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The most productive year of writing I have ever had was 2019. I wrote more than 150,000 words total: I finished the manuscript of a novel I had been writing for years, I participated in National Poetry Writing Month and filled notebook upon notebook with poems, I wrote 60,000 words of a new novel during Camp NaNoWriMo in July, and I wrote 70,000 of fanfiction just for fun. I was in the zone. I had everything figured out, and nothing seemed impossible.
And then, for six months in 2020, I didn’t write at all. Some circumstances definitely helped this happen: the onset of the pandemic, instability in my housing situation, some personal health issues. But I had written through difficult situations before, so why could I not write for so long?
I’ve taken to calling this period, and the period of unproductivity I’ve had since, a writing drought. I prefer this term over writer’s block mostly because it felt different than the times I have experienced writer’s block. A block is an impediment, an impassable wall, and what I was going through didn’t feel like that. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write — it was that I felt like I had nothing to write.
If this sounds like something you have gone or are going through, keep reading to learn more about writing droughts and how to make it through them.
What Are Writing Droughts?
A writing drought could more accurately be called a creativity drought. It’s when you feel like all your motivation, creativity, or time — or even a combination of all three — have dried up to the point that writing becomes an impossible, hopeless task. Several writers have echoed this sentiment. Victoria Schwab refers to a “creative well” that requires constant refreshing; Anne Lamott, when asked about dealing with writer’s block, talks about the Rag Bag man, an imaginary creative partner full of memories, insights, and other sources of inspiration that she must constantly feed in order to fill up.
I picture the landscape of my mind as a lush, vibrant biome of ideas and motivation, and in the midst of a drought, it dries up. It becomes an arid desert, flat and desolate, devoid of the desire and ability to write. The only way to bring back the landscape is to water it.
What Causes These Droughts?
Writing is personal for every writer, so the causes for a drought might vary for every person. Personal, familial, professional, or cultural struggles can take their toll. Basically, no one answer can encompass the variety of writers and projects, but these are a few suggestions that might make sense for you.
Have you ever written something — a novel, a screenplay, an epic poem — and despite your best-laid plans, it just doesn’t seem to be working? I’ve experienced this many times, and it boils down to my desire to always follow a plan. When my plan fails me, I feel stuck.
It’s worth exploring whether your particular project has an issue in your planning or plotting that keeps you from moving forward.
In the landscape analogy, water is the missing element to making your creativity flourish. Water is inspiration, which can be any number of things to you. On one hand, seeking inspiration is practical. Imagine writing a book when you haven’t read a book in ages. You remember what reading a book was like, but your memory could fail you. Reading, then, can remind you what you love about books and stories.
On the other hand, inspiration is personal and indulgent. It’s a chance for you to do what you love and be happy, which makes room in your mind for creativity.
How Do You Survive Writing Droughts?
Enough of the whys — let’s talk about how to get out of this. I am always impatient to get back to writing regularly, and I’m frustrated when I can’t seem to do that immediately. So if these suggestions work for you right away, great! If not, be patient, try some other options, and trust that your creativity will come back.
Fill the Well
I would recommend this option as an additive to any other solution you try. No matter what you do, you should always try to refill your creative well, water your landscape — or whatever metaphor you prefer. You should read widely, and if your attention doesn’t tolerate reading, try audiobooks or podcasts. Indulge yourself with those activities that inspire your mind.
If I’m looking for story inspiration, I’ll read a book in a similar genre as my manuscript. If I want to up the lyricality of my writing, I’ll read a collection of poetry. If you don’t know what inspires you, then start experimenting until you find something you love.
Take a Break
When I’m left wondering if I have lost the ability to write entirely, I feel pressured to prove that worry wrong and push through the pain. And this isn’t a fruitless exercise for many, but for me, it simply won’t work. Sometimes, I just need a break.
If you write a lot, this could be true for you too. I write both as my job and as my hobby, so my writerly mind is often exhausted by one source or the other. If your experience is similar, try taking a break. Take a week or a month or whatever seems right for you, and instead of trying to write unsuccessfully, purposefully don’t try. Let yourself recuperate some mental energy. I often find that I know I’m ready to return to writing when I start itching to jot things down.
Try Something New
Try something different; try shaking up your story. If the culprit is a flaw in your plan or a weakness in the plot, changing your perspective or plan of attack could be helpful. Try writing it from a different character’s POV or try a different scene. Write out of order, or write something different! Especially if you’re staring down a deadline, a break from the pressure could help water your desert.
Take It Slow
As you start to overcome your writing drought, you might want to rush back to writing 1,000 words a day. I recommend taking it slow and being forgiving if you can’t immediately reach that goal. If you struggle to even write 100 words, set a smaller goal. Start with 50 words, and count it as a victory if you reach it. The next day, aim for 60. Gradually and with patience, you will come back from your drought, and your creative landscape will be lush and vibrant again.
Have you ever experienced a writing drought? Share your tips and experiences below.