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When You're Not in the Mood to Write
by Noelle Sterne

Return to The Writing Life · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

If you believe you must wait to write until the right mood strikes, you'll never get much done. Many writers nevertheless persist in this myth and support it with impressive rationales. Some blame external circumstances:

  • "I can only write in the cold weather -- it's so invigorating!"

  • "I can only write in the spring. The warm breeze caresses my forehead and fingers, and I melt into the keyboard."

  • "I can only write in the middle of the night, when the busses stop roaring, my family and dog are snoring, and I can play my favorite jazz CDs."

Other writers make excuses from the inside:

  • "Before I can sit down to write, I've got to have all my monthly bills paid."

  • "I must get nine hours of sleep. Otherwise, my eyes burn, my head fogs, and I can't think."

  • "If I've had a fight with my partner, we have to make up before I can face the computer."

  • "I can't work if I have the slightest headache, backache, stomach-ache, earache, shoulder-ache, wrist-ache, or finger-ache."

Writers who limit themselves with any of these conditions swear they're legitimate. But if you depend on cold winter air to inspire you, your writing will wilt in the summer. If you think you can write only with emotional equilibrium, enough sleep, or flawless health, you'll spend most of your time not writing.

Do you assume you have to be in the mood to go to work? Does your employer? Must you be in the mood to feed your family? Do they assume this when their stomachs growl for dinner?

Once you renounce the pretext that you must be in the mood to write, you've accepted writing as your daily business. As many have observed, this is the only way to complete your projects and reach your goals:

  • A longtime editor snapped, "I don't believe in writers' blocks or magic moods. What's needed is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."

  • The American short story writer Flannery O'Connor advised an aspiring author: "set aside three hours every morning in which you write or do nothing else; no reading, no talking, no cooking, no nothing, but you sit there"

  • Woody Allen, the witty comedian, prolific film writer, director, actor, and short story writer, admits he writes daily only four or five hours. "Getting to the typewriter every day is what makes for productivity."

  • The novelist and writing teacher Leonard Bishop admonishes, "A writer must write every day. You may try to soften, sweeten, doctor or rationalize away the purity of this traditional verity -- but the effects of not writing every day will prove its validity."

Without regular, if not daily, writing, your zeal fades, you forget where you were, and you lose touch with your intuition. You're sure you'll never be a real writer and succumb to cleaning out the garage.

Professional athletes train daily, whatever the weather, their muscle aches or moods. Concert pianists practice incessantly, whether their fingers are warm, cold, stiff, or relaxed. As serious writers, we are no different. I used to give in to the mood-to-write rationale, especially since I was usually in the mood to do other things. After long struggles and reading of others' battles, I developed many strategies for deflating the justifications. Here are eleven:

1. Schedule realistic times to write.

This means more than yielding to spurts of excitement. For example, a beleaguered mother of four scrawled in determined letters on the refrigerator chalkboard, "Put the kids down for their naps. Write 3:00 to 4:00!" A paralegal chortled to the mirror while shaving, "When I get home tonight, no TV, no Internet, no phone. It's the manuscript for two hours!"

What happened? The mother's hour was consumed with three calls about the car pool, the PTA, and the class play costumes. The paralegal's session dissipated into too many beers with buddies after work, and he got home just in time to catch the final baseball scores and conk out on the sofa.

The lesson? Schedule regular and realistic times for writing. Base your schedule not only on your daily responsibilities but your self-knowledge. You may fantasize about writing at 6:00 a.m. and savoring the hush and new light. If you're truly a morning person, you'll have a great session. But if 6:00 feels like 3:00, schedule your writing sessions to honor your needs and body clock.

2. Mark your calendar.

Put down your scheduled writing time like you would a dentist's appointment, car tune-up, or meeting with the boss. This action says you take yourself and your writing seriously. Your writing session with yourself is an appointment -- and possibly more important than any other.

3. The night before, plan exactly what to work on.

When I began scheduling specific writing times, I'd show up at my desk but always give in to opening mail, sorting files, or bolting up to wash the three dishes in the sink. When I complained to a consistently productive colleague, he shared his method: "Before I quit the current session, I decide exactly what's next. Then I lay out everything that applies." So decide where you'll start and set out the materials you'll need.

This technique will not work if you shrug and mutter, "Oh, I'll look at the Western novel or Christmas short story." Get specific. Is it the essential saloon scene? The dual-career couple's fight over who will take the kids tree shopping?

Find your notes, if you've made them, and plunk them on top of your pad or keyboard. If your write with the computer, use the excellent "bookmark" feature. You can type notes at the bookmarked spot and "save" it all.

4. Start with something easy.

As long as the task relates at all to writing, it's fair game -- printing a draft, addressing an SASE, investigating a market. However, such jobs won't take long, and you may be tempted to veer off into the day's TV offerings. So...

5. Set small goals you know you can meet.

Whether you're motivated by resolve or shame, turn the timer to five writing minutes, or vow to finish a paragraph or a page. If you clock your words, settle on a small daily quota. Want perspective? Hemingway recorded his output at only 450, 575, sometimes 1,250 words a day; Irwin Shaw strove for 1,000.

Once you start, you'll probably get so immersed you won't even hear the timer bell or stop at your promised quota. The strategy works.

6. Sneak into it.

If you're still having trouble starting, try a variation of Number 4. Instead of beginning at the bookmark of your last session, go back a few paragraphs. Pretending nonchalance, glance at the screen or page.

Your editing reflex will spring up, unstoppable. Yield to it. As you casually delete this, add that, you'll have eased into your session, all stalling gone. If you need a more severe version, retype several previous paragraphs. Before you can say "Shift," you've sailed into new writing.

7. Make a list.

Sometimes we avoid writing -- and blame it on the weather, that taco, or the latest spat with our spouse -- because we feel overwhelmed. This is especially true with a long and involved project, like a book proposal, screenplay, or novel.

Making a list keeps you organized and motivated. Contrary to another myth, lists do not diminish your creativity or metamorphose you into a left-brain drudge. The artist has to keep a list of painting supplies, the sculptor an inventory of muds. Writers need to keep lists of paper, pens, ink cartridges, laptop batteries, scenes, characters, characters' characteristics, etc., etc.

When you make a list of all aspects of your project, you get the worries out of your head and curb that feeling of endlessness. The list is your master plan, like a blueprint. For a book proposal that froze me, I finally made a list of at least fifteen necessary sections (introduction, promotion plan, competitive books, sample chapter, bibliography). What broke my paralysis? The next technique.

8. Choose one thing from your master list.

Despite the advice to Alice in Wonderland, you don't have to start at the beginning. For my proposal, I started near the middle, with what was easiest.

I realized the competitive books section called for mini-book reviews. My courage stirred as I remembered earlier book reviewing experience. Starting here not only broke my ice but also forced me to ask what my book had that the others didn't -- which is the point of a competitive books section. So examine your master list for what you can ease in with. It all counts.

9. Use the "diaper method."

I devised this method for clients who feel snowed under by their own interminable lists, intricate outlines, and unremitting editorial critiques.

Take a pair of post-its, index cards, or sheets of paper and stick or clip them to your list. Position the "diaper" so it blocks out everything but the single item you've chosen. With all others out of sight, you can now focus on what's in front of you. When you finish this segment, move the post-its or cards so they show only your next selection.

With the diaper method, you keep your attention on the visible section, heading off any thoughts of overwhelm or endlessness. When you finish this section, you're ready to move the diaper. And you'll probably feel, as I do, a sweeping sense of accomplishment and excitement at the forward movement.

10. Keep a log of your writing time.

You may groan at keeping more records, but a weekly or monthly log has significant benefits:

  • It helps you see what days you miss. Is there a pattern? Do you take weekends off? Do they slide into Monday?
  • The log helps you become more conscious of where you're choosing to spend your time.
  • The log shows you when you prefer to write -- morning, afternoon, or dead of night.
  • The log helps you practice forgiving yourself for not writing as much as you think you should.
  • Analyzing the log spurs you to figure out how to devote more time to writing.

Keeping a log bolsters your conviction of yourself as a writer. As you enter each session, praise yourself for your steadiness, persistence, and increased hours.

11. Accept your "moody" feelings.

Despite all these pointers, if you simply can't settle down to write for any reason, even knowing you've manufactured it, accept the feeling. If you berate yourself, you'll only feel worse.

But instead of giving up, bargain. Ask yourself, "How can I tease myself into a just a leetle stint?" Your first answer may be to type a label, stuff an envelope, update your bio (see Number 2). Fine.

If you must, run for the caffeine, chips, or chocolate -- anything to get you going. Some writers blast music or talk radio. One writer confessed that before she could confront the screen she stuffed down three raisin-nut-spice muffins (with a little water, I hope). Use your most effective and favorite teasing remedies. You can start the diet once the draft is done.

With these solutions, your writing schedule won't be buffeted by changes in the atmosphere, either outside your window or inside your head. You'll stick to your schedule, sit down, and write regularly because it's your business to. And you'll banish any coy excuses and stalling tactics that you've got to be in the mood to write.


  1. Flannery O'Connor, Letter to Cecil Dawkins, November 12, 1960, The Habit of Being: Letters, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979), p. 49.

  2. Robert F. Moss, "Creators on Creating: Woody Allen," Saturday Review (November 1980), p. 40.

  3. Leonard Bishop, Dare to Be a Great Writer (Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books, 1988), p. 280.

  4. Ralph Keyes, "Keep Hope Alive," The Writer (November 2003), pp 19-22.

Find Out More...

Boxed In? Boost Your Creativity with an Extreme Makeover - Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant

Disheartened and Dragging? Write Yourself a Letter - Noelle Sterne

Nine Anti-Muses and How to Placate Them - Victoria Grossack

Recharging the Writer Battery: Six Ways to Keep Going When Times Get Tough - Mindy Hardwick

Ten Tips on Beating the Writing Blues - Lynn Alfino

What To Do When the Writing Motivation Wavers - Susan Miles

Copyright © 2011 Noelle Sterne
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 250 published fiction and nonfiction pieces in print and online venues. She has contributed many guest blogs and writes a column in Coffeehouse for Writers, "Bloom Where You're Writing." With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has guided doctoral candidates to completion of their dissertations. Based on this work, her latest project-in-progress is a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook, Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation -- Finally -- and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. In her current book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com.


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