How to Get Back to Work

Hi friends.

Did everyone have a little fun yesterday? I hope so. I, for one, am writing this with a hangover.

But now we all have to get back to work. How long has it been since you touched your project? Does the idea of interacting with it again feel daunting or overwhelming? I haven’t written anything except personal thoughts in my journal for close to three weeks now. Part of that was because I was waiting on notes from my editor, but also it was because I, like many people, gave my brain over to the election.

It doesn’t just have to be the election, of course. There are many reasons why we can be distracted from our work for long periods of time. But this seems to be a collective problem right now, so I thought I’d tackle it. Because it is time for us to reclaim our brains.

I threw together some quick and dirty suggestions and asked brilliant writers/great humans Kristen Arnett and Alex Chee if they had any tips, too. Here’s a few to get you started.

1. Remind yourself of what the project is and why you wanted to write it. Write it down.

So, for me that would look something like:

This is a memoir about being an artist and a woman in America. I wanted to write it because I felt like I had important, relevant, and entertaining stories to share. Also, I thought it would be helpful to others. And it sounded like a book I would want to read if another author had written it.

Just the sheer act of defining my project helps me to reclaim it for myself.

Kristen Arnett adds:

“One thing I do is make myself think about the work before I open the document. What did I think I was doing, what did it feel like to me, what was the shape?”

Kristen’s approach is helpful because it is asking you to activate your imagination. It’s not like flipping a switch, obviously; if it were that easy, we’d all be writing all the time. But the brain needs to be warmed up after disuse. It starts with remembering our whats and whys.

2. Re-read whatever you most recently worked on. I know sometimes there's an unfamiliar feeling that can come with revisiting work that you haven't looked at in a while. This can feel sort of shocking and can even make you feel a little off-balance.

Alex adds: “I try to put all my shame triggers at having been derailed on hold as much as I can and, as they go off, I just let myself feel the embarrassment and continue.”

But I promise you there are some good sentences in there and when you find them, acknowledge them to yourself. I feel certain you will surprise yourself. Kristen also engages with the untouched work as a search for something: “I see if it has changed from what I thought it was to something new.”

After you read it, if it is possible, take a half hour walk. Do not take your phone with you. Just walk. Let the words sit in your mind. Let them take up residence anew. It’s time to let them take over your world again.

3. Read the first chapter of a book you love and see how they did it and think about how it makes you feel.

I read The Folded Clock, because I find it extremely emotionally present and entertaining. I also read Salvage the Bones, because it inspires me to be freer with my voice, loose, easy, but also completely in control.

We can always use reminders of the kinds of writers we want to be.

The view from my desk. Someone forgot to put the hose away.

4. A good strategy: A little forgiveness, followed by a lot of focus. You don't have to be at your usual level of productivity the first day back. Cut yourself some slack if you only get your hands a little dirty at first. But I would shoot for returning to your usual word count in one week’s time. Don't let yourself off the hook. It is time to get back to work.

5. Set yourself up for success physically and mentally. Make a plan for when you are going to dive back into it. Alex says, “I give myself a set time, make the first reread casual.” Go to sleep early the night before, get up a little earlier. Tighten all those screws. Say to yourself, “The writing starts now.”

6. Ban yourself from the internet for the first few days. You can take the day off from "knowing things." There is nothing you will be missing all day that you can't learn about at the end of the day. You can ask a friend to text you if anything important happens if you absolutely must know. But remember: it is time to reclaim your brain.

7. Above all, do not feel intimidated or discouraged. You have written before, and you will write again. You write because you love it and because it's important to you and because you have something to say. Don't see it as an insurmountable challenge, but rather as an opportunity to grow.

Go get it, everyone.


You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. Last week I donated to Culture Aid NOLA.