Writers ask writers: dealing with discouragement

This month, the question posed in our Writers Ask Writers blog series came from one of Annabel Smith’s readers: How do you maintain interest in your project when you’re discouraged?

computer face

Becoming discouraged during the course of writing can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, for me, it’s because the editor who sits on my shoulder, who has to be levered off with whatever sharp stick I can find, refuses to go and won’t be silenced, and the air is filled with waspish, deflating questions like So what?

Discouragement is likely to result in despair and gloom. General prickliness in response to  everyday questions. Sometimes a kind of creative paralysis. Extreme anxiety. But with the exception of one abandoned novel many years ago, it hasn’t resulted in a loss of interest.

One of the reasons I did lose interest in that long abandoned novel is that, as a neophyte knowing nothing, I read everything, and everything seemed to suggest you needed things like a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, and a 20-page back-story for every character, and a clear vision of what you were wanting to say before you started. Well, I tried that, and I lost everything: momentum, enthusiasm, motivation.

It wasn’t until I went to a workshop in 2000 presented by Australian novelist Sue Woolfe that I discovered that there are many ways to write a novel. The workshop was attended by several experienced writers I admired and they seemed to be grappling with the same things that I was. Sue Woolfe’s startling proposition, a proposition that she and Kate Grenville also put forward in their edited collection Making stories: how ten Australian novels were written, was that it was OK not to plan, not to know. That in fact, not planning and not knowing could be a process in itself. I discovered there were many novelists who worked this way, finding their way as they went, through the writing itself, drawing on that well of ideas, research, thinking and wondering that compelled them to begin, carrying (to appropriate Adrienne Rich’s metaphor in ‘Diving into the wreck’) a knife, a camera, a book of myths. And so evolved the sketchy, spidery process I now use.

But …

This way of working has its difficulties.

It is not certain, and it is not comfortable. And it is another of the reasons why discouragement can set in.

I’m still working out what is the best way, for me, of dealing with this—I try different strategies, and the way forward often seems to lie in the space between persevering and allowing time for sifting and settling. But I do have a few mantras that help me keep the faith:

‘There is no way to be a writer and be comfortable.’—Eva Sallis (Hornung),  Text, 3 (2), 1999

‘Trust that the story is there.’—author unknown

‘Mastery [of the art of writing] is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.’—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (2001)

As for comfort along the way, I put my faith in this:


and this:


To read how my writer friends deal with discouragement, click on the links below. It’s reassuring to know you’re not the only one to run into a brick wall from time to time! If you have some strategies that work for you, I’d love to hear about them.

Dawn Barker: That is the reason I write: when I feel like the project is going nowhere, something happens that starts it all again: the thrill, the excitement when you know that you can write something that might just work.—Read more here

Emma Chapman: … it’s easy, after coming through a difficult patch, to look back on it and be glad it happened. To see the positive with hindsight. But it’s not so easy when you are in the thick of one, unable to see the other end.—Read more here

Sara Foster: One of the most valuable things I’ve learned so far is not to fear discouragement when I am writing. A stumbling block might contain a valuable lesson … —Read more here

Natasha Lester: A residency is a wonderful boost. It made me feel that the work must have something good in it to have been selected above all the other submissions, and it gave me a whole week of tranquil and focussed writing time …— Read more here

Annabel Smith: … some years ago I became strangely addicted to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Remember the lifelines? Well, my husband, Jonathan Franzen and Ferris Bueller have all provided potential solutions to my writing dilemmas; they’ve been my lifelines.— Read more here

PWFC author collage


Filed under Writers ask writers

25 responses to “Writers ask writers: dealing with discouragement

  1. Creative paralysis…extreme anxiety…I feel those too, Amanda…constantly! So I escape into a poem or a short story…I used to feel guilty but I don’t anymore. I know that writing myself out of anxiety is important even if it’s not writing ‘the novel.’ Thank you as always for an insightful post.

  2. debi o' hehir

    great Amanda,applies to visual artists too xxx

  3. Pingback: Sara Foster - Writers Ask Writers: How do you maintain interest in your project when you’re discouraged?

  4. Glen Hunting

    Love the quotes. I drink gallons of tea in the hours when it’s indecent to drink wine. Rocky road leaves me rather cold, though.

    I think it’s okay not to plan, but I also believe it should be okay to plan if one’s particular project calls for it. Even if it’s only a modicum of planning. And if one does plan, one must also be prepared to change plans and, if necessary, abandon them altogether.

    “We’re an anxious lot, aren’t we?” you say. God, if only you knew in my instance!!! (cue bitter laughter that progressively turns maniacal.)

    • Ok to plan/ok not to plan: no argument from me, Glen. As I said, there are many ways to write a novel; what’s liberating is when you find an approach that works for you. And of course you adapt that too.
      Earl Grey—couldn’t do without it! 🙂

      • I hate Lapsang Souchong, I’ve decided…the smoky flavour makes me gag. Maybe I shouldn’t drink 6 cups a day? Going back to Green Tea with mint and Lady Grey x

      • I keep Lapsang Souchong for occasions. Also Russian Caravan. But Earl Grey rules around here.

      • Glen Hunting

        Twinings Traditional Afternoon is strong enough for me to use only one bag in my oversized mug, except on those occasions when I feel particularly feeble first thing in the morning. With anything else I have to use two to get it strong enough.
        I drink chai with one teabag in my normal size mug. I love chai. And I drink peppermint in the evenings if I feel like something hot, but don’t want to be kept awake all night by the caffeine.
        One of my former colleagues gave me a Twinings variety pack as a leaving present, knowing how addicted to tea I am. I don’t mind Earl Grey but I’m not as fond of it as the aforementioned. I haven’t attacked the Lady Grey yet. And green tea is strictly for those emergency situations when I run out of milk!

      • Glen Hunting

        Yep, true enough. And it can change with separate works or projects, or even within the same project. There was a time when people were specifically prescribing unprescriptiveness to me (I think I just made up a word) which I found quite off-putting. But in a way that was my own fault for not having enough confidence in myself and my own technique, which tends to average out somewhere between planning and not planning. And I am quite concious now of when it feels appropriate to write with a definite, pre-determined purpose, and when it’s appropriate to be spontaneous. I think I’ve had good results with both.

  5. Pingback: Writers Ask Writers: What do you do when the writing gets tough? | While the kids are sleeping

  6. marlish glorie

    Wonderful blog, and inspiring quotes Amanda. I write without much of a plan. I think of myself as writing with fishing line in a gale. Getting myself into all sorts of tangles and knots that take ages to sort out. Not recommended! But it’s the only way I know.

  7. Love this post, Amanda. So useful. When discouraged I too thrive on my cup of tea (Ceylon Pekoe or green tea) – in a beautiful cup and saucer if I need a little nurturing – and a few nuts and sultanas. I dare not begin on the Lindt chocolate when discouraged as one square would never be enough!! When struggling I’ve found the author, Julia Cameron’s ‘morning pages’, where one writes out one’s front of mind thoughts for a page, truly work for me, enabling me to find my way back in, to the story, my soul.

    • Thanks, Shirley. I haven’t heard of the ‘morning pages’ idea before but I’ll give it a try. I’m afraid this concept of ‘one square’ of chocolate is entirely foreign to me… 🙂

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