It’s the bane of every writer’s existence.
It’s not the same as writer’s block, which I’m not convinced even exists. Or, at the least, writer’s block could be a consequence of literary lethargy. Or maybe, like Autism, literary lethargy is on a spectrum, the most extreme of which is true writer’s block.
It doesn’t lend itself to a simple definition or cause. Rather, it flows from a number of other circumstances, one or more of which lead to literary lethargy.
What are some of those other circumstances?
- Random distractions: I’m convinced that random distractions are harder to deal with than, say, a few major ones. For example, I wrote my first two novels while working full time, and the third while working about half time. I’ve been fully retired for almost two years, and I’m only about two thirds of the way through novel number four – although I would have expected much more of myself.
- Why is that? Multiple reasons:
- It’s easy to carve out defined writing time around your job schedule. The time is predictable. You simply block out the time you can devote, whether it’s an hour every day, or several hours on your days off from your regular job. When you are committed to writing, it’s not a sacrifice to use a defined amount of time for writing when you aren’t on the job. That’s your “second job.”
- When you are working full time, you dream of writing full time. That motivates you to produce, always hoping that the next novel will be the one that will allow you to make it your full time job.
- When you are retired and have a steady, decent retirement income, you write for the pure joy of writing. But that sounds selfish, when competing personal/family demands pull you in multiple directions at random times. When you’ve written three books and none of them were bestsellers (or made much of any profit), it sounds selfish to say “I have to write” instead of “Sure, I’ll take you to your chemo treatments” (or whatever). The less you write, the slower your creative juices flow.
- Competing life realities can take up more time than big commitments. Three appointments in a day wouldn’t be bad if they were consecutive. But they rarely are. More often there are blocks of an hour or so in between – not enough to get a lot done, given travel time, etc. Next you know, the day is over with little to show for it. Some people are good at carrying a notebook and writing in those tiny blocks of time, but I’ve never been able to do that. I have to work my way into the zone, and by the time I get there, it’s time to move on to the next appointment.
- Money/Recognition: the plain, hard truth of it is, very few writers really write (or continue to write) simply because they love writing, even if no one reads what they’ve written. All, or at least most of us, want recognition. Big bucks would be wonderful, of course, but even less money but more recognition of the art of your writing would go a long way toward stimulating those creative juices. I admit that my creative juices have slowed after three novels with less than blockbuster sales. With each successive novel, I swore “the next one” will do better. And maybe my current work-in-progress will. One can only hope.
- Industry Discouragement: I’ve read more blog posts and articles of late that seek to tell wannabee authors loudly and clearly that the odds are against success. I’ve heard varying stats, but think about this. Almost no one except someone very famous has any chance of being published by a major published without an agent (and even then the odds are against you). And here’s the reality of winning an agent who has a reputation for success: many if not most say no (or say nothing, as in no reply) to your query letter (I’ve heard the yesses are in the range of less than one percent). If they ask for a partial manuscript, again, one percent of those partials may lead to a request for the full manuscript. Then you may wait months to hear back on the manuscript, only to be told in one way or another, “not for me” probably ninety nine percent of the time. And if you are in that fortunate one percent that lands an agent of the caliber needed, even then there are no guarantees with the publishing industry. When you’re young and fresh in the writing world, you want to believe you could be in the microscopic percentage of writers who make it big. When you’ve been at it for decades, that “maybe this time” belief fades. There’s still enough of it to keep you trying, but not enough to inoculate you against literary lethargy.
So, what to do?
Take stock of your goals. Assume financial and public writing success is a nano-reality. What are your current work(s) in progress? Can you derive joy simply from following the characters through their development through to the story climax? Are you excited by the anticipation of where you will take your characters by the end of the story? Then by all means, you will find the motivation to reach that goal, even if it takes longer than it would if you had a guarantee of a book deal upon completion. Once that work is completed, take stock of your goals again – is it worth starting another story/novel/memoir just for the sake of the creative process? If it is, than by all means have at it. If you are young and have years ahead of you to make your literary mark, who knows? Maybe the industry will change. Or maybe enough other writers will succumb to literary lethargy to throw in the towel, increasing your odds. But for “mature” writers like me, you really need to look at your life through a critical lens. Who and what are you neglecting in favor of obsessively carving out goal-directed writing time? Spouse? Grandchildren? Pets? Friends? Beloved people and pets aren’t with you forever.
I will finish my current work. And if, by some wild chance, this one falls in that tiny fraction of successes, my next step may be revised. But for now, I expect that my next step will be a sharper focus on loved ones and the bucket list of things we always said we’d do together when we had the time.