Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Churn, Baby, Churn: What I Do When I've Lost My Writing Mojo

This month's Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question came from Laura: "What do you do when you lose your writing mojo?"

Laura's response can be found here, and Lydia's response is here.

The thing about mojo ... it's all about your thoughts--both the ones you can access and the ones you can't.

Mojo Jojo says, "Now, if you'll excuse me,
I have a manuscript to take over."
And what I mean by that: You can't have mojo 24-7.  (unless you're this guy-->)

Nonstop MOJO is just not possible. Even if you're the type who writes every day, some days are going to be ON, and some days are gonna suck in any number of ways, for any number of reasons. Sometimes you might have a number of days like that in a row.

When that's happening, you have two tasks:
  1. Let your brain do what it needs to in order to get you ready for that next blast (or trickle or flow or whateva--we're all different) of productivity. Let things churn. Be at peace with the churning.
  2. While your ideas are churning, DO NOT fall victim to your Sneaky Brain (my post about what it can do to a querying writer is here, and my post about how to put it in its place is here).
That "churn" is what your brain does in the background while the rest of you is busy getting on with life. It has to happen. There has to be a space where you process and digest all the stuff you're thinking in the foreground, and you can't do all that systematically and deliberately. It's messy. Sometimes it takes a bit of time.

What interferes with this awesome process are those thoughts from your Sneaky Brain. You know the ones.
  • This isn't churning; this is writer's block. You have it. You. Have. Writer's. Block. Writer's! Block!
  • You will never have another good idea again. And that's because you suck. No, really. You do.
  • This is the only book you'll ever write, and if you don't figure this out, your writing career is OVER.
  • You see all those other writers out there? They've had ten ideas in the time it's taken you to polish off that plate of onion rings.
  • Your brain is flat and you've just reached the edge of it. Prepare to fall into the abyss of NO MOJO!

Now imagine your poor, brilliant brain, churning away, and then WHAM! It gets attacked by these sneaky thoughts. It's like throwing a rock in those gears.

Knowing that, this is what I try to do, and it's what I'd tell anyone who asked: When you have times when you're less productive, or not productive at all, let it happen.

Don't panic. Let things churn. Just because it doesn't feel like something's happening doesn't mean there's nothing happening. Sometimes it means the opposite.

But when you get sucked in by the Sneaky Brain's shenanigans, it gets harder to relax and let yourself go along. You get anxious. You get depressed. And those gears might get gummed up--you might end up sabotaging yourself, and your churning could turn in to a full-on slump. So you have to kick those sneaky thoughts away--don't let them interfere with whatever your brain is doing to get you back on track.

Concretely, here's what I do when I have no ideas, when I feel uninspired, and when the words are not flying from the tips of my fingers: I read. I open my eyes and pay more attention to the world. (I read) I listen more carefully. I reach out to my friends. (I read some more) I listen to music. I try to relax, and I remind myself my brain is churning, and that it's a pretty good brain, and that, when it's ready, I'll be ready, too.

On a related note, Kim Harrington, the author of CLARITY, had an excellent post on writer's block this past Monday (and she quoted me, which made me blush and go all giggly). She has thoughts on how to push through tricky writing problems by having a quiet mind.

What about you? When you lose the mojo, how do you think about it? Are you prone to panic or peace? If you've recovered from a time of mojolessness, how did you do it? Do you think you've ever made a patch of mojolessness longer by falling victim to the Sneaky Brain?

Oh! And while you're here, please enter my id's giveaway so it doesn't give me a headache with all its whining. What's in it for you: a chance to win a $20 Amazon gift card or a 10-page crit, your choice. You have until tonight at midnight (EST) and winners will be announced Friday--when I'll also start answering some of your fabulous questions!


  1. I'm in the churning phase while I let things settle and it feels like I might freak out. I can't rush the writing, I know that from experience, but it still feels so...overwhelming. A huge task ahead of me, a mountain of writing, and I am standing at the bottom looking at the fire tower at the summit. It''s...well, it's just BIG and there are so many words between here and there.

    So I go to school, and I teach, and I talk to the kids, and I go on walks near the mountain with the fire tower (I'm not quite ready to head up yet) and hope that it all comes together soon. Before my agent gives up on me altogether and changes her mind.

    That's all I've got.

  2. Fortunately I haven't lost my mojo yet. But that's also why I like to have at least one project outlined (or at least stewing in my mind) while I'm working on something else. I'm afraid of finishing a novel and saying, "Now what?" It's easier to query when you've got a shiny new project to work on. (Okay, it's also easy to forget to query when you have a shiny new project to work on.) ;)

  3. Your brain is flat and you've fallen off the edge of it... hahaha. I love this post. And so true. I don't usually run out of ideas, but I do get many paralyzing moments of fear where I swear I've just forgotten, completely and utterly, how to even compose a sentence, let alone a whole novel. Great post!

  4. Wow! You always write the most interesting blogs!
    For me, if it's not working, do what you do, I go with it.
    Sometimes I think "stuff it, I'm reading today, ALL DAY."
    Other times I think "Writing is not working, need to think, let's go have a day at the park with hubby".
    Getting away from the blank page is so important. It might feel like you're giving up, or not working hard enough, but trust me. The juices are just brewing. :)

    Excellent, as always!!!

  5. Taking a break helps me. Whether it's a 20 minute walk during the day or taking the weekend off from writing.

  6. hmmmm....
    maybe i can let go of some of that "i SHOULD be writing, but nothing is coming" guilt! maybe my brain's just churny,churn,churning...

  7. I get a case of the sneaky brain once and a while. If often happens when I critique when I read my fantasy writer friends work. My mind just doesn't work the same as theirs...and I start feeling self-conscious of my work. :( Luckily, I have great cp's. They remind me that we write differently and that's okay. :-)

  8. This is exactly how I work--lots of writing for months and months, and then the "slump" which is actually just my brain churning (I like that way of putting it) and recharging. I used to worry that maybe it wouldn't come back. When three weeks or four weeks passed and I still had no mojo, when I had no desire to write and no ideas...and then, inevitably, one day the characters start poking my brain and then beating drums in there, and then screaming that I'd better get typing OR ELSE. This year when it happened, I took a reading hiatus and knew that when I was ready to write again, I'd be ready. It took a while, but now I'm typing as fast as I can to get all of this story out.

    Love the post!!

  9. You see all those other writers out there? They've had ten ideas in the time it's taken you to polish off that plate of onion rings.

    And then I died laughing. Why?

    Because I'm a slow churner, a languid writer, and it took me a long time to get over the exact feelings described in this one funny sentence. Namely: that I was not a lesser specimen of the "writer" species because my ideas attack me like lone, sporadic, silent assassins, not whole battalions.

    It's also funny to me because I have, in fact, been known to eat entire plates of onion rings. ;-)

    Thanks for the post!

  10. I don't know if this is a good habit or a bad one, but if nothing new is strolling round the bend, I go back and edit what I have. It works a different part of the creativity machine for me, which is still fun, so I still feel productive and don't get as discouraged. Or I play video games and blank out for an hour (things usually make more sense after a good blank-out session). That's probably a bad habit. :-) Great post, as usual!

  11. I read when I get stuck. I need the change of perspective and staring at a blank page is counter-productive. Walking is good too, but only when I'm working through a hiccup - not a major mojo mishap.

  12. I force myself to write. I sit down and start typing. I might be convinced it sucks, but I know I can always change it later. And you know what? It's usually not as bad as I thought when I get back to it. That is, it's salvageable. Why? Because I'm a writer. It's my career choice (no I make no money but so what? :P) So I treat it like a full time job. Butt in chair.

  13. Churn, baby, churn.

    I totally agree!

  14. Fantastic post! It reminded me of the comment you left on my blog for Monday's post!

    I do a lot of other things when I'm stuck--homework, cleaning, watching TV, etc. I'm not focusing on my manuscript, but the back of my brain is.

  15. I like this post. Why? Because I haven't written any new words in months. BUT, my brain has certainly been churning, LOL!

  16. I swear, you are so in my head right now it's scary. Like, really scary. Stop that!


  17. It took me a while to understand that churning (or composting, if you prefer) was actually a necessary part of the writing process. A flourishing field must also lie fallow, yada yada.

    While I churn, I do like to take walks. And, as you say, reading is groovy. (Another part of the writing process, don't you know?)

    Thanks for the post. I can't think of any questions to satisfy your whining id, so I'll just live vicariously through the more creative of your followers, and celebrate ith them when they win the goodies!! (Celebrating is also a part of the writing process.)

  18. I went to a workshop with Ursula Le Guin a few years back and she called churning composting. Composting is good. I find showers good, too. I come up with crazy stuff in the shower.

  19. I think I'm having deja vu, because I answered a similar question on another blog. (Or was it here? I'd better check the comments above ...)

    Nope, I'm not there.

    Okay, when I need to churn, I work on some excruciatingly boring task (like weeding the garden, cleaning the refrigerator, or scrubbing the bathroom) until my brain starts to create in self-defense. Then I leave the job half-finished when I get inspired .. ha, ha, ha ..

  20. What an excellent post! And that's so true, about letting things simmer in the background while you get busy w/other things. I like all of the things you listed as helpful activities. I also like to garden or roller blade. Both of those really nourish and invigorate my muse. :)

  21. What a timely post! My mojo is slipping for my current WIP...and I need to find a way to get my juices flowing again. But I like your advice about letting things simmer for awhile! I guess sometimes we need to let go for awhile before we can move forward.

  22. I just hit the churning phase again. I always get really hard on myself when that happens. When I'm on, I can write 50K words in a month, so having to really squeak out words feels so lame, for lack o f a better term. I always forget about the long, unconscious process that's going on in the background.

  23. Great post on how we psych ourselves into believing the simple process of thinking out a scene, character, etc. is writer's block. I've tried to get away from thinking I have it when I', really planning subconsciously. Happy Thursday!

  24. I had about three years when I went full force. I pumped out multiple novels and spent a lot of time revising them. This past year, I've been totally off when it comes to my WIP. I didn't think writer's block applied to me, but it catches everyone eventually.


  25. When I lose my mojo, it's usually time for me to go for a run in the desert or curl up with my e-reader. Or both. When all else fails, massive amounts of chocolate seem to do the trick too.

  26. Omigosh what an awesome post! Give in to the churning. I must write that down somewhere.


  27. Excellent advice. i agree, sometimes we just have to be the unproductive person so we can get it out of our system. Then, make room for the mojo!

  28. very cool. That's exactly what I do when it happens--like just recently when a buncha stuff fell on me at once. Let the brain rest, do what it needs to do and ignore Sneaky Brain. I had no idea that's what it was called. :D

    That or write through it. ;p