Our creative writing agony aunt and Write Like a Grrrl founder Kerry Ryan returns with advice on navigating distractions, setting boundaries and taking creativity off your to-do list.
I have been working on a novel intermittently for four years. But my problem is that I find it difficult to focus on any one writing project, because life is hectic and leaves me feeling burnt out. Inevitably, the global situation and pressures that come with adult life often overwhelm me: currently I am in furlough, job-hunting and working freelance at the same time. I have to prioritise working and looking for work and quite often find that my time to write suffers as a result. I either have swathes of time to plug away at the novel, or by the end of the day I will not have the energy to really get into that imaginative and clear headspace.
My writing experience is primarily in screenwriting and I am also a published poet; I have always had the ambition to write a novel. I wish I had the freedom with which to focus on the novel, but I don’t know as though this will be possible until work is secure. I have also found that, when I do have time to imagine, my attention span is distracted by social media and I’m often so burnt out in the evenings that I can’t read for pleasure anymore.
What’s an aspiring writer under pressure to do?
Yours and thank you,
Dear Distracted Damsel,
Nothing leaches joy and creativity from our lives more than doubt and fear, and there’s a lot of it about. Job insecurity, financial worries, the whole kit and caboodle of capitalism as well as a once-in-a-century pandemic. When we’re in a state of hyperarousal, flight or fight mode takes over. We experience ‘monkey mind’ where our thoughts race, become unsettled, caught in the past or the future, making it difficult to think rationally, to problem solve and, yes, to focus on anything but our phones.
I get it. God, I do. The world is scary and difficult right now and you’ve got so much on your plate. So why not stop trying to write your novel? Give yourself a break. Relax.
How does that make you feel? Angry? Relieved? Of course, I’m not actually against you writing your novel right now. What I want is for you to investigate what’s driving you. And what might actually be stopping you.
There’s the state of the world, yes, but is there something else too? Creativity always involves some element of risk, some stepping out of our comfort zone. You’re ambitious about this novel yet even when you have time to write and imagine, you don’t. Expectations – especially of greatness – can generate anxiety and fear. If you write with an end-goal in mind apart from mere completion, it can freeze you. This is when we find ourselves procrastinating, lost in distractions, jumping from one project to another instead of facing our fears. For Natalie Goldman, author of the forever helpful Writing Down the Bones, monkey mind is always the inner critic at work. Distraction prevents us from finishing, keeping us small and safe from the rejection we subconsciously fear.
Right now, with all you have to cope with and all that’s going on in the world, the most important thing is to be kind to yourself. This might be writing the novel or it might not be writing the novel. It might be jumping from one writing project to another and enjoying that jump. Just don’t make decisions from a place of fear. And remember: creativity isn’t another thing on your to-do-list; it’s a therapeutic practice. Creative play soothes and heals. It saves.
So say you decide to give yourself the gift of daily creative play, how do you actually get your bum on the seat when modern life is full of distractions, capitalism is a horror show, and the news foghorns fear into your living room twenty-four hours a day? You have to be a good parent. Good parents have boundaries. After a day at school all my son wants to do is watch Teen Titans. I allow him two episodes then Netflix is turned off. He moans a little, yes, but soon he’s drawing a comic about The Giant Poo Planet with a smile on his face. We writers have to be good parents to ourselves. This means understanding what truly nurtures us and setting firm boundaries with love.
What also helps is to make writing and reading as inviting as possible. Create a welcoming space separate from where you usually work or doomscroll. It doesn’t have to be fancy and it’s best if it’s not because that can prove overwhelming. A chair, a cosy blanket, a new pot plant – whatever will make you keen to read or create before or after a long day chipping away at the capitalist coal-face. Tired, sad or mad – use those feelings. Exorcise them on the page. The inner critic will throw up all kinds of distractions. Cut your internet. Cut those distractions. Be present. Feel your fingers on the keys, the pen on the page. Watch as your sentences take shape and your characters live and breathe. Enjoy it. Revel in it.
“We writers have to be good parents to ourselves. This means understanding what truly nurtures us and setting firm boundaries with love.”
Of course, creative writing is not all happy-happy-joy-joy. If it was easy, everyone would be knocking out novels ten-a-penny. You have to make what Buddhists call ‘joyful effort’. Practice regularly with patience, expanding your skills through play, experimentation and exploration. Difficulties will arise, yes, but that’s all part of the process and nothing at all to do with who you are as a person. Take pleasure in overcoming the obstacles you’re absolutely guaranteed to meet. This is joyful effort.
Cultivating joy doesn’t mean not caring or becoming disengaged from what’s going on in the world. As I wrote before, writing is radical self care in a time of plague and mad bastards in power. Also, cultivating joy is radical activism. Artist and filmmaker, Derek Jarman was at his most prolific before he died of AIDS. This explosion of creativity was partly a response to those who wanted him to end his days repenting in shame. His celebration of joy and his commitment to creativity – having a voice in a culture that wanted him voiceless – was pure subversion, a weapon wielded against his oppressors. In a society that undervalues art and artists, marking out time and space to be creative, to find pleasure and connect with others through your creativity, is radical. Adrienne Maree Brown has written brilliantly on how oppressed communities can utilise pleasure as activism. She quotes Camus: ‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.’
I wish you all the creative freedom, rebellion and joy.
Sending love and power,
Have a question you’d like Kerry to answer? Submit your question to us using the contact form below.
Kerry is the founder of Write like a Grrrl, which offers creative writing courses for women & NB in partnership with For Books’ Sake in the UK. Kerry’s Write like a Grrrl courses are now taught all over the world and Kerry has facilitated workshops across the UK, in Ireland and Russia. She has taught mindfulness and self-compassion as well as creative writing to actors, women leaving sex work, domestic abuse survivors and facilitated many LGBTQ+ creative writing courses. Her work has been featured in various publications including Steer, The Manchester Review, the Kenyon Review and Spilling Ink. Her play Trust was recently performed at the Gulbenkian Theatre.
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