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The trick to writing when you’re not in the mood

Most of us don't have to write. So how can we do it anyway?

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Most of us don’t have to write. Thus it’s easy to throw it into the important-but-not-urgent pile along with exercise, meditation, and the dirty socks. ⁣

For many years, I’d claim I planned to write books. Someday. ⁣

When? Was I waiting for someone to knock on my door and say “you should write a book.” Or maybe I was waiting to get in the mood. It took me a decade to figure out “mood” is largely irrelevant. That we may never be in the mood to do most things worth doing. The trick is to just do them anyway. So I did.

I started by going small; committing to writing one page. Then I wrote a scene. Before long I had amassed 50k words of compete drivel.

It was about a generation ship that takes off with half of earth’s surviving population, leaving the rest to certain doom. Oh, and the leader of those left behind managed to control the population with an addictive hallucinogenic and RFID chips. This piece ostensibly to set up the next book in the series.

Yup. It was bad. Half a star at best.⁣

Here were a few of the technical problems besides the terrible plot:

The genre didn’t exist, for one.⁣ The entire thing was backstory.⁣ It was short by about half.⁣ And the kicker.

It didn’t…like…make sense.⁣

You get the point. ⁣The important thing was I did it.

Back to mood. After I realized it didn’t matter, I wrote another book. And a third. And by the fifth attempt, things were looking better.

I secured a publishing contract — not for “Before the Storm” my post-apocalyptic disaster — but for a narrative nonfiction how-to, which means at least one person liked what I had to say.

Some days I even felt like writing. Others, what I wrote actually made sense. But, if none of that happened, I was always happy I had written.

Here are the exact steps to give it a try yourself:⁣

Open a new doc

A common piece of advice for new exercisers is to underpromise. In other words, instead of saying you’ll run five miles, commit to lacing up your shoes and running around the block.

The idea is that by the time you’ve gone round the street you’ll think ‘this isn’t so bad, I’ll tack on a bit more.’ Then before you know it, you’ve done those five miles — or at least some miles.

The same trick works for writing.

Commit to writing one paragraph.

Don’t worry about whether it’s good, or even makes sense. You don’t have to show it to anyone after. Just write.

This advice sounds simplistic, but it really works. I’ve used the same trick hundreds of times whether gearing up to do a century ride or a three mile run with my dog.

Only rarely does it lead to the ride of shame in the dreaded sag wagon.

Leave the doc open and do something else

Now it’s time for your subconscious to take over and fill in the holes. Go for a walk, empty the dishwasher, or work on your day job.

“If you have work to do, don’t wait to feel like it; set to work and you will feel like it.”⁣ — Henry James

This is where the magic happens. Often, I’d return to my half-finished paragraph of goop and have a clear direction forward.

Commit to revisit your paragraph at x day and time.

Now the trick is to do this day after day. Taking the pressure off to come up with something good and committing to stick with it, regardless of mood, is the hallmark of a professional.

That’s it! Before you know it, you’ll have a regular writing habit.

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