Writing through physical exhaustion

4 years ago | unice5656 (Moderator)

So the past few weeks have been pretty brutal for me at school, really long days and studying for exams on top of it. I've been falling asleep a lot in the evenings, and even when I manage to stay awake, I feel so mentally fuzzy that I'm not up for much beyond really passive activities such as watching shows. I can't say I have zero free time, but I haven't written anything at all and haven't even managed to keep up with my monthly update.

The next few weeks will likely have more reasonable hours, but I've chosen a (mysterious) career that will never give me tons of free time to be sleep-replete, mentally relaxed, and able to read/watch a lot of things to keep me inspired. I do not, however, want to stop writing, at least until the two ongoing stories I have published online are complete, and given my update schedule, that will be years and years of writing.

Anyone figure out a way to produce quality writing even when your brain is feeling foggy and listless?

Read responses...


  1. Rhodeworks (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    In my experience, you have to force yourself to write. That's all there is to it. You have to find time for yourself, of course, but you need to be able to write around your circumstances.

    There's a Dan Harmon quote on writing that goes something like: write something bad, then edit it to being good. When I'm low on motivation and I'm convinced I'm too tired to write anything good, that's what I look to. Write something bad, leave it for a week or so, then come back and edit it into being something better.

  2. SovereignofAshes (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    I understand and commiserate with what's going on in your set of circumstances, right now.

    When I was in Uni, I tried to keep up with my writing but the constant workload brought me down. After reading five full textbooks and your eighth essay of the night, you really don't want to write a short story or read a novel to get inspired. After Uni, I had a brutal job with a really demanding schedule that was really stressful (12-16 hour days, lots of paperwork, and dealing with really unpleasant people every minute of every day; constantly being on edge). It took me almost a decade at that job before I felt competent enough to take breaks or time for myself to just zone out and daydream like I used to be able to do.

    It all depends on your individual writing style, but sometimes with severe changes in lifestyle, you have to change your writing style to accommodate your new life. The way I do things is by daydreaming. I'll just sit where-ever I am and jump out of my body. Whether it's on a crowded bus, in a lecture hall, behind a desk, or idling my car at a bothersome long red light. That's where I run story-lines in my head like little mini-movies. I try to follow the possibilities of where characters will go, what they need to do, what events I want to drop into the stories I'm working on, and what kind of audiences I want to appeal to. It's like little mini D&D or MMO sessions. Then I try to remember all of that, sometimes jotting down notes when I have a free second on a computer or have access to a pen and paper. I take little micro-breaks throughout the day, slowly piling up ideas until I actually do have an hour or two to sit down and just write.

    Naturally, once the fingers hit the keys and I start writing properly, all bets are off. The characters make their own choices and can often run roughshod through all the plans I had. The comparison to D&D stands with that kind of thing. No matter how much you plan an adventure, your players are going to light it on fire and do their own thing the second it starts.

    The above has to do with limitations on time. There's also the limitation of energy and motivation as well, which I'll quickly mention below.

    Some of my pet projects in Uni while studying psychology were focused on neuro-linguistic programming, the proliferation of memes (it was before the big online meme explosion), and music therapy. Granted, most of my time was spent trying to understand sociopathic behavior and some research looking into how modern culture (social media websites, 'reality' TV-programming, online forums, and post-modern sensibilities) was enabling and growing the numbers of sociopathic and narcissistic individuals in society, but that's not really to do with writing at all.

    I always had a habit since I was a kid of 'downloading' ideas into songs I listened to. I would make play-lists on my iPod and listen to key songs that inspired me over and over while thinking up ideas for stories, for role-playing game sessions, projects, or whatever else I had to plan out. After some time, I was able to consciously use the music as triggers for set ideas. I trained my brain to use the music as a stimulus (a pretty potent one) to call up large sections of information that I would otherwise forget during the daily grind. The emotional side of the music would also help 'charge me up' emotionally and energetically to get back into a project.

    The process is relatively simple and works along with what I mentioned above. During little breaks throughout the day while you still have energy, listen to music while daydreaming or brainstorming. Let yourself get lost in the music and the emotions you feel. A good idea is to have some high-energy music either for all your ideas, or at least for a couple of them (if you're more inclined to soft or moody musical tastes). Let your mind run wild for the three to ten minutes you listen to key songs. Allow yourself to attach emotionally to the music and for the music to mean something to you with the ideas.

    Then, when you have a few hours at the end of the day or week, even though you feel tired and like re-fried crap, just put on that music again. Sit down with some headphones on and listen to those songs over again. Within a few minutes the ideas you had will start to flood back to you. The energy in the songs will soothe you and motivate you slowly to life. After training yourself this way for a few weeks to a few months, you'll be able to 'mind-over-matter' your way back into projects with just a flick of an iPod or a click on your computer.

    Some people do this in other ways as well, like listening to music, daydreaming, and jogging or working out. Lots of business-people use the time at the gym to listen to music and key those songs and the act of working out (which causes all kinds of dopamine surges) to help train their minds on key projects. This way they aren't taking extra time out of their days, they're keeping their brains active while being in shape, and all it takes is a little iPod shuffle before a big meeting and they remember all of their lines for a speech or are able to call up the energy they need for a big meeting at the end of the day.

    There are other ways to entrain your mind like this with other stimuli if you're not big on music. Certain light sources (a red led bulb you use for daydreaming), certain living arrangements (a big comfy chair that you only use for writing/reading), food (always buying the same kind of latte from the same place as your ritual before writing), or activities (sitting down and watching your favorite TV-show for an hour to recharge), can all help.

    Music is just one of the most potent, as it calls forth a lot of complex systems in the brain. People with neurological degenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer's) when exposed to musical influence can recall whole swathes of memories or be brought from the mental brink of oblivion for a few hours or few minutes of lively interaction with people once more. I think the only sense more powerful than sight and hearing are smell, and even that can trigger things if you set it up properly. Make cookies before writing and every time you do that, you'll feel like you're curled up into a ball of comfort (some people trigger this with coffee by accident, hence why you see a lot of pretentious 'authors' hanging out in coffee shops on their laptops).

    I'm glad I entrained myself with this technique since I was a kid, because when I get depressed and don't want to work on my projects, it's the only thing that can bring me back. All it takes is three minutes of a song and I want to start writing, again. No matter how shitty I feel, or how little time I have, it always seems to work.

    Ultimately, it comes down to your creative process. If your life is changing, you need to change along with it. Feeling foggy and listless doesn't mean you can't write. It just means you have to try new things to enable yourself to do so.

    I have stuff on here too! The Vorrgistadt Saga.
  3. unice5656 (Moderator)

    Posted 4 years ago

    @Rhodeworks: Hmm. It's always been my philosophy that you can't edit crap into not-crap without more effort than it would take to just burn it and start over, so that probably wouldn't work for me.

    @Sovereign:Lots of food for thought on how I can change my routine. My favourite thing to do has always been to stay up really late on Friday night to write because I get my best ideas and focus around 2am, but it's not viable anymore. I've never really been able to write with music on because I find the mood of the music overwhelms the less obvious emotions trying to come out of the story, but I'll see if I can find some really bland-but-evocative music to cue me or some other cues I can use.

  4. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 4 years ago

    Personally, I typically write my updates starting somewhere between 8 and 10 pm the night before they're due and write until I'm done, even if it means 4 am. It's not an ideal system and leaves me dead tired at work sometimes.

    I don't seriously recommend it, but so far it works for me even though it means that I'm sometimes falling asleep as I write. It works in large part because I know where the story's going and I do what I can to plan ahead in terms of setting time to write. That sometimes means writing during my lunch hours so that I don't start from zero on the days where I update.

    In short, my best advice is to arrange to have your butt in a chair for the necessary number of hours to write your update. I wish I had something better than that, but for me, the primary factor in writing a successful update is making the time to do it.

    That said, I have to admit that when I was simultaneously 1) starting a small business in computer consulting/web development, 2) going to graduate school, and 3) taking care of two children under the age of ten, I handled the situation differently.

    I didn't write at all.

    That wasn't ideal either, but I'd taken on too much and I knew it. Writing in addition to that would have only made things worse.

    So while I don't want to say, "Don't write," I do want to tell you that you've got that option.

  5. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    When you're tired everything takes longer and you may find two to five pages of the letter "j". I may or may not be speaking from personal experience.

    If you're exhausted, try writing less. Lower goals are easier to hit, and you can still move the ball forward. Moving the ball forward a little at a time still makes progress.

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  6. unice5656 (Moderator)

    Posted 4 years ago

    @Jim: Very pragmatic advice. I don't want to stop writing altogether, but I won't beat myself up if updates are late during a busy period.

    @ubersoft: Hahaha, my regular update schedule is one chapter a month. I've been short on the length for the last couple of updates and people have noticed. I don't know if I can write any less and still be considered to be actively updating.

  7. mathtans (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    Generally I find the best bet for writing when the brain is foggy is to anticipate it. Which might mean writing a bunch in advance, but I know I can't create a huge buffer when writing based on story votes. So when I know I'll be away at a math conference, or working 12 hour days one week for the school play, or whatever... I'll get the majority of the main pieces written out in advance. Either the week before, or Sunday night, or something. You say you can't edit bad out of your writing, but can you fluff up a skeleton of good stuff?

    For instance, I'll sketch out the main beats of the part (can be as simple as 'character goes here then here, heartwarming scene' or detailed to the point of random dialogue to turn into a conversation), then when I find a moment (like between the matinee and evening performances), flesh it out more. Hits the plot elements, and if I suddenly realize I need a new character, hey I'll base it on that guy in Scene 4. (It's still a good plan to give it another read in the morning, of course.)

    I'll also agree with ubersoft in terms of the update schedule (I've eased back to only twice per month), though update size is another aspect of that. I posted PartA and PartB of "Time & Tied" for a while, each part half the length of a usual update. Granted, that was when I shifted to posting twice per week instead of once.

    Writing a Time Travel serial: http://mathtans.wordpress.com
    Writer of the personification of math serial: http://www.mathtans.ca
  8. unice5656 (Moderator)

    Posted 4 years ago

    @mathtans: Hahaha, there's so much fluff in my writing I'm not sure how much content even gets into the story :P. But yeah, solid advice. My schedule is likely to be a solid month of crazy at a time for the conceivable future, so I'll just have to suck it up and write more than one chapter in the easier months. I don't tend to write by outline because I end up changing my mind as soon as I start the actual writing (damn characters with independent will), but maybe I can try writing in snatches instead of looking for a solid block of time to write.

  9. Scott Scherr (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    I'm a firm believer in "pushing" yourself through those erratic times... but it isn't easy. Also, I do what Mathtans said and get the bare bones written if nothing else. You can always go back and flesh material out later when there's time and after some sleep. Another thing I try to do when I'm dealing with very little time or stamina to write is I'll set myself up for the next time I sit down to push and deliberately stop writing in the middle of a fast-paced scene where it's easier to jump right back in the next day. It's almost like I have to know what happened and hurry up and write since I've interrupted the flow, like someone watching their favorite show and then the power goes out... lol. Or, I'll jump ahead to a heavy dialogue scene because those are easier for me to write than actions scenes or something heavy on the descriptive side. Whatever you have to do, whatever tricks work for you, just write something down, move on to the next scene, and just keep your consistency going. I find that it's much harder to push when you lose your writing momentum, so I make that the priority during the rough patches.

    Author of the apocalyptic series, Don't Feed The Dark. http://freezombienovel.wordpress.com
  10. Walter (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    If you don't have your health, you don't have anything. Just post an apology in place of the update and try again next week. Your audience will wait, or they won't. But either way you need to be rested.

  11. nippoten (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    I've written through being jet lagged, general exhaustion after a long day at work, and even immediately after a surgery. For me I incorporate that feeling into the writing. If I feel like shit, I'll make my characters feel it too. And I think I genuinely work better when I have that pressure. Obviously that's not for everyone.

  12. Sharkerbob (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    True Art is fueled by pain. And victory. And excessive amounts of caffeine.

    (But nah, man, at some point, your health takes precident. A couple all nighters is one thing, but better to find work arounds, be it write in bite sized amounts, or waiting until you can block off some time for it.


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