#60: Starting Small

Dear Story Nurse,

I took a really long break from writing partially due to mental illness and chronic fatigue and partially because I was looking at it as something I *had* to do, and I’d forgotten why I actually love writing. So I’m trying to figure that out, and I’m only really writing fanfic right now because it’s easier for me, but I seem to have run into the same problem I run into with my original fiction.

I really want to write longer works, but as soon as I decide that’s something I want to do, I basically lose all interest on whatever I’ve been working on. I pretty much never finish anything that I want to be longer than 5,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally make something a little longer, but I get kind of antsy about that too, even things I’m initially really excited about writing. I’m not sure how to fix this.

—Briar (they/them)

Dear Briar,

I’m sorry you’re having a hard time coming back to writing after so long away. That’s something a lot of people struggle with (see my posts on returning to writing after a long hiatus and when creation feels like a chore), especially if you took the break on purpose and for good reasons. Having filed not-writing under mental health self-care for so long, it can be challenging to now believe that writing will be not only safe but actively beneficial.

It sounds like you abstractly want to write longer works, on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level you find them distressing. You need to listen to your emotions here, because that loss of interest is a self-protective measure, an emergency shut-off switch that some caring part of your brain is flipping to keep you from harm. Some part of that may be overprotectiveness and unnecessary, but some part of it most likely comes from the knowledge that you’re not ready for longer writing yet. You’re coming out of a long period of unhappiness and stress. I absolutely understand your eagerness to get back into something that brings you joy, but you have to pace yourself, like an athlete with an injury doing slow small exercises before returning to marathon running.

First take a little time to see if you can identify the feelings that are expressing themselves in that abrupt loss of interest. My post on types of writer’s block might give you some ideas, but mostly you need to listen to yourself. How you approach working through this will change depending on what’s going on in your head. Being in the habit of checking in with yourself and knowing what feelings to keep an eye out for will also help you build better brakes and learn how and when to slow down, instead of needing that emergency NOPE switch that stops you cold when you’ve crossed some invisible line of “too far.”

Once you’ve got a bit of a handle on that, I encourage you to be your own physical therapist and slowly redevelop your writing muscles. Start small, with a low word count limit: perhaps a poem or flash piece capped at 200 words. Do a few reps at that level. Keep it there until you start to feel actively deep-down hungry for more, in a way that can sustain you through your times of reluctance and can also reassure you when you feel anxious. And then dial it up slowly, so that each increase in permitted length now feels like a wonderful reward rather than a looming cause of stress. If you start to hit a point that feels like too much again, step back from it immediately. Don’t cause yourself more strain when you’re still in a place of healing and recovery.

I have a chronic arm injury and have gone through a similar process with physical therapists and occupational therapists many times. It’s hard, especially if you get impatient the way I do. (I get so impatient.) It’s frustrating to realize that even when you’re out of the flare-up you still have to take it easy, and that after all the time that you’ve had to stay away from activities you love, you then have to spend even more time becoming capable again before you can get back to them. But there’s a lot of satisfaction in sticking with it and working up to doing more, both in the workout room and in the rest of your life. Today I picked up my 30-pound toddler, knit several rows on a baby sweater, and stirred a pot of pasta. Any one of those activities would have wrecked my arms not so long ago. If I could get here, as prone to rushing and overdoing it as I am, you can make your way back to writing.

Writing is patient. It will wait for you. Take your time.

All best wishes for a speedy and thorough recovery,

Story Nurse

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One thought on “#60: Starting Small

  1. Hey LW! This sounds very similar to something I’ve gone through. I stopped writing fiction for about five years (college was not a great time for me) before deciding to get back to it about six years ago. Everyone is different, of course! But just for some perspective, I wrote ~30 short stories between 1000 and 5000 words long, a couple novellas of about 10,000 words, and two broken-off novels of about 40,000 words each, before I was able to dive into a book project and actually get all the way through (doing my penultimate round of edits now.) Again: this process took about six years, to get myself to a place where I sooooooooooort ooooooof feel emotionally steady enough to tackle longer works, and I’m honestly expecting it to be at least another four years before I feel confident enough to deal with some of the more complicated projects I have in mind.

    I guess for me it really helped to realize that I didn’t have to FIX MYSELF RIGHT THIS MOMENT — I’ve only gotten where I am through extravagant levels of self-forgiveness and kindness to myself.


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