In a perfect universe, I’d begin every writing day with nine hours’ sleep, a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, nothing on my work schedule, and a gentle rainstorm to keep me from even thinking about going outside. I’d have a clearly formed idea, a flawless outline, and several unbroken hours to work.
While I’m at it, I would also like to write with telepathy from the seat of my private jet while I get a neck massage from a Czech supermodel.
Writing when you’d rather not is one of the most important skills you can ever cultivate as a writer. Anyone can write when they’re feeling fine and the muse has just hit them between the eyes like a thunderbolt from Valhalla. But there will be days when every syllable is like a back-alley fistfight with a rabid hobo. That’s when your mettle really gets tested.
Any book, blog or seminar on writing advice will tell you to write every day, and with good reason. To me, the most important reason is this: every day that you write hones your craft just a little more. Every day that you don’t write dulls it just a little more. For most people, it dulls a lot faster than it hones. Go a week or a month without writing anything and you can practically hear the shriek of rusty gears grinding together.
Good habits are easy to build when there aren’t any obstacles in your path, but it’s an imperfect universe, and obstacles happen. In fact, obstacles are nigh-omnipresent. So what do you do when you’re sick, tired, or just plain hate the world, but you still want to get words down on the page?
The Stimulus Package
Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Stimulants! Imbibe caffeine in various forms. Take a vitamin pill. Drink a whole tumbler of orange juice. Some artificial stimulation can sometimes get you through the job, as long as it doesn’t further compromise your health.
Embrace the Delerium
Writers love to romanticize the image of the drunken author who composes his or her masterpieces while smashed. Why not do the same for the natural incoherence brought on by fatigue, sinus congestion, or having just chugged an entire bottle of Robitussin? So you couldn’t string a proper sentence together if someone put a gun to your face — they can bill you! Let your incoherence be your guide. Write whatever comes to your poor addled brain. Freewrite like an escapee from a mental ward. Some of it might end up far more usable than you think.
Shake it Up
If your condition (and your conscience) won’t allow you to work on your chosen masterpiece while half-dead, work on something else. Start something new and impractical. Try your hand at dirty haiku. You may not create anything deathless, but writing is writing. That thing I said last time about giving yourself permission to suck? That goes double for when you’re sick.
Work it In
Say, have you got a chapter where one of your characters just took a dart full of dimethyltryptamine to the face, or drank Windex till he saw a UFO? Well, would you like one? Nothing gives you perspective on being sick, tired, or full of hate than actually being those things. Now’s your chance to get those feelings down on the page. It’s not death’s door, it’s research!
Throw it Out
A lot of writers I know loathe tossing out anything they write. Their words are like their precious babies, the nectar of their very soul. Why not take a sick day from your well-manicured neurosis? Rattle off a freewrite and then shred it. Bang out a wild, incoherent blog post and then delete it. Fall deeply out of love with your words for one day. Meditate on impermanence while you listen to The Cure’s Disintegration at top volume. Turn your vitriol on your own work. You can kiss and make up tomorrow.
Just Do a Half-Assed Job
Accept that what you’re writing now probably won’t be your best, and possibly in the running for your worst. Just remember that it’s still better than nothing. Earn some street cred with yourself. Make this your war story. Sure, you might look at what you wrote a few days from now and toss it out in disgust. Then again, maybe not. But either way, you put pen to paper or butt to chair and did it, even when you didn’t want to. Go you. Pound it. High five. Okay, well maybe later.
This one goes out to my good friend Tracy McCusker, who is on the mend. Feel better, Tracy.