How to Keep Writing When You’re Worried, Upset, Angry, Depressed, or Frustrated

Life gets in the way, but the show must go on

That book won’t write itself. Writing is such an emotional task, it’s closely-coupled with our emotions. Writing is much easier when we’re motivated, up-beat, and happy. We’re human, though. So, how we keep writing during our darker days? We all have them. They effect our behavior.

Everything about writing is an emotional response.

Not only do we craft stories to engage the reader’s emotions, but we contend with our own bundled emotions, both about the work we write and about the external world around our writing.

Maybe our friend or partner doesn’t understand the time necessary behind the keyboard. Perhaps you have a death in the family? Lose your job? Cat runs away? Your printer is out of toner and you need a few manuscript pages on your way out the door?

We’re writers. We’re human. It’s a volatile combination.

I’m a fairly emotional person

Couple that with a few heavy scoops of introversion and it doesn’t take much to throw my writing day off the rails. I struggled with this for years. Part of the problem is I still have a day job. I don’t rely on my writing to eat. But I want to be a full time writer some day, so I must keep writing to earn my place. I can’t let my emotions influence my ability to work.

Recently, I changed the way I look at writing.

Thanks to Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art) I now look at the craft as a blue collar vocation, not some artsy-fartsy thing I do when the wind blows from the east. I write no matter what. Some days I feel terrible when I write. Some days I couldn’t feel better. I write regardless, because the writing is now separate from my feelings.

It’s time to go to work.

I’m not perfect. There are still days when my emotional state gets the best of me. But I’m getting better. I look at the work through a blue collar lens. I believe we can overcome the inner-demons which hold us back. Some days we’ll rock out 5,000 words. Some days we’ll struggle for five. This is the process — all of it. To ignore the influence of your emotions is to ignore yourself.

Tools to keep writing during emotional days

Here’s a basket of different tools to try, depending on your situation. I’ve tried each of these in one capacity or another. Many of these won’t work for your situation, but I hope you find one that does.

  • Stop the loop — Your emotion is a state. To get the job done we’ve got to change our state to one that’s more favorable to writing. When I feel paralyzed the first thing I do is stand-up and get moving. Splash cold water on my face. Maybe go for a walk. I do something that’s opposite to the state my body is in when I’m feeling down. Don’t think about the writing. Change the state first. You’ll know when you’re ready for the keyboard.
  • Write one word — Even if you write a bunch of all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, you’ve got your fingers on the keyboard. Your mind will stop fighting you once it recognizes you won’t give up today. The hard part is forcing yourself to sit and write. I know this can feel like an impossible task sometimes. Just. One. Word…. then two.
  • Don’t fight the emotion — Accept that you feel terrible. It’s OK. We all feel terrible sometimes. Writing is not driving a truck or digging a hole. The work is in our heads. Writers are completely tied to our emotions, more than any other vocation. Feel the feelings. Be mindful. Don’t form an opinion about the feelings, just let them happen. Try a round of meditation before you write. I developed this simple method here:
  • Be clinical about your word count — You’re sad, mad, upset, or depressed. Yay for you. Don’t let your emotions get the best of the situation. Summon your inner-pilot or neurosurgeon. There’s no room to veer off-course. Don those virtual blinders and keep your ass in the seat until you hit your goal. No excuses. Tomorrow will be better, but today you’re on a mission. You’ll feel better when you’re done writing.
  • Skip a day, but not two — On the darkest days you’ve got to take time to heal. Skip one day, occasionally. But don’t skip two. When you skip two you skip a week, then six months. It’s easy to skip. Skipping is why most people haven’t written a novel.
  • Accept less, but not zero — Take it easy on yourself during the rough days, but don’t give yourself permission to give in and do nothing. You’ve got a tough section or scene to work through. Do half the scene instead of powering through, as you would on a typical day.
  • Change locations — Your writing location matters. If you’ve got a bunch of to-dos at home, they’ll nag at your subconscious and make you feel guilty for writing. Get out and go somewhere. I write most of my fiction on my phone. This helps me come up with creative ideas and gets me away from any location I’ve associated with a down mood.
  • Aim for one accomplishment — Maybe you had high-hopes for your writing session. Some days I plan to write 5,000 words and hit 500. When you miss these massive goals, especially during the dark days, you’ll feel worse than when you started, even if you wrote. Try making a simple to-do list of your writing goals for the day. Start with the most important. Here’s a very important story I wrote about one of the best to-do list methods available:
  • Track all your writing days — I use an app called Don’t Break the Chain (no financial affiliation, I just like the app). Every day I write, I make a red X on the calendar. The app tells me how many days I write sequentially, as well as every day I’ve written, forever. When I track my writing days, especially for a long chain (like 100+ days unbroken) this gamifies the process and adds to the drive to keep writing.
  • Suck it up, Buttercup — Writing is a blue-collar vocation. Like a plumber or an electrician. These folks work when they’re sick, hurt, hot, cold, mad, happy, or sad. Just because you’re having a bad day doesn’t give you permission to flake on your work. When you’re a writer you’re the boss. When you’re the boss you tell your employee they’re slacking. You also happen to be the employee. Time to have a closed-door sit-down with yourself. Just take it easy. We don’t need you getting sent to Human Resources because you hurt your feelings.

Find the source of the mood

Maybe it’s you. Perhaps it’s your significant other. Maybe you’re just having a terrible day and you can’t put a finger on it.

Do your best to pinpoint the source of the problem. Once you identify the cause of your emotional state the odds are better you can do something about it. Whether it’s a location change, a state change, or a relationship change, do what you need to do to ensure you write today.

Track your feelings

We can’t change what we don’t track. You’re a writer. Keep a small journal of how you feel during your writing sessions and match that to your productivity.

Note when you have a bad day. Write the cause, how the bad day effected your writing, and what you did to persevere.

These notes become your writing playbook

Once you’ve built this emotional toolkit, tailored just for you, you’ll have the right solution the next time you feel a certain way.

Some emotions are the brain’s mental tricks in our behavior. These tricks have solutions. You won’t build this playbook in a day, but over time you’ll have a collection of great tools to conquer most tough writing days.

You’ll become a newbie stoic

The ancient stools understood life is hard and not everything we want will go as planned. As Marcus Aurelius is famous for writing in his book Meditations:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

The stoics taught us to use these moments of trouble as the new way for doing the work. Anger or depression is no longer a wall, it’s a fork in the trail. We recognize this new emotional distraction and use it as a tool to move forward, not as a distraction to prevent us from doing our work that matters most.

This may not be a solution for several mental health challenges

Sadness, depression, anger, and fear are all normal human emotions. As creatives we experience theses more than the average non-writer.

Clinical depression takes on another form. Nothing on this list will help you get out of bed or make you want to eat today. This story is not a substitute for professional treatment.

But, on those days where you’d rather do anything but write, those times where you want to eat ALL the ice cream — tracking, state-changing, and lowering your expectations may be just the solution for you.

August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.

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