Sometimes Writing is Just a Job
Behind the Book: Writing without inspiration
I have always loved words. I’ve always loved books. Before I learned to write actual words I would make my own “books” full of scribbles. When I was in grade school I dreamed of being a writer and that was a dream so amazing and fantastical to me that I didn’t dare hold onto it when the practical considerations of being a poor, Black woman in America became more clear to me as I got older.
Still, at least once a week, it hits me. Somehow, I’ve done what I once thought was impossible. I’m a writer. I write for a living. My words pay for the food that feeds my children. People read my words. This is my life.
It’s just so fucking cool.
Part of me always knows that deep inside, and occasionally it comes to the forefront of my consciousness and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.
But also some days, like today, I’ve had to drag myself to the computer to write. Some days, I don’t feel lucky - I just feel like I’m working. Sometimes, writing is just a job.
And if you’re going to be a writer, you have to learn how to write when it’s just a job and you’d rather be doing just about anything else.
If you’ve always dreamed about writing and you’ve started picking up more writing assignments, or you got your first journalism gig, or you decided to finally write that book you’ve been dreaming of writing for years, you will come to the realization that sometimes (more often than you thought) you will have no motivation or inspiration to write. Sometimes those moments last for a day. Sometimes they last for weeks or months at a time. And you might feel like maybe you aren’t a writer after all.
But not wanting to write is, like, how you know you’ve made it. Congrats! Writing is now no longer just a hobby or a passion, it’s also your work.
There have been so many reasons why I haven’t wanted to write over the years and yet, here I am, still writing. If you are in the same boat, or think you might be in the future, here are a few of the reasons why I’ve not wanted to write and how I worked through them.
Your ADHD brain doesn’t want to do anything you tell it to do. A lot of creatives have ADHD. It makes us great writers. It can also stop us from writing altogether! Pretty much every day I struggle with the ways in which ADD tells me that writing will be the absolute worst thing to do simply because it’s the thing that is in my calendar. I’ve come up with a lot of ways to deal with this over the years and if you have ADHD and are struggling to sit at your computer every day to get some writing done, check out this post I wrote with some tips.
You confused a thing being hard with a thing being bad. So often when we were writing for fun, we would write when inspiration struck. We would write in ways that we were comfortable with and because we were so comfortable, we were able to look at what we wrote and know that this was on par with the quality of the rest of our writing. Because it was easy and seemed to come naturally, it must be good. But sometimes we have to stretch. Sometimes we write about subject matters we aren’t as familiar with. Sometimes we write in a style that is newer to us. Sometimes we are writing in longer or shorter forms than we are comfortable with. And it’s hard. And because it’s hard, we assume we must be doing a bad job. Writing is all about inspiration, right? It’s supposed to just flow out of you, right? Nah. The truth is that everything we are writing now was difficult for us at some time, we just forgot about that struggle because it’s been a while. Some great writing is easy because you’ve really strengthened your skills in that particular area. But there’s always new great writing out there for you, waiting for you to try the difficult new things that will get you there. Sometimes that difficulty is a sign of much-needed growth.
You think everything has to be a masterpiece. Look. Sometimes you just gotta phone it in. Every single artist and creative I know has things that they create simply because it’s the assignment, because it’s good practice, or because they’ve got bills to pay. Your writing skills don’t leave you simply because your inspiration has. On days when you only have the energy to do the bare minimum, know that the bare minimum is still likely communicating what it needs to communicate to your readers, or at least is strengthening your technical writing skills. If your readers aren’t falling over themselves over every single piece you write, it’s okay. They’ll get over it, and so will you.
You aren’t emotionally ready for the thing you’re trying to write. I know that a lot of times we treat writing like therapy, but I’ve said before, writing isn’t therapy. It can be somewhat cathartic at times, and it can help give shape to issues we are facing. But writing can also bring up a torrent of thoughts and emotions that we have yet to begin to make sense of, let alone be able to translate into the written word. Writing can actually wound us sometimes. When we write, we are not just transcribing words from our brain to the page. We are taking smells, colors, sounds, vague gut feelings, memories, weird tastes in our mouth, the ringing in our ears, and translating all that into a story that is supposed to make sense to someone. It’s a lot. And if you also are being beaten over the head by unprocessed emotions, it can be downright impossible. If you start to feel overwhelmed by emotions while trying to write, take some time to figure out what your brain and body is trying to tell you about where you really are in regards to this topic. Figure it out for yourself before you try to translate it to others.
You aren’t accounting for brain exhaustion. This is something I neglect to do all the time. I am a pretty fast writer. I can sit at my computer and knock out an essay of about this size in an hour or less. And when I’m done and hit “send” or “publish” and I desperately want to take a nap, I end up telling myself that I’m lazy and try to force myself to immediately begin work on the next writing assignment on my list. Capitalism likes to measure our worth by our output that it can see and put a price on. You put out one hour of visible work and it produced 1500 words? Eh, that’s only so much when compared to a worker out making money for a corporation eight hours a day five days a week. And you’re tired? Cry me a river. But the truth is that the hour I spend writing is preceded by countless hours taking in information about the world, coming up with different ideas of things I can write, reading other works for inspiration. Then the actual writing is an intense physical, intellectual, and emotional exercise. I say “physical,” not because I’m doing push-ups while I write, but because our brain is an organ doing actual work and it gets tired just like our biceps would after an hour of intense, nonstop activity. Respect that work. Value your own effort. If you don’t give your brain time to rest after such intense activity, you will burn out.
The reason that you don’t want to write is actually the thing you need to write. Years ago I used to write movie reviews for a local paper. There were times that I found myself actively avoiding my writing assignments. I would have already gone to the movie, sometimes even interviewed people involved with the making of the movie, and already have written out all of my notes. And I still really, really, didn’t want to write the review. My editor, the great Charles Mudede, would eventually call me as my piece threatened to be too overdue to make it to print. He would ask me what the hold up was and since Charles and I were also real life friends, I would start venting my frustration with the assignment. I hated the angle we were taking. I felt like the movie might actually be harmful to audiences. I was tired of legitimizing films that promoted sexism or white supremacy. The movie was too ridiculous to write a single serious paragraph about it. And after I was done venting, Charles would calmly say, “Ok, write that then.” And the piece I would write about my frustrations would be a thousand times better and more relevant than the piece I had been assigned to write. In the years since, when I have an assignment to write about a current issue and I’m finding myself feeling increasingly frustrated with my assignment I imagine that I’m venting to Charles and then I say to myself, “Ok, write that then,” and it’s almost always exactly the thing that I needed to be writing all along.
You’ve just got a lot of other shit going on. I mean, what - in these times - could possibly be going on that would make it difficult for you to sit down at a desk, calm your mind, and write? It’s not like we are in the middle of a global pandemic/end-stage capitalism/environmental collapse/a white-supremacist shitshow of a country where weirdos who refuse to wear masks in order to avoid a deadly airborne disease keep randomly shouting “Let’s go Brandon” with maniacal glee (if you aren’t in the US, it’s ok, I’m sure your country is shitty for equally valid, if somewhat different, reasons). And also, everything else keeps happening. We have relationships to maintain or end, family that gets sick, kids that become teenagers - life doesn’t care that the world is on fire, it’s going to keep throwing shit at you anyway. And on top of that, you’re tryna be a writer? Look. Sometimes you just have to say, “I’m overwhelmed and I need a fucking nap.” And take that nap. Sometimes you have to say, “I don’t have the capacity to take on any writing that will add emotional stress to what is already an incredibly stressful time. I will only write things that I only care marginally about.” Sometimes you have to get a therapist. Sometimes you have to take a mental health break. Sometimes you need to call up a friend. Sometimes you just need to acknowledge to yourself that you are a human being who is indeed affected by the world around you and you need to give yourself the care and time you would want to give a loved one before you can even think about writing.
You forgot how to eat that elephant. You know the saying: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Well, if you have a large writing assignment ahead of you, like a book or a long-form essay, you may be looking at that elephant and saying, “Oh, I’ll never get that whole thing down.” So break the writing down into chunks you can fit in your mouth. For my first book, So You Want To Talk About Race, I remember balking at the prospect of writing 70,000 words. Then I broke it down and realized that 70,000 words was the same as about 50-60 essays. And I realized that I could write a few essays a week, and had done so for years. So If I took the book 1,000-2,000 words at a time, I could write a book too. Instead of trying to force myself to spend 12 hours a day pumping out words, I’d work until I hit my “essay word count” and then stop for the day and start again the next day. Slowly but surely, I wrote a whole book. And then I wrote another with even more words. Now I’m trying to convince myself that I can do this a third time.
You haven’t set aside time and space for the writing you really want to do. If you’re constantly writing things because you have to and everything is an assignment, and you don’t give yourself time to reconnect with the writing that you really like to do, you will absolutely begin to hate writing. Sometimes the writing that pays our bills or gains us readership is not the writing that sustains us emotionally or intellectually. And even though working writers still have to do that writing even when it’s not refilling their cup, you do have to refill your cup somewhere. So make time for the writing that you love, and know that it’s not just important to your emotional health and for sustaining your love of writing, it’s also important to your continued ability to be a jobbing writer. Few things in writing break my heart more than encountering writers who have clearly forgotten that they used to love writing. The love of words is a gift that we are so privileged to have been given, but it’s something that we have to nurture if we want it to carry us through our writing careers.
Okay y’all, I hope this helps you when you feel like you don’t want to write anymore. What are some of the reasons that you find yourself avoiding writing, and what do you do to overcome it? Let us know in the comments.
Thank you for reading. If you liked this newsletter and want to support my work, please consider subscribing here:
Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.