There were times in my life when I didn’t feel connected to my writings. I called these times the dark state.
These were the times when I decided to be lazy. When I felt as if I had nothing left (or interesting enough, at least) to write about. These were the times when I diligently work on other things and honed my skills in different types of creative pursuits. Surely, writing was not the only one?
Next, came a tidal wave of days, weeks, or even months when I was completely unmotivated and uninspired. I had no drive to write a sentence, let alone a short story. My mind stopped producing ideas, plots, characters, or conversations.
During the dark state, I didn’t even know whether I still wanted to pursue this life of writing. These were the times when I told myself that maybe I should have just given up writing altogether.
But of course, I didn’t.
Because those of us who have always think of ourselves as writers, know that we will always write. Even when we’re in our dark state, when we are not writing, we will keep thinking about writing (or about why we are not writing)—imagining our glory days in the future when we’ll be typing 200 words per minute as this brilliant idea for a short story, an essay, or a novel exploding around our head like a spectacular fireworks show on New Year’s Eve.
Every now and then, I needed to be reminded on how to keep my passion for writing alive, on how to fall in love once again with the craft, on how good it feels when I was so absorbed in a new project I forgot to eat, shower, or check how many instant messages have cramped my phone.
Whenever I got caught in a dark state, I tried to ‘jumpstart’ myself by doing some of the things below—if not all of them:
1. Read some books about writing
There are books about technical parts of writing, such as ones on how to write a novel in certain days, how to structure a story, how to create a memorable character, how to make a plot twist, and many more. These are not the kind of books I enjoy during my dark state.
I’d prefer to read books about the love of writing itself—or the creative processes behind it. Of course, you can also find some technical parts such as settings, characters, or dialogues come up in these favourite dark state books of mine, but they are not explained in a technical how-to manner.
- Wild Mind: Living The Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamot
- The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
- Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
- Dear Writer by Carmel Bird
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
- Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Wooldridge
2. Follow some fellow writers’ blog on the Internet
I like writers who blog, and on top of that: those who blog regularly. Some writers use their blogs to hone their skills, to share their thoughts (and worries), to store valuable resources, or simply to record memories, quotes, sentences, or scenes that may work for other types of writings, at other times.
I have followed several writers on the Internet these past few years. However, lately, I only go back to these blogs—mostly, because in my opinion, they are not trying to ‘write the perfect piece’ for their blog. To me, it feels as if they’re just writing effortlessly (although maybe they are actually working hard to produce each post).
The pieces are mostly short, clear, and concise. Reading through, I do not feel an invisible weight on my shoulder or a feeling as if I have to ‘catch-up‘.
- Alexandra Franzen, mostly on copywriting, non-fiction, and writing for the Net
- Jeff Goins, on thoughts, resources, tips, and challenges in writing books, e-books, and articles
- Nick Miller, on fiction and creative process (Nick happens to be one of my favourite writers of all time)
- Austin Kleon, on creativity and creative life
- James Altucher, on life, thoughts, and musings on self-development
- Allie Brosh, on doodling and looking at life from a funny lens
- John Green, on writing, writing process, and the life over the Internet
- Dani Shapiro, on life and writing life
- Tim Ferris, on writing, productivity, and showing up for your work
3. Read books/writings from the writers you admire, or from the genres you want to write about
This is one of my favourite ‘shortcuts’ to get out of my dark state. Reading just a ‘random’ book or a new book doesn’t always have the same effect.
I’d prefer to read a book I’ve read more than once for various reasons: maybe because the book is really good, the story is really twisted, the premise is mind-blowing, the technique is excellent, the sentences are compact and effective, or because the way it is written has never failed to make me hate myself for not writing this book at the first place. There has to be something about the book that hooked me, hard.
For me, these kind of books are the best to be read during a dark state, and below, you could find my dark state reading list:
- The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
- Isn’t It Pretty to Think So? by Nick Miller (I have read this one probably for more than 13 times—you can tell from the sad look of the crumpled book)
- The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
- Looking for Alaska by John Green
- Butterfly Stories by William T. Vollman
- Bombay Time: A Novel by Thrity Umrigar
- Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
- Choose Yourself by James Altucher
- Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon
- Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
- Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta
- The City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple
- The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams & Reaching Your Destiny by Robin Sharma
4. Read, watch, or listen to interviews or talks about a writer’s creative process that are available on the Internet
I had a selfish motive when I first came up with Behind the Pages, a special section in this blog dedicated to interviewing Indonesian writers (in English) about their writings, writing life, and creative process. Basically about things that happened behind-the-pages.
Watching, reading, or listening to interviews about a writer’s creative process helps me to rekindle my passion towards my writings, since I can clearly see parts of myself through their experiences and relate with their struggles. And don’t you think reading about someone’s creative process somehow makes us want to be ‘creative’?
Here are some of my favourites:
- At Home with Jhumpa Lahiri
- The Pool Meets Elizabeth Gilbert: The Director’s Cut
- Jack Kerouac: On The Road to Desolation (documentary)
- Junot Diaz: “This is How You Lose Her” | Talks at Google
- Haruki Murakami: In Search of This Elusive Writer (documentary)
- The Definitive John Green Interview
- JK Rowling: A Year In The Life (documentary)
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Tenement Talk from March 12, 2014
- A Conversation with Zadie Smith
5. Watch movies about writers; or that are related to writing
Sometimes, we’re just too lazy to read. In a dark state, most of the times, we’d like to do something more… passive. Watching movies (in bed) serves this purpose very well.
- My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown, about an Irish writer and painter who had cerebral palsy and was able to write or type only with the toes of his left foot.
- Sylvia, about the ups and downs in poet Sylvia Plath’s relationships with Ted Hughes, as well as her hunger to ‘create’ meaningful works
- Finding Forrester, about a young writer Jamal Wallace who befriends a reclusive writer, William Forrester
- Barfly, about a troubled writer spending his nights drinking and fighting, based on the life of successful poet Charles Bukowski
- Adaptation, about a sciptwriter who is trying to adapt Susan Orlean’ work The Orchid Thief; a work I read as an assignment during my narrative journalism course.
- Kill Your Darlings, about the ‘brotherhood’ of the beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
- Freedom Writers, about a teacher who uses ‘writing’ to inspire a class of at-risk students
- Bright Star, about the love story between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne
- Reprise, about two competing friends—both are writers—struggling with life, love, and the choices they make in life
6. Enrol in a writing course or take up a writing challenge
A bit of pressure is good. When you’re in a dark state and do not want to write, you can benefit from being forced to write.
Either by enrolling yourself in an online writing course (in which you’d need to submit your homework on a scheduled time), or announcing publicly that you’ll take up something like a 30-day writing challenge, what you need is to put yourself, your writings, and your commitment on the spotlight. And the peer pressure will force you to write again.
You can also learn about some writing-related topics online, in which you’ll find yourself jotting down some notes. Who knows, maybe the things you’ve just learned about could trigger the story inside of you to come out!
Some courses and writing challenges to get you going:
- Writing University – you’d be able to find any subjects you’d like to know about writing here; just type on the search box
- Gotham Writer’s Workshop – I took this paid online course before, and I loved it
- Start Writing Fiction from Open University
- Writing What You Know from Open University
- Introduction to Novel Writing from University of College Falmouth
- Writing for Children from University of College Falmouth
- The Daily Post’s Writing Challenges – just read through the challenges, and see if they could spark something inside your mind!
- 30 Day Challenge Archive – great to take this up for your personal blog, or—simply, a status update on Facebook
- Yeah Write – another weekly challenges you can take up (or seriously, you can just browse and read the challenges; usually something will come up)
Wait, wait, what about NaNoWriMo—you may asked. Well, not for the dark state. In such times, a bit of pressure is good, but a lot of pressure is bad. With NaNoWriMo, there’s just too much pressure. When I’m in a dark state, I don’t feel like writing—let alone writing a novel, in a month.
7. Attend writing-related events, book clubs, or writing sessions. Surround yourself with fellow writers
When you surround yourself with fellow writers (or fellow readers), most of the times, you’ll be talking about books, stories, or other writers whose works you’ve just read. What are you reading or do you have a book to recommend, would be the natural course of an ice-breaker.
Arrange a meet-up with your fellow writers.
Reserve 1-2 hours in the weekend to stay somewhere and write anything non-stop. No pressure to show or share whatever you’ve written to the rest of the group. Surrounding yourself with the right people and the right environment would be enough to stir up something dormant inside your soul.
8. Go to your favourite bookstore and spend a minimum of 2 hours examining books you like and, most importantly, books you do not like
Go slowly from one shelve to the next. Browse all the books in the best-selling sections and all the books in the most hidden corners. Flip the pages, read the opening lines, scrutinise the blurbs, study the cover. Which books you’d be happy to receive as a gift? Which books you wouldn’t want to read?
Hold on. Do not skip the books you do not like. Pick them up in a cynical and critical manner. This is badly written, you may think. Or what a lousy title. Or too many typos. Or the cover is a disaster. Surely, you can do something better than this, right? You know how to write better, how to pick a nice title, how to catch typos before they go in print, and you have a better sense of style to design at least a decent cover. Right?
If you’re asked to improve this book (that you dislike so much), how would you write or package it differently? There’s always a critic and an editor inside of us. In a dark state, even the two are absent—because we do not write anything for them to rip off. It’s the right time to provoke and unleash the beast.
9. Have your do-nothing day
Pick a day (or a minimum of 12 hours) when you can go somewhere or stay at home. You can stay at a hostel or rent a nice hotel room. But you need to be alone, undisturbed. Turn off your phone. No wi-fi. No gadgets.
You can go out and wander around, you can enter shops but you are not allowed to buy anything. You can go to a restaurant or cook your own dish, but you need to eat alone. And no, you cannot bake. You can only cook to feed yourself. You are not allowed to talk to anyone, but you can talk to strangers. Okay, you can get yourself cups of coffee (or tea).
You can play musical instruments, alone. Or do some sports, alone. You are not allowed to read. Or watch movies. Or listen to music. Or play video games. You cannot immerse yourself in other crafts and hobbies (no painting, drawing, doodling, sewing, knitting, gardening, taking pictures, or the like).
At some point, you will want to write. You’ll feel the itch to go to your computer and type something, or to grab a piece of paper and create a snowflake-method outline. Your mind will be full of chatters and ideas, characters and plots, as well as dialogues and sentences to begin or end a story.
Because when you have nothing to do, nothing to do at all, you’ll be reminded of the reasons why you pick up writing at the first place. About why, as a writer, you just need to write. It has been the one thing your 10-year-old self has always wanted to do—the little girl who would cry her eyes out if she only knew that the grown-up you would betray her: by giving up that love of writing.