Last week, I got involved in a conversation on Twitter about the challenges of writing while attending school. It was past midnight, so I let out a lot of feelings I normally try to keep tucked away. Now, in the light of day, I’m trying to crystalize what we were talking about into something coherent and at least a little bit constructive on the challenges of writing while you’re a student and, because this is how those challenges have manifested for me, overcoming cosmic writer’s block.
To be completely honest, all through college and the few years after college before I started law school, my friends considered me something of a writing wonder. I write a lot, and I write fast. And in college, I always found time to write. But at the same time, I was steeped in creativity. My friends were the same people in my writing group. We would set aside hours for quiet writing time. We were so involved with each other’s stories that we talked about them all the time, formulating theories, helping each other work out plot holes, and so on. And when we weren’t writing or talking about our projects, we were disecting books we were reading and shows and movies we were watching. It was a really great experience, and if you have a group like that in college, then I totally agree with anyone who says that college is the best time to get writing done. But I’ve also heard a lot of college students say that it’s hard to get writing done in college because of all the other things you have to balance, and while I didn’t really get it as an undergraduate, I’m definitely getting it now.
Since I left college and I’ve lost that constant, in-person writing support group, writing has become a struggle for me. I kept going through my first year of law school, partly because it was the only thing that was keeping me sane. But it wasn’t easy the way writing used to be easy. Just the other day, I saw a Facebook post from last year where I was saying that I was going to do Camp NaNoWriMo in April because I was tired of a paragraph feeling like a victory. And in my second year of law school, it’s only gotten worse. I was told my second year of law school would be easier than the first, but this has turned out to be a big fat lie, at least for me. The only real difference is that I chose all the things that are making me busy. Still, I managed to get some short stories written in the fall, and even about a third of a new novel during NaNoWriMo in November, at least before the work really hit, and I had to write a two hundred page paper and edit it four times with a partner in a month, and I stopped writing. And anything I’ve written since has been like pulling teeth and doesn’t even feel like a victory when it’s on the page.
I’m calling this cosmic writer’s block. It’s not like writer’s block as you would traditionally think of it. I’m not stuck on a specific story or a specific scene. I’ve tried switching projects, and now I just have about fifteen unfinished projects floating around, which of course just makes me feel worse about the whole thing. I’ve tried all the things the internet recommends for combatting writer’s block—taking walks, taking showers, just powering through because writer’s block isn’t real, and—but nothing helped. I remembered the distinction Anne Lamott drew in her book Bird by Bird, the distinction between blocked and empty. But even her suggestion to do things that normally inspire you, like reading books or watching movies or TV shows that inspire you to write really hasn’t made much of a dent. I’m just exhausted, and the idea of writing right now feels more exhausting, and when I can’t write, I’m even more discouraged and exhausted. So even though I’m fully aware that I’m spiraling, I can’t stop it. I just have no desire to write, and since for so long writing has been the only thing I really want to do, this is really scary to me.
I don’t have any answers to this, except that maybe I just need a week-long nap. But that’s part of the point of this post. I’m not here to tell some story about how perseverance makes everything okay, because I can’t say that right now, and if you’re feeling anything like me, you don’t want to hear that. I’m talking about writing, but I could be talking about any number of things in my life in the past few months, and any time I try to talk to someone about how I’m feeling, they come up with some baloney about how your twenties suck and “this too shall pass.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard those words in the past few months, I could probably pay back a big chunk of my student loans, which would be a lot more useful than that advice. Maybe it will pass. I really hope it does pass. But right now I’m in the middle of it, and it feels like it won’t ever get better, and just saying “this too shall pass” is the least helpful thing anyone can say.
So I don’t want to hear that this will get better. I don’t want you to present me with all the examples of other writers who have overcome this kind of block or received hundreds of rejections or who have struggled with writing as a student. What I want is to know that I’m not the only one struggling with these feelings. What I want is to have a productive conversation about these feelings and how we, the young writers and students, can deal with them. Because as far as I can tell, these conversations aren’t happening. To write about rejection and confidence issues and writer’s block and the unique challenges faced by writers who are also students, to some extent we need to talk about failure. Nobody wants to talk about their own failures. And nobody wants to come across as whiny or bitter or incapable. If you’re trying to be a professional writer, it’s not the image you want to present to the interwebs. Even I struggled with whether I wanted to write this post, but I can’t be the only one struggling with this. And if I’m not alone, then maybe writing a post about these challenges will help someone else, even if it just lets them know that others are out there dealing with the same things.
So here I am. I am trying to write while attending law school. At this moment, I am struggling with writer’s block on a level i have never experienced before. I’ve published a few short stories, yes, but I’ve received way more rejections, and right now my predominant feeling is that I am somehow a failure and I will never be a successful writer.
I hope that someday soon I will be able to write a blog post about how I’ve gotten past all this. But right now, I’m in the middle of it, and sometimes I feel like I’m not going to get past it. If there’s a magic bullet to kickstart my creative brain, I’d love to hear about it. But while I don’t have a magic bullet of my own, I do have some inkling of the roots of the problem.
First, I need to work on setting reasonable goals for myself. I had this crazy idea that I would write an entire novel during NaNoWriMo last November and then spend the rest of the school year editing it to perfection, all while keeping up with all my classes and clinics. This was a ridiculous goal, but it was still what I wanted to accomplish this year. And when I failed, I couldn’t pick myself up and press on.
As a student, you’re juggling a lot of things: classes, including homework, projects, and exams; extracurricular activities; summer internship and post-graduation job searches; having a social life; and any hobbies you want to keep up. You also have to eat and sleep. Throw consistently writing into that mix, and it’s a little mind-boggling that one person can handle so much. If goals and deadlines motivate you to accomplish things, that’s great. Set goals. But don’t set crazy goals. And when things get out of hand and you don’t accomplish your goals, you can’t beat yourself up over it.
Obviously, I really need to work on this. It usually works for me to set goals for myself, but when I fail to accomplish them, I beat myself up and just make the situation worse. I have realized this is a problem, and I’m working on solving it. I considered doing Camp NaNoWriMo again this month and setting a small goal for myself that I felt would be a challenge but would still be something I could accomplish. But I also recognized that I have two fifteen-page papers due this month, as well as a final play to write and perform for my french class and a final exam. I also need to get everything in order for my summer internships. And in the place where I am now, even setting myself a small writing goal would be setting myself up for failure, which wouldn’t help the situation at all.
This goes for goals for publication too. The publication market is so subjective, and so much of it is outside your control, that beating yourself up over success or lack-there-of is just counterproductive. The most you can do to pursue a goal of getting published is to keep writing and keep submitting. Yes, rejections suck, but remember why you are writing. For me, I’m writing for myself, because I have a story inside me that needs to be told. Beyond that, I have a close group of friends who want to know what happens next. I hope that someone, at some time, thinks that others need to read my stories too, but if an editor thinks that’s not the case, I’m not going to let that stop me from writing, because first and foremost I’m writing for me. I’m writing because it makes me happy.
Finding what inspires you also helps. Generally reading inspires me to write, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been reading a lot in the past few months. But this year I’ve been reading books that I haven’t read before. A couple weeks ago, I picked up The Hunger Games books and started rereading them. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I might want to sit down and write. I first read The Hunger Games back in college, and it was a big inspiration for my memory-wiping academy novel, which I’m now editing and expanding into a series. So maybe, if you’re stuck, don’t just do things that typically inspire you. If you can pinpoint it, specifically target what drove you to write this story in the first place and revisit it. It might also help to reread what you’ve written so far and remind yourself that it isn’t complete garbage and there’s a reason you’re writing this story in the first place. Basically, find what will inspire you now, which may not be what usually inspires you, and tap into it.
Remember that there’s time. Along with setting reasonable goals for yourself and not beating yourself up if you have to change those goals, remember that there’s time. Yes, it would be fantastic to write, edit, and publish a novel before you’re twenty, or twenty-five, or whatever age you pick. But you’re in school for a reason, and even if you’re studying creative writing, that reason is to learn, not to write the next Harry Potter. Also, all your experiences in school and beyond school will inspire your writing and contribute to the stories you tell. I really, really wanted to get my novel published before I graduated college, but now I’m glad I didn’t, because my experiences being on my own, separated from my family and friends, and adulting for the first time in Italy right after college really informed my characters’ struggles and decisions, and ultimately made that story stronger. So don’t freak out. There’s time.
And because there’s time, it’s okay to take a break to recharge. School is exhausting, and it is also constant. You are surrounded twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with school. In a lot of ways, I feel like law school has taken away everything I love to do, one by one: reading books in Braille, playing the clarinet, drawing, and now writing, mostly because I’m just too busy and too exhausted to keep it up. I’ve clung to writing, saying oan more than one occasion that it’s the only thing keeping me sane. But now I can’t even muster that up. So if you’re just burnt out, which I’m feeling like is a large part of my writer’s block right now, it’s okay to take a break, let the creative part of your brain reboot, and get back to it when you feel ready.
I’m only just starting to feel the itch in my subconscious calling me back to my writing projects. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about my stories more than I have in a while. I haven’t really gotten to the actual writing part. So I could be completely wrong about these strategies for how to write while being a student or how to overcome writer’s block. I’m still in the middle of all of this, and I’m hoping that it will get better and I can tell you for sure that these things worked for me. I hope that these strategies work for you, too, if you’re having a hard time, and I hope it helps to know that you’re not alone in your feelings. And I would love to hear others’ opinions on how to overcome this cosmic writing block and how to successfully manage being a student and writing.