So, You’re Having A Bad Writing Day

You’re having a shitty writing day.

It happens.

I get a crap writing day at least once a week. Maybe twice. Once in a while, I get a whole bad run of writing days, like I’ve got some kind of creative food poisoning and every day is just the urgent regurgitation of narrative fluids without aim or purpose. It’ll be five heinous days in the word mines, where I’m sweating and raging and kicking dirt.

To repeat: it happens.

Problem is, these days, these fucking days, boy howdy — they can derail your train, can’t they? Knock you right off the track.

But it’s okay.

I’m here to help you get through them.

But first you have to get in the van.

*gestures to van*

*waits*

*waits some more*

Okay, you know what, looking at the van now, I maybe see what I did wrong. Maybe we don’t get in the van. Maybe we just stand outside the van. It’s cool. We can talk here, where you can easily run screaming for help.

The first thing you need to know is that:

Bad writing days — or, if you’re an artist, bad art-making days — are normal.

They are part of it. They are woven into the fabric of what we do.

In fact, writing is supposed to be hard. Easy things are boring things. Easy is like, putting on lip balm, or making a pot of $0.19 grocery store ramen. Those are not bad things, but they are not particularly consequential things, either. Nobody changed the world by putting on lip balm. (Cue 52 comments where people tell me that Winston Churchill and Roosevelt bonded over lip balm.) Writing a story or making art is not putting on lip balm. It’s not raking leaves, even if the mechanics feel that way sometimes.

Stories are bigger, stranger, sprawlier things.

Consider: the act of telling a story is you CONJURING AN ENTIRE UNIVERSE INSIDE YOUR MIND and then using words as knives to CARVE THAT UNIVERSE INTO REALITY SO THAT OTHERS CAN VISIT YOUR IMAGINATION. “Today I am going to make a world out of my brain that you can go to in your spare time,” you say aloud, hopefully realizing that this is far more significant and far more bizarre than tying your shoes or blowing your nose. Creating whole worlds is pyroclastic. It is volcanic. It’s heat and fire, it’s molten rock, it’s lightning inside black smoke amid the nose and clamor of thundering earth and boiling air. It is an astonishing, generative act.

And it’s sometimes hard.

Sometimes what we do is stage magic. Sometimes the magic is sacrificial.

Stage magic requires hours of practice where you get it wrong.

Sacrificial magic requires blood on the altar.

In both cases, the magic — be it trick or spell — is hard as hell.

As it should be. As it must be.

We sometimes get the false sense as creatives that, if this thing we do does not come naturally, then it is not worth doing — or worse, that we are somehow not meant to do it at all. I watch this with my son sometimes, where he wants to try something new and because he is not immediately successful he rules himself “terrible” at it and wants to stop. Thing is, he is terrible at it. Of course he’s terrible at it. What, he’s going to sit down on his first try at painting and summon a Mondrian Mona Lisa? No. He’s going to paint something that looks like a clown ate a unicorn and then threw it all up again. (Spoiler warning: sometimes I go to write a first draft and yeah, no, it looks like a clown ate a unicorn and then threw it all up again. This is how it goes. It’s part of the process, man.) This isn’t automatic. It’s not automagic. It takes time and effort and grit and sweat and confusion and probably hallucinogenic drugs and definitely an ingrained sense of free-wheeling foolishness.

It being hard is not a sign of it being not worth doing.

The difficulty is the point. The difficulty proves its worth.

The difficulty is not a sign that you don’t belong here.

Impostor Syndrome is real. Flip the script on it. Don’t let it have power over you. Admit you’re an impostor. Then admit that we’re all impostors — none of us belong here because art and story are forbidden, interstitial places. This thing we do is Buccaneer’s Den, it’s Mos Eisley, it’s a secret moon colony. Not a one of us “belongs” here. We all booked illegal passage through blackest night and sharky waters to get here. We’re not one ship, we’re countless life-boats strung together — a glorious flotilla of freaks.

This is who we are. It’s what we do. And what we do is sometimes hard. It’s hard for me. It’s hard for you. It’s hard for Stephen King. It’s hard for J.K. Rowling. King probably thinks that Rowling does it effortlessly, and Rowling probably thinks King sails through every draft, and the truth is, it’s hard for them, for you, for me, for every penmonkey that ever done monkeyed with a pen.

When a story reads effortlessly, it was not written effortlessly. In fact, the more effortlessly it reads, the more effort probably went into making it read effortlessly.

It took work.

Lots and lots of unholy, occasionally unhappy, hard-ass work.

Because, repeat after me: IT’S HARD.

Now, to clarify: it’s not hard in the way other work is hard. It’s not back-breaking work. Nobody’s shooting at us. We’re not training chimpanzees or wrangling eight-year-olds or wrestling bears. It’s easy, in that way. But it’s also hard in its own way, and let it be that way. If we diminish what we do, if we make it seem that the act of MAKING COOL STUFF is somehow cheap and glib and fucking throwaway, it undercuts our power. It sells short the necessary nature of art and story in the world. It makes what you do feel lesser when what you do is epic. Story moves the world. Art changes people. Entertainment gives us respite. Narrative gives us enlightenment.

It all moves the needle.

When you’re having a bad writing day, a hard writing day, remember that.

And remember too that when you sit down a week from now, or a month, or a year, the days the writing was hard and the days the writing was easy will be indistinguishable from one another. In fact, sometimes the easy days produce worse work than the difficult days. You never know. So don’t let it stop you. Put the bucket over your head and run at the wall anyway. And remember that all of this is just a draft, that it can all be fixed and changed, that what doesn’t work can be made to work. It can always be made to work with enough practice, with enough blood.

You’re having a hard day of writing, write anyway.

Do it because it’s hard.

Forgive yourself because it’s hard.

Don’t let one bad day be the gravestone for the rest of the days.

Then stop. Push a little, but don’t push so hard you drop your brain out of your ass. Go and take a walk, play with the dog, eat a churro, crank one out. Then get back to it tomorrow. Maybe it’ll be hard tomorrow. Maybe it’ll be harder tomorrow. I don’t know. Nobody knows. But the difficulty is the point. You’re ripping things out of you and putting them onto the page. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Nobody said it should be easy.

Let it be what it must be.

65 comments

  • “If we diminish what we do, if we make it seem that the act of MAKING COOL STUFF is somehow cheap and glib and fucking throwaway, it undercuts our power. It sells short the necessary nature of art and story in the world. It makes what you do feel lesser when what you do is epic. Story moves the world. Art changes people. Entertainment gives us respite. Narrative gives us enlightenment.

    It all moves the needle.

    When you’re having a bad writing day, a hard writing day, remember that.”

    This gave me chills. Thank you for this. <3

  • These are some true-ass words, fine sir. Sometimes I think I like it when it’s hard, even though I bitch and fret over it. After I wrote a novel, I decided I wasn’t done with the self-torture. So, I turned it into a serial radio play podcast where I do everything. Ev-er-ree-thing. Write the scripts, voice all the characters, edit the stupid thing, add sound effects, add custom music, etc. I’ve taken what was already hard (creating a story out of nothing) and made it infinitely harder by porting it to a new medium. I must love the self-abuse. But ya know what. I love it all. 🙂

  • Thanks for the reminder, Chuck, that it’s something we ALL go through. And it’s just a draft. We can fix it.

    It isn’t supposed to be “easy;” but it IS supposed to be a passion and an irresistible impulse. And it is so worth it in the end. Bad day or good day, “it all moves the needle.”

    Going back to my manuscript again, because I DO want to finish this chapter.

  • I’m wrestling with a simple gay-rom novella. How hard could it be? It’s my 33rd book, and it’s like pulling teeth. Thank you for writing this blog, Chuck. It almost made me cry, in a good way. Writing can be so solitary, it’s easy to forget that people CHOOSE to spend money on our books because they get something worthwhile in return. Your words are validating. I’ll get back to it now, and forgive myself for it feeling like work.

  • My recent shitty writing days led me to dead end. My writing was feeling off and my motivation to continue torturing myself at my desk evaporated. So I sat and waited for a few days staring at walls and kicking cans across my kitchen floor. Apparently, dead ends help. I finally see the big messy hairball screwing up my current story. If I’d kept going, despite all the signs that something was wrong, I would have written myself off a cliff.

  • July 11, 2017 at 10:46 AM // Reply

    My father, who was a writer, gave me advice that I’ve tried to be mindful of: When, no matter what you do to make a piece work, it’s just not going to happen (and for me, that’s the hard part, because I also inherited his stubbornness/perseverance)—-walk away. Put the pencil/paintbrush down, crumple that umpteenth crap attempt at a masterpiece, and take a leak, take a walk, pull weeds, pet cats—but leave it alone, and take a break. I’ve found that when I return to the project, whether it’s in an hour, the next day, or a week, the right answers are waiting for me on the drawing board.

  • July 11, 2017 at 10:59 AM // Reply

    Wow! After 20 years of writing, I still need to hear this! In the beginning it was fun–putting my heart and gut on paper. I’ve learned it’s hard work and yes, I must run right at the barking dog in order to succeed.

  • Funny and insightful, as always. I especially appreciated you including the bit about wrangling eight-year-olds between training chimpanzees and wrestling bears. I’ve shared this post with my fellow writing friends. Thanks!

  • It takes a lot of fertilizer to grow almost anything. Especially a story, song or book. Check out some of the Beatles “Let It Be” videos, as they struggle to write the songs on their last studio album. It’s painful stuff, but also inspiring. If the greatest band ever (IMHO)has to struggle mightily to write a song, it means creativity isn’t easy for anybody. As Chuck says, writing is hard, but it’s worth doing. So if you gotta write shit some days, write shit. Give it time, and it’s amazing what the shit can turn into.

  • And this, Chuck, this is why I love you. I’m printing out this post and putting it up in my office right next to the quote from Barbara Samuels: “These are dark times. But your weapon is that word of hope, your talent, your offering. Do it well, because it is a sacred calling and we all need you. Writing romance is an act of faith in an unholy times. Now go do it. Write.”

  • Man, right on time, Chuck, as evidenced by our fellow writers who needed such a boost. Hell yeah, it’s tough to sit down–daily–and try to allow the Muse to speak to our souls.

    As the late great Jackie Robinson said, “Don’t complain. Just work harder.” And that was actually written in his contract–not to complain! Now if someone who had suffered as much as he did, with all the obstacles and racism that permeated his life we, as writers, can certainly rise above the ‘bad day syndrome’.

    But Mr. Wendig, thank you. Thank you for posting a message of hope and intestinal fortitude into all your readers and fellow posters and writers out there.

    It was, like a lot of responders, the perfect elixir and remedy to a week of ‘bad writing’.

    I have since sat down and continued my MS.

    You are a wise man, and we all appreciate your humor and wit and knowledge.

    Thank you.

  • I doff my hat to you, Chuck!

    This is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell people what’s it’s like to be a writer, when they all think that I just ‘sit down and write a book’… no, I don’t *just sit down*… it’s never like that.

    and you’re right: but I call my days ‘The Good, The Bad and the Fuck Off I’m Outa Here!’ Days… because they’re like that.

  • So needed this right now. I’m struggling with several plot points, barely making baby steps on any of them. And the longer I go without a resolution, the more I start thinking I’m not cut out for this. But I guess I need to remember that all those baby steps will eventually add up to a full journey. Thank you.

  • I’m not at all into inspirational quotes but your sentence about carving a universe really caught my imagination. I’m pretty sure i will keep it somewhere.

  • I have learned to be thankful for the ‘hard’ days. It only gets hard when I am trying to force something that isn’t there yet. The hard days provide time for the self-examination needed for me to know why I want to push something that doesn’t seem to fit, or create something that hasn’t ripened yet. Since it is usually my ego that wants to do the ‘something’ I have learned to leave it alone. Without the catharsis there would be no growth in my own personal character.

  • “…wrangling eight-year-olds or wrestling bears.”

    I read that as “wrangling eight-year-olds who are wrestling bears,” which does indeed sound hard!

    This was a great post to read today. I’ve been struggling with flipping the switch from “writing brain” to “revision brain.” I know it’ll be easier once I’ve got at least one scene behind me in revisions (I go through this every time I start a second draft), but right now it’s So. Damn. Hard.

  • Whenever I get the urge to compare myself to other writers I imagine Leonardo Da Vinci looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in awe and muttering under his breath “And he’s not even a fucking painter.”

  • sometimes it is effortless, and i always have the bad writing days after some really good writing days where it’s effortless and any moment i’m not writing is agony. it’s weird to bounce between the two extremes, but this definitely helped (and it’s definitely not some weird spite-complex that made me open my word doc back up while muttering “mama didn’t raise no punk”)

  • Thanks for this today of all days. I’m really down because of the Budget thing in Washington. The voting is affecting my beloved wild horses in real life, and in my book as my hero had rescued some from slaughter. It’s blown me off my feet. I’m supposing I need to crawl back into my world and continue on as if nothing is happening on the outside of my perfect little kingdom. I’m thinking I may have to rewrite to reality or just go on to where I was heading. To hell with them, we just keep on keeping on as we used to say.
    Thanks for the kick in the butt.

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