On Writing: Dealing with “I Don’t Wanna”

Sometimes, while writing, instead of feeling like, “Gosh, this is really hard,” I feel like, “Holy hell. This is AGONIZING.” I expect this happens to most every writer. When it happens to me, I call it the I Don’t Wannas, because, as it gets to be time for me to sit my butt in the chair and start working, every cell in my body is screaming, “I DON’T WANNA! I DON’T WANNA! I DON’T WANNA!”

This can happen at any point in a project, but for me, there are particular circumstances under which it always happens. When I’m coming to the end of the planning stage of a revision, for example, and transitioning into the actual doing-the-work stage, the I Don’t Wannas arrive like clockwork. I think it’s because in that moment, I’m holding in my cupped hands the entirety of a finished draft that’s not working AND an unstarted draft composed only of magic ideas, and it feels like the magic is dribbling away through my fingers. When I’m trying to hold both past and future versions of a lengthy writing project in my mind, remembering the ways it doesn’t work and all the ways I dream of it working, it can be too much for my little brains. And when I’m planning to do complicated work but haven’t done it yet, it can feel like I’m losing the work at every moment. The entire endeavor begins to feel too hard… and I just don’t wanna.

I’d like to share a few of the things that I’ve learned, from experience, help me through the I Don’t Wannas. I hope that writing them down will help me remember them, and that one or two or seven of them might help you!

  • I remind myself that the only way to alleviate this feeling is progress: the only way out of this feeling is through. If I don’t sit down and push myself to make real progress today, I will feel exactly this bad when I sit down again tomorrow, and in fact, I will probably feel worse, because of the time I wasted yesterday. This is merely how beginning feels. I need to work while I feel it, or else I’ll never get past the beginning and I’ll never stop feeling it.
  • I remind myself to focus on the trees, not the forest. When I sit down, I don’t need to be thinking about every part of the previous draft and everything I hope to do in the next draft. I don’t need to be thinking of all the ways all the parts touch on all the characters, plot points, and themes. I only need to be thinking about the two or three pages — maybe even the two or three lines — in front of my face.
  • I’m careful about how I schedule my writing time — about when I work. I don’t always have a choice about when I work (life being one of those things that resists control ^_^), but some days/weeks I can create more flexibility than others, and sometimes I find I’m in a stretch where I’m most productive if I roll out of bed and go to my writing table immediately. Other times, I find I’m in a stretch where I work best between midnight and 4 AM. My point is that I pay attention to when the notion of working is, for whatever reason, less painful, and I try to work then.
  • I’m careful not to overwork. This is really important. It’s easier to sit down at my desk if I know I only have to be there for two or three or four hours. Overworking creates burnout. Plus, there exists a necessary part of the work that can only take place in the unconscious mind, thoughts that need to settle when you’re not consciously working. When my time is up, I put my notebook and papers someplace where they won’t catch my eye, and I spend the rest of the day doing other parts of my job and non-work-related things.
  • In a similar vein, I try to be careful not to confuse “I Don’t Wanna” with “I Truly Can’t.” There are times when it’s just not happening, no matter how hard I push. It’s a special kind of exhaustion that isn’t about “This work is too hard so I don’t want to do it” and is about “I actually can’t do this right now.” In my experience, the only way out of this feeling is rest. Pushing through it only makes the burnout worse. How do you learn to tell the difference? Every writer has to figure this one out, and I’m still learning it… by trying things, making mistakes, and paying attention.
  • I notice how, when my writing’s going badly, it infects other parts of my life, too – and find myself laughing about it. Sometimes, when my writing’s going badly, I start to feel like I’m inept at everything, and broadly offensive to all the nice people in the world. Since I don’t generally feel that way, I realize it’s coming from my writing, and when you start to notice things like that about yourself, it can be both interesting and funny. It makes me realize how much writing is tied to my identity. It’s evidence that the only thing for me to do is try again tomorrow at the writing. And it makes me want to give myself a hug.
  • I forgive myself. Writers: please, please be kind to yourselves. If you give yourself a pardon for time you may have wasted or writing that seems insufferable, you’ll feel better, which is reason enough. But also, if you give the writing permission to be an awful mess, it will begin to feel comfortable with itself, and safe on the page. It will stand up tall, grow, get stronger, and begin to be what you’re trying to make it. 

And that’s my two cents on the I Don’t Wannas.