Fire Your Taskmaster
I wrote a good 25,000 words on a novel project that eventually became something completely different and is now (likely) my MFA thesis, which I don’t even really start this term. I’m back in research and brainstorming and world-building mode since the setting I created is not the setting where those characters belong. Each minute that passes without a hundred words appearing on that novel’s pages leaves me feeling worse. It’s only been a week, but I feel like I’ve been a slacker for months and I want to talk about that.
I’m not working. I’m not writing a novel. Classes haven’t started yet. The nonprofit I contacted hasn’t emailed me back (in the two hours since I reached out to them) about volunteering for a cause I feel strongly about. I haven’t made a nutritious breakfast yet today.
I’m one of those people who always needs to be busy. If I’m not stressing out over at least three things, I feel like a layabout. I’m terrified of entropy, and it is absolutely my belief that I’m the only one who can combat it and that my weapon is my productivity. My writing life is impacted by this perspective, and my inner taskmaster is screaming that nothing obviously productive is happening, so nothing is happening.
But that’s not entirely true. It’s time for some fact-checking.
First of all, I’m not working because my health has driven me out of work. I’ve been unemployed for just over one month, and I’m working with my doctors to determine what’s best for me in the coming months. I’m not writing a novel because I’m researching a novel. I’m reading history and craft books. I’m reading comps, exploring the genre that this book insists it belongs in, despite my limited knowledge of it. I’m writing daily posts here on Medium to practice craft, even if it’s nonfiction writing. So I am working.
I’m also keeping up our house, preparing for an upcoming trip to visit family, exercising around an injury (more than one injury, really) and muddling my way through my very first Ramadan as a Muslim. Things are happening, just not things that my mean taskmaster brain wants to acknowledge. That’s not fair! (Cue Jennifer Connelly’s voice in Labyrinth…) So instead of fixating on everything I’m not doing right now. I want to try to focus instead on all that I am doing. These actions have value, both personal and professional, and they’re things that I can do, as opposed to the things my brain is hollering about, most of which are tasks that I cannot even complete anymore thanks to advancing disability (or just declining interest).
Instead of fixating on everything I’m not doing right now. I want to try to focus instead on all that I am doing.
To a writer with an inner taskmaster, some of the most insidious advice out there sounds like, “If you want to be a real writer, write [some absurd number of words] every single day!” The memes about writers churning their brains into mush and their fingertips into pulp are all the fuel you need to whip yourself into a guilt-stricken, burnout-driven frenzy. Don’t do that to yourself.
Instead, take a step back and think about what you are actually doing. Chances are, even if you’re not grinding out a thousand words per hour, you’re doing something that’s benefiting your writing. Why? Because you’re a writer. If you write, you’re a writer. A real one, even, and what you do is always connected to what you write.
If what you’re doing isn’t directly or indirectly serving your writing (and rest and relaxation count — we’re better writers when we take breaks!), don’t berate yourself for being off-task. Find out why you’re off task and work to fix it. Is there something else happening in your life that’s a higher priority? (In my case, these issues are often health flares.). Maybe there are smaller tasks you can complete so that you feel like you aren’t losing ground on your project. Something relaxing might be just the thing! Sometimes I create book covers, assemble character aesthetic boards or build playlists when I don’t have the energy to work on a project for hours, but still want to keep an iron in the fire.
Are you stuck? Uninspired? Dig into the reasons why your story isn’t motivating you to write it. Maybe you’ve plotted too intensely (or not intensely enough). Maybe, as I found with my novel project, your characters want to be somewhere else and are conducting a general strike until you take them there. Writers don’t stop writing unless we have a good reason, so uncovering that reason can help bring you back to the practice. If there doesn’t seem to be one, it might be time for some constructive rest. Do something else and let your mind wander. Trust that your writing will tell you what it needs.
The path of productivity isn’t the only road you can travel as a writer, and it doesn’t always look like stacking up pages of writing every day.
There are a million valid reasons to stray from that model, and there isn’t a single one for beating yourself up about it. Writing is supposed to be your joy and your passion, not your guilt machine. Fire your taskmaster and direct your writing life with compassion. Your heart and your writing will thank you for it!
Nik Medina is an MFA student and aspiring author. She’s working on her first fantasy novel. She lives in a pink house in the desert with her husband, neurotic dogs and gigantic cat. She writes about learning writing, life, mental health and whatever else crosses her mind.