Middle-grade author Donna Gephart gives her top 14 tips for how to invigorate your writing when things are tough.
Having a hard time focusing and feeling productive these daze, er days? Who isn’t? Here are a few things that help me be productive during these challenging, distracting times that I hope will help you …
14 Tips for Nurturing Your Creative Spirit During Challenging Times
1. Start the day with habits that get you ready for work.
I walk our dog, Benji, with hubby, do ten minutes of yoga (Yoga with Adriene and Yoga with Kassandra) and make of mug of hot tea or coffee. Always. When I do these things in that order, my mind knows the next step is creative work. (Notice checking Twitter, FB, and email is not on this list.)
2. Check in with an accountability buddy.
Angela DeGroot and I begin each workday with an email sharing our goals for the day and catching up on each other’s lives. Sometimes we end our workdays with a quick email to say whether we reached our goals on not. During National Poetry Month in April, Angela includes a new poem with each daily check-in.
3. Make your goals super-specific—either in time for each project or in page counts.
Last week’s goals for me were to revise a seven-page synopsis and eleven pages of the beginning of my next MG novel and submit them to my agent. I reached that goal. This week’s goals are to re-imagine an outline for a chapter book series and write a rough draft of the first book. Sometimes I reach my goals. Sometimes I don’t. But the odds are ever in my favor if I break them down and make them as specific and manageable as possible.
4. Because it’s hard to focus and easy to become distracted, I use the Pomodoro Technique.
It helps you use whatever time you have more efficiently. I’ve written eight middle-grade novels, a picture book, scores of essays, and this article using the Pomodoro Technique. Knowing a short break is always coming helps you power through the task at hand.
5. Breaks are vital.
For those in the back row: BREAKS ARE VITAL, especially now. These days, I allow longer breaks than usual at the end of the workday to take walks in the woods, read, prepare a vegan dinner, chat with a friend, listen to a podcast, sip wine on the patio and watch The Dog House UK on HBOMax with hubby and Benji. (The Dog House UK—a sort of match-making service between dogs and their humans—is a terrific antidote to the news of the day.)
6. Take weekends off, if you can.
Your brain requires more time to rest these days. Besides, if you have steady work habits, when you’re not working your subconscious is working—figuring out knotty plot problems and putting separate pieces together in interesting ways. Trust that your subconscious is doing its job when you’re taking a break from doing yours.
7. If you need extra time off or are unproductive one day or two or more, let go of the guilt.
It doesn’t serve you. It doesn’t serve the work. These days, I clock about 2 ½ days out of 5 that are complete duds. Can’t even complete a shopping list without drifting to something else. Accept that and let it go. Celebrate the 2 ½ days that are productive.
8. Your process during this challenging time is your process.
Don’t compare your process to someone else’s because you’re comparing their shiny outside to your messy inside. Apples to oranges. It’s like comparing your first draft to someone else’s polished, published book. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
9. Try something new!
If novels are too daunting right now, write a funny essay, an article, or a poem. Find joy in these things. Take baby steps. Forgive yourself. Love yourself. You’ve got this, friend. It’s hard. We are sensitive but resilient.
10. Find community.
When I moved away from Florida, I left a monthly SCBWI critique group I loved and had been consistently attending for 18 years. I don’t know how I wrote my novel, Abby, Tried and True without them. During the pandemic, since half of us lived out of state at that point anyway, we reconnected for twice-weekly critique meetings on Zoom.
11. During these twice-weekly critique meetings, we do much more than critique each other’s work.
We check in with each other and offer support when one of us is having a hard time. We show our cats and our dogs. We toast each other’s successes, no matter how small. Any excuse for a glass of wine.
12. I joined a book club for readers and writers of middle-grade novels over Zoom.
I watch free craft webinars from SCBWI. I listen to craft-based podcasts for inspiration, like Book Friends Forever by Grace Lin and Alvina Ling and First Draft by Sarah Ennis. Reach out. Connect. Nurture your soul and your creative spirit.
13. Change your exterior space to ignite your interior space.
Hubby and I splurged on two nights in Princeton, NJ to have a different environment in which to work. While there in the cozy loft space, I rediscovered my love for creating funny essays. Can’t work in your town’s library? Can you work on a bench outside of it and watch people come and go as you scribble ideas? We even went to our niece’s rooftop deck in Philadelphia, PA once just to have a different atmosphere in which to work.
14. Mostly, take care of your precious self.
Fill your well at every opportunity. Your job is to get through this tough time. Any creative output is a bonus to be celebrated. Your work matters. Your voice matters. Your story matters. But your physical and mental well-being matters more.