writing”: coffeehouseforwriters.com/our-blog. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com