Turn Bad Writing Days into Good Ones

The November 7th meeting of Willamette Writers brought William Kenower, teacher of the Fearless Writing Series, to the Old Church to share his perspectives for building up a strong writing life while keeping the topics that interest and engage us forefront in our minds. One of the things I enjoyed so much about Kenower’s presentation was his offering of insightful reminders about why we do what we do and where we should place our focus. Here they are for you as well:

  • Understand the questions you should be asking:
    • What do I want to say
    • How do I say it
  • Success [i.e. publication] can’t be your goal; you do it because you’re interested.
  • A book is an opportunity to have a conversation.
  • Writing requires us to indulge our curiosity.
  • Readers don’t care what happens in a novel. They care about how it makes them feel.
  • Writing is simple at its core. We complicate it. We complicate it with questions like, “do I have what it takes” and “what will someone else think of this?”
  • Confidence as an artist is an expression of your inherent awareness of equality.
  • Writers start a story; readers end it.
  • Writers aren’t trying to answer a question; writers are asking them.

In addition, Kenower reminded us that the power of the Good Writing Day is absolutely one worth pursuing, and this got me thinking about some of the things I do when the writing feels like it might be pushing over into the bad place. Here is my list of activities to turn Bad Writing Days into Good ones. It is absolutely possible, and part of our job as writers is finding the right combination that can take us there as often and quickly as possible.

~ Writing Through the Bad until You Get to the Good

One of Kenower’s points was that writing should feel effortless; for many of us, it may not always feel effortless right away when we sit down at our desk. This doesn’t mean we should get up and do something else, though if you’re like me, then you’ve probably got a whole slew of favorite non-writing, procrastination activities. But keep at it! If the words aren’t coming, just keep placing them one in front of the other. Tell the voice of the critic to shove off and remind both of you that where real writing happens is during revision. So, I put words down knowing they’re wrong, but I remind myself that what I’ve just written is completely alterable. Nothing is written on stone here. Additionally, what I’ve discovered is that if I force myself to sit at my chair and keep putting one word after another, then eventually (and usually within 500-700 words, so we’re not talking a lifetime here), the “right” words will come. All of a sudden, the character will take a turn down an alley, or get in a car, or pick up the phone – things I didn’t plan for or realize were about to happen – but once they do, I’m off and rolling. The character has finally taken up space once more to do what he or she wants to do, and I can become the transcribing observer. Most of my writing days look like this, and they can be just as joyful and satisfying as the effortless ones. In fact, I would say more so, because I also have the satisfaction of knowing that I persevered, I allowed resilience to rule over despair, and I proved to myself once again that I really can do the work I feel called to do.

  • Tip: Find a way of indicating to yourself that you want to revisit a word or passage for future revision. I like to put “thes.”for thesaurus after a word I want to find a synonym for. I put [rework] at the end of paragraphs that need some serious reframing. The point is – I put words on the page, and revision is where I’m going to shape them up. The key thing? I’m not waiting to get it right; I mark where it needs work and I move on.

Writerly Activities Other Than Writing

Let’s face it, those days when the words simply refuse to come are going to happen. I don’t recommend you always force yourself through it because you may end up so distraught, you do something drastic. I’ve tossed a number of novel and short story seedlings because I reached a point when I was so disgusted with them, I threw them out! There’s a point when we have to walk away and console ourselves that the words/the muse will come back another day. And we have to remember that being a writer is not just about writing. There’s a whole slew of other things we can do to maintain the core of our writerly being.

~ Read a Craft Book

Reading craft books is a critical aspect of building your writing skills. Some writers may be able to just write and write and write and produce good writing, but this approach requires a lot of time and a lot of words, something many of us don’t have as readily on hand as we’d like. In addition, I see the “just keep writing” strategy as having a couple problems: you’re writing in a vacuum; you’re writing for an audience of one; you are, essentially, journaling. The result: you end up perpetuating potentially harmful writing habits, and as anyone who has ever tried to kick a habit knows, they are nefarious, niggling, and self-excusing little things. Someone who is not taking classes or reading craft books may spend many years writing unpublishable material because that individual may not realize that adverbs are anathema, that stories can’t and shouldn’t be told solely through exposition, that world-building cannot look like a list of the magical or nuanced elements of a fantastical setting, and so on. These are things we learn from craft books and from other writers, even from a writing group if not a workshop or class, but which is very difficult to learn on our own.

But here’s what I love about keeping a rolling stock of craft books moving across my desk: They Inspire Me! – oh boy do they ever! When I read craft books, all sorts of ideas pop to mind, whether it’s revising something I’ve written or generating new content. I’ll read another writer’s ideas about how to work with this or that literary device, and I’ll have an aha! moment about how I can fix a section that was giving me trouble. An idea inspired from a craft book can lead me to that place of effortless writing. And of course, I’m also honing in on the things I can do to make my own writing stand out above the rest, which will hopefully result in less rejection slips and more acceptances.

~ Keep a Book or List of Writing Prompts

While you may have wanted to sit down and write on this one particular project, it may be the case that it’s just not going to happen on this one day. That doesn’t mean you can’t still write. Pull out a writing prompt and just let yourself play with words. Even if it isn’t with your current project, you’re still practicing the art of words-on-the-page, and that will naturally inform your writing in positive ways. Here’s one I offered to my writer’s group, and while it had nothing to do with anything any of us were writing on, a couple members said it unlocked some ideas:

  • A woman (or your character of choice) digging in her gardenuncovers a sealed, ancient box. (From The Writer’s Book of Matches: 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction)

There are a number of websites that offer daily writing prompts, as well, so you don’t have to go buy a book. You can find them in places such as Poets & Writers.

~ Read

One of the best things you can do as a writer is to read. If you’re stuck with the project you’re working on, read within the same genre or work that is tonally-similar to your own project. Just recently, I picked up Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, a collection of stories, and only because I happen to love her writing. All of a sudden, I put her book down, went to my desk, and wrote 2,000 words on a story I’d started years ago. The tone of Strout’s stories and the everydayness of her characters clicked something over in my mind, even though the story I’m working on has magical realism elements to it and is otherwise not related at all to the story I was reading at the time. Reading works that exemplify what you yourself are trying to do is a wonderful way to stay motivated. In addition, you will naturally build your own craft by reading and closely focusing on what makes that writing so compelling. For help with that, you might like Francince Prose’s craft book Reading like a Writer or Mike Bunn’s article “How to Read like a Writer.”

~ Write a Blog

This idea harkens back to the one offered by Tex Thompson at her appearance in the spring, where she also offered that we find our audience by writing about the things we love, because those things likely make a fairly large appearance in our writing. I write this blog because I enjoy writing about writing, and I feel that this is something I can offer the community. I also love Jane Austen, and I have a blog idea brewing for that as well. What do you love? What are you thinking about or researching when you’re not writing? Think about how you can use your writer’s platform as a place to generate more writing content. Again, you’re writing à you’re practicing the skills. Right here, I’ve written 2,000+ words, and it has felt joyful and effortless, and that is a very good day for me.

~ Find an Inspiring Activity

And this final idea is where I diverge from writing-focused activities. Sometimes, what you need is to clear your head. Identify an activity that has also been inspiring for you in the past. For me, it’s walking. I often set a goal when I go for a walk, something like, “write down 3 scene ideas before you get back.” And while I tell myself I’m not allowed to return home until I have those ideas, I usually find that within a couple blocks, I’ve written my 3 scene ideas and a couple more follow after. Right in that moment, I’ve fed my writing practice for the next few days or even a week. Another time, I spoke out loud an entire scene, saying it over and over again, revising it, until I got home and wrote it down. Not only that scene, but about 1,000 more words. What can you do? And remember it has to be an activity that occupies your body but not your mind. Exercising in general is good (plus it’s just good for you, so win-win!), weeding or gardening, knitting, taking a shower or bath, etc.

So here’s where I want to end: while we’re all striving for those perfect, effortless days of writing, don’t let it be your only goal. Don’t let it become the perfect nexus into which you believe you must fall before you can write. On some days, the stars will align, the muse will be sitting at your desk when you get there, and the words will flow out of your fingertips like fresh water from a spring. But you can’t rely on this being the only scenario in which you can write. Because if you do, you may find it a very long time before you hit another good day. By having some strategies you can pull from your back pocket, you’re equipped to turn bad writing days into good ones, as well as feed all aspects of your writing life and mind.

Amy Foster Myer

Amy Foster Myer is a writer and instructor living in Portland, Oregon with her wife, daughter, and Boston Terrier. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Jabberwock Review, Pacifica Literary Review, Prime Number, and others. She has just completed a novel and is in the process of casting for and catching that sliver-finned agent. She also offers a community education course with PCC on publishing short fiction in literary online journals. Learn more at www.amyfostermyer.wordpress.com