JWAM reader request no. 19: What to do when you’re drained

Melody says:

What do you do if you’re just drained? Not stuck, not blocked–you still know what’s going on, you have ideas, you can still write–but you’re completely energy devoid, whether it’s because you’ve been immensely productive or because the outside world has just been piling up obligations. Do you just power on through, or do you step back and take a bit of a break, let yourself recharge?

I’m probably the worst person in the world to answer this question. I am all about resting. I will rest at every opportunity. I think everyone should rest. I am horrified by how hard many of my writer friends work. I think it’s immoral and plain wrong to work seven days a week. I am in favour of the four-day work week. The three-day work week is probably an even better idea. If only I could get away with a one-day work week. Or a no day work week . . .

Yet I hang out with writers who think that they’re lazy if they take a week off after having spent months and months, if not years, working constantly. The Puritan work ethic they has it too much. I tell them that they’ll wind up with shingles. But they don’t listen. So far I know of five workaholic writers who’ve had shingles. I rest my case.

Sadly though there does come a time when the work is piled up, and I’m knackered, but the book is due Monday and there’s nothing for it but to power through. I hates when that happens. Especially as it often happens because of the all resting I did. Which forces me to concede that perhaps if I’d worked harder earlier on I wouldn’t have wound up with all the work piled up.


But I’m in a very luxurious situation. I don’t have kids, or pets, or any other dependents. All I have to do is write and do the admin that goes with that, plus (with Scott) run our household.

I know writers who are looking after kids, pets, elderly parents, running the household, and meeting their deadlines. I have no idea how they do it. I’m in total awe.

So while I think that taking time away from your writing when you’re feeling drained is good for your brain, your body, your work, and your family, for many people it’s not an option. Many writers—yes, even published ones—are squeezing their writing time in between paid and unpaid work, family, and other responsibilities. If they take the time they need to rest it’s most likely their writing time that gets squeezed out. Not good.

I often hear writers without any (or many) of those pressing responsibilities say that you simply have to put writing first, implying that somehow if you don’t you’re not as dedicated as you should be. I have seen such advice fill the hearts of extremely hard-working, dedicated writers with shame. “Why if they were serious about their writing they would ignore the cries of their children, let their dog starve, never go shopping and just write, write, write. Clearly, they are dilettantes!”

[Insert big ole eye roll here.]

You know what else I notice? That often the people who are able to just write, write, write have someone else around to pick up the pieces for them. Someone else who’s doing the shopping and cooking and so on and so forth. Kind of makes that whole dedicated write, write, write thing a lot easier, doesn’t it?1

If you’re fortunate enough to be in a situation to recharge then go for it. Give your brain that much needed break.

But if you don’t have the luxury of taking the break you desperately need—please don’t beat up on yourself. You’re working hard enough as it is.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. I lost all respect for Charles Dickens when I realised that he not only had a wife looking after him, but also servants. []


  1. Tricia Sullivan on #

    Hi Justine! I think you have put your finger right on it. It’s not about what you ‘should’ do, but what you ‘can’ do.

    I have 3 small kids and I run a web-based business in addition to writing, and I find that I reach the bottom of the energy barrel pretty regularly. In my experience, if you are exhausted and you CAN rest, then you should because it will pay greater dividends in the long term. You wouldn’t run a marathon and then two days later start training for another one, right? You need some recovery time.

    Personally I find that greater dividends come in the long term by being sensitive to creative cycles and not blindly flogging myself. Sooner or later I’ll just turn into a broken-down old mule and then I’ve got a real serious problem. You know: an ounce of prevention and all that. I’ve never actually had shingles…ugh…shudder.

    Sometimes resting isn’t an option, though. I think the only excuse, creatively, to not-rest when you need to rest is that you have absolutely no choice. And then all you can really do is suffer through it and let go of anything you can let go of in order to scrape together the energy you need.

    So, ya know, vive la three-day-work week! That’d be great…

    Thanks for posting the writing advice, btw. I hadn’t been reading here for a while (like I said, bottom of the barrel) and so just came upon it the other day. I always love reading these discussions 🙂

  2. Justine on #

    Tricia: Wow, that’s a much more succinct way of putting it: “It’s not about what you should do, but what you can do.” If only I’d consulted you first twould have saved me much unnecessary wordage!

    It’s people like you, Tricia, who totally amaze me.

  3. Tricia Sullivan on #

    Hee. You kindly refrained from noting that I then went on to say ‘it will pay greater dividends in the long term’ twice in a row thus negating any succinctness points!

    Seriously, thanks for all the great Q&A posts recently. I’m enjoying going through and reading them.

  4. Justine on #

    I’m hardly in a position to throw stones. These posts are riddled with redundancies. Wrote ’em too quick, didn’t I? And they was not professionally edited like my proper books. Glad you’re enjoying them.

  5. Celeste on #

    Thanks for the great post! I hear a lot of that make-time-to-write-every-single-day advice, but it always sounds like code for let-your-life-fall-apart-its okay-to-be-selfish-and-not-cook-or-do-the-wash-for-days-on-end. (I say that with tongue in cheek. I know the advice works for some, just not me.) I used to be able to set aside a block of writing time every day pre-return to full-time work, but I’m finding that MUCH harder now (ok, impossible) that I have a full-time job and two kids who have (and deserve) activities. It’s much better for my writing if I look for a blocks of uninterrupted time and ask my family to let me be – there’s more than one way to get the book written! And rest time is a great time to fantasize… er… consider plot turns…

  6. Cassie Clare on #

    “I lost all respect for Charles Dickens when I realised that he not only had a wife looking after him, but also servants.”

    And then he went off and left her for a nineteen-year-old actress. Bad Charles.

  7. Mitch Wagner on #

    Great post, Justine.

    I’m a great advocate of the make-time-every-day to write school — but I think, as long as you have a full-time job and other obligations (which certainly includes being a homemaker or caregiver), it should just be a few minutes a day. Even on days when you have nothing else to do, and you have the whole day free just to wrote — don’t. Do your few minutes a day then do something else.

    My quota is 250 words of fresh writing, or 1,000 words of revisions, every day that I can.

    My credentials: Although I am unpublished as a fiction writer, I’ve been sticking to this 250-words-a-day regime for about two years now, which I think (he said boastfully) is a great track record, especially compared to the millions of people who say they want to write one day but never get around to it. And it’s very similar to advice I’ve heard from successful professional fiction writers.

    I’ve also got 25 years of experience as a journalist, and I kinda sorta pursue the same philosophy there. Obviously, I spend a lot more time writing as a journalist, because it’s my full-time job — but still, I do what I can every day, I try to avoid stressing myself out or burning myself out, and if I have a crappy day and don’t get much done, I don’t beat myself up about it, I just try to get a good nights’ sleep and do better the next day.

    And, as a journalist, I also take vacations.

  8. Patrick on #

    1. I want servants.

  9. Justine on #

    Patrick: Everyone wants servants, but no one seems to want to be a servant. Funny that.

  10. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    Having watched the BBC show MERLIN recently, I volunteer to be the servant of a genius writer so they can get their work done… as long, and let me make this very clear, as I get magical powers so I can do all my servantly chores without getting my hands dirty.

    Apparently Charles Dickens also finished a book at a cocktail party once. I admire his style, though I still disapprove of the actress shenanigans.

  11. Adele on #

    Hey Justine, great post! It’s always hard to motivate yourself even if you love what you are doing (in my case anyway).

    Happy Australia Day!

  12. Shaun Hutchinson on #

    I’ve been reading all these and I think this is the best one. I used to always tell myself that I’d write when I could take a few months off and stay alone in a cabin and do nothing but write. For ten years I told myself that. Then I finally realized that was just never gonna happen. Now I make sure that I write four days a week, a minimum of 2k words. I have a full time job and am single so all the housework and shopping and cooking fall to me. I also have friends and family and such.

    Television was the first thing get cut. Working out went out the door pretty fast too (although I think I was just always looking for an excuse for that). At the end of the day though, I just had to make time when I could, and he people who had my best interests at heart, understood.

    I think that to be a writer (unless you’ve got a trust fund or servants) there has to be some sacrifices, but you certainly don’t have to sacrifice everything. Writing IS supposed to be fun, right?

  13. Tracy on #

    Another great post! I often struggle with trying to balance life as a wife to a busy man and a mother of 5 children (ages 6,8,9,11,12) and trying to get words on a page on a regular basis. There’s a wonderful article written by Mettie Ivie Harrison over on O.S. Card’s intergalacticmedicineshow.com that is on this very topic. She has 5 kids too, and does Ironman triathlons, plays piano, reads a bazillion books/year, and still manages to write books (I know, she’s like the bionic woman, right?).

    At first, reading this sort of thing may seem like kicking one’s self while down, but she discusses what she’s willing to give up in order to be a productive writer. Things like sleeping, cleaning, shopping, etc. It really made me take stock of what is most important to me, and I realised that it’s okay if the writing takes a little longer than I anticipated. I don’t have deadlines yet, but when I do, I’ll meet them just like I meet my other obligations. For now, I enjoy being able to run stuff to school for the kids if I need to. I like that I have time to home school my oldest child because she’s too advanced for the programming in my area. I like – nay, I NEED – to take a nap when I had a rough night with one (or several) of the kids (naps have rescued me from many an oncoming migraine).

    When it comes right down to it, I am unwilling to let the things which matter most be at the mercy of things that matter the least. If I’m rock bottom out of energy for writing because I’ve taken care of what’s most important to me, I’m in good shape. If I’m out of energy because I’ve chosen to be a complete lazy-bones for days or weeks on end, that’s quite another matter…Let’s face it, we all know the difference between taking a breather and being lazy. In the end, it comes down to what a person is able to live with – and I guess for some, that includes (ew!) getting shingles. 🙂

  14. Miriam Caldwell on #

    This post really struck a chord with me (in a good way). I’ve got three small kids at home, I write for a living (online website stuff) and then I’m trying to finish up my first novel. There days where I’m not productive in any area of my life because I’ve been pushing too hard. I took a class on organization, and the instructor just kept saying you’ve got to decide what’s most important to you. Like I was a failure for not writing enough creatively because I have all that other stuff going on. Kids will always come first, but I’ve also found that for me writing fiction makes me happier overall, and I don’t beat myself up on the days I need to take a break and read for awhile. That’s my way of resting.

    On another note, your posts this last month have been so helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write them.


  15. Glenn on #

    About this time two years ago I was in the throes of writing and writing EVERY day. Self imposed minimum of 300 words but was hitting an average of 1,200 a day. Things had been going really well for a couple of months but then I had a week of: time away, too hungover to write, relatives visiting – basically the wheels fell off. What I found after that week was that I had completly lost my rythym and everything just felt, off… Took me a couple of weeks to get my groove back and it was a really hard slog, the novel almost died then, but I did finish it a couple of months later. It still remains very much in first draft form, maybe this year I’ll tackle it again.

  16. Pamela on #

    Thank you, Justine. I used to be a single working mom who also tried to write. All of my fiends who wrote were either childless or had a spouse who dealt with stuff. It really frustrated me when people laid the “make writing the most important thing in your life” guilt trip on me, so it’s very gratifying to see you acknowledge that we don’t all have a level playing field when it comes to carving out time to write.

    Although I’m no longer a single mom, having gotten married, I now share my home with far more people and critters than I’m used to, looking for work, doing volunteer work to build my freelance credentials, and still squeezing writing time in. Some weeks (this week, yay!) I get a lot of writing done, others, less so. I’ve learned to focus on what I can do, rather than moan about what I can’t. Right now, that means writing short stories and not novels. Someday, that may change, but it’s helped me to feel better about my writing, which in turn helps me to get more writing done.

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