“I don’t know what makes a writer, but it probably isn’t happiness.”
Ouch. Stinging words from William Styron snap the writer's psyche like the business end of a rat-tailed towel. We are not, as he said, known for being a bunch of "happy chuckleheads." But Styron also pointed out that this pervasive melancholy - a mood Paul McCartney called “an important color in writing” - is what makes us good at what we do. Empathy, understanding, and imagination open us to the world; they also leave us vulnerable to its too-rough edges. Add to those showbiz vicissitudes and social media posts that make us believe everyone but us has a three-picture deal, and we have a powerful prescription for a rising case of the writer doldrums. Public Service Announcement for anyone living in captivity with a writer: these doldrums are often characterized by Luddite levels of computer avoidance or Olympic face-plants onto the couch followed by endless scrolling through Shondaland. However, if you find your writer staring out the window eating handfuls of Captain Crunch from the box, there's no need to worry. This is known as “working.”
On the good news front, writer doldrums are usually transient and can serve as story fodder if you know how to manage them. I asked my writing tribe how they deal with their writer doldrums, and here's what they said:
Music: Writer/producer Diana Lanham says music recently brought her out of a month's long case of the writer doldrums. “While listening to music for a future shoot, I heard a song that completely inspired me. And just like that, I got my writing mojo back. In a week, I finished a complete short screenplay.” So put on your favorite artist or find a new one. Whichever you chose, blast it. Dancing optional.
Get Out: Tug on those trainers and go for a walk. Judy Bloom said a good writer is always a people watcher, so get out of your own head and notice the world around you.
Talk to Friends: Our first instinct is to seek out writer pals for a little commiserating but approach this with caution. Two writers commiserating can often deepen the blues until both of you are crying into your copies of Save the Cat. Find non-writer friends with a different perspective who can help you see the forest for the trees.
Help the Writing Community: Offer notes on a script or shout out someone's good news. “I'm a big believer in what you put out in the world comes back to you,” says screenwriter Guy Crawford. “When someone posts they got a manager, a contest placement, a general meeting or anything like that, I feel joy for them. I try to share [their good news] and by doing so remind myself everyone may be trying to get to the same place, but the path is different. By championing other writers I'm fueling my own soul at the same time.”
If your writer blues are entrenched, you may need to go deeper than walks and Twitter shoutouts. An extended social media break might be the thing or trying a different creative art. Draw or knit or bake (I'm a fiend for cupcakes. DM for address). And - important! - remember your sense of fun and play. Into The Script blogger, life coach, and script consultant Olivia Brennan offers this advice:
“Creating is an extension of ourselves. When we’re burnt out, stuck in a never-ending pit of low self-esteem, rejection - maybe all of the above, that’s when we know we haven’t been prioritizing ourselves as human beings. As Jurassic Park taught us, life finds a way, and sometimes, it’s going to make creating a bit of a challenge. What can you do in the next moment that will make you feel better and make the process feel more comfortable? You have to make time to play and not make it all about the end result.”
Most of all, give yourself time and grace to work through those doldrums without feeling guilty or ashamed. Writer blues have nothing to do with how much you love writing or your dedication to the craft. They're just another part of this funny old thing we call the writing life.