August 17, 2023

How I got out of a writing funk


I’m in the home stretch of my chapters for the Hungry Author book. I’ll be done with them by the end of the month, and then Liz and I will be deep in editing land in the month of September. 

For some reason, though, these last chapters have felt like the hardest lift. Earlier this week, I was procrastinating, using what was supposed to be my writing time to work on client work instead; it just felt easier, and I could still tell myself that I was being productive. Resistance at its finest.

I realized that I was feeling unmotivated, which was ironic because I just taught a workshop on writing habits and routines, where we talked a good deal about motivation.

In the workshop last week, I shared that motivation comes from a deeply meaningful hope for the future and a sense of agency that you can achieve that hope. Let me say that again. There are two ingredients of motivation:

  • Hope for a better future
  • Sense of agency that you can realize that better future 

Was I struggling to feel motivated because I had lost sight of my why, my hope for a better future? Or was I struggling because I didn’t feel I could actually achieve that hope? 

It took me a minute to figure out where the problem was.

If you’re going to write a book, it’s essential to connect with your why, your reason for putting all of this time and energy into it. Writing any book is exhausting, so you better have a good reason for putting yourself through all that time and pain. My why has always been that I believe books can and do change lives, and I want to be an active participant in bringing these life-changing books to the world. Seeing books that I’ve worked on out there making a difference in people’s lives is the greatest joy for me.

I didn’t lose sight of that why. I still find myself energized and excited about a future where people read more and books are endlessly accessible and lives are changed. No, this wasn’t a hope problem, so it must be the other one. This was a sense of agency problem—a self-efficacy problem.

What Low Self-Efficacy Looks Like

With all of the reading and research I’ve been doing for this book, and all of the connections I’ve been actively cultivating, I’ve become acutely aware of just how many incredibly talented voices there already are in publishing. Lately, I’ve slowly been starting to think: Am I really needed here? There are so many other resources authors can learn from. Do they really need me? Who am I to think I can do this any better than anyone else? How could I possibly say something that contributes meaningfully to this conversation? Maybe I should just contribute by writing books and stop trying to teach people.

I know—when you have a book contract, it’s a little late to be second-guessing and letting imposter syndrome get the best of you. Yet here we are. 

TBH, I was also a little frustrated with Liz. She should be helping me more. I know we outlined everything together and each committed to writing our respective chapters—but, like, this is HARD?! Why is she off on well-deserved vacation at the beach while I’m sitting here staring at my computer screen?!

Another friend asked me how my writing was going, and sent her a long whiny Voxer message about how hard it is.

I’ve written about self-efficacy before; it’s the phenomenon explored by Albert Bandura, who helped us understand that self-efficacy is our belief in our own ability to accomplish a goal. Honestly, I have high self-efficacy about a lot of things in my life; I probably don’t put myself in low self-efficacy (challenge) situations as often as I should. And so it took me a minute to recognize the symptoms of low self-efficacy in myself:

  • Imposter syndrome
  • Blaming others 
  • Frustration
  • Complaining
  • Procrastination

Thankfully, I didn’t wallow in my pit of despair for too long. I sought out the remedies that Albert Bandura discovered, even though I wasn’t consciously doing it at the time. 

How to Rebuild Your Self-Efficacy

Bandura wrote that there are four keys to building self-efficacy around a task:

  • Mastery experiences—finding small wins, making just a little bit of progress so that we can look back with pride at what we’ve already accomplished
  • Vicarious experiences—seeing others like us succeed at the same task
  • Social persuasion—receiving authentic encouragement from people we trust
  • Affective states—checking in with our physical/emotional status and reducing stress around the task

I have enough experience doing hard things that I realized I needed to get myself out of this funk STAT. So let’s explore how each of these aspects helped me rebuild my self-efficacy:

Mastery Experience:

I forced myself to revisit our outline and do some additional thinking through the plan. That led to writing a few hundred words, which already made me feel better. Look—progress! I wrote some more. By the time I was done, I had added 1700 words to the chapter. 

Vicarious Experience & Social Persuasion:

Also, again without realizing it, complaining to my friend actually did help. First, she recently finished writing her manuscript and so she was able to validate that, yes, writing the final chapters is actually really hard. I wasn’t making this up (entirely). It’s a harder task. Knowing that she had struggled just like I was struggling and yet had made it through was super comforting. If she could do it, maybe I could do it.

I confessed to her that I was in a needing-validation space, and she offered to read a couple chapters and give me feedback. Her support and encouragement, and her willingness to come alongside me was invaluable.

Affective States:

Later that day, I was physically sore and stiff. I felt supremely weary—like, I-need-to-take-a-nap-weary, which is not like me at all. What the heck is going on with me?? I wondered.

Then I realized: Early that morning, my husband and I had gotten the flu vaccine and a booster for pertussis. The nurse had warned us that we would probably feel sore and sluggish that day. 

Things started to click. Hello—that’s probably a large part of why I was feeling off. So what did I do? Instead of trying to force myself back to work, I laid down on our porch swing and rested. Giving myself that grace was a massive relief. No, something’s not wrong with me. I’m just human. 

I’m not saying that these realizations were a magic wand. I didn’t take a nap and then—poof—my chapters are done. But making a little bit of progress, getting encouragement from a friend, and then giving myself time to rest did help me get out of the funk so that I could continue doing the work.

Diagnosing a lack of motivation

If you’re similarly feeling unmotivated with your writing, let me ask you these questions:

  • What’s your why? Do you still believe that right now?
  • Are you experiencing any of the symptoms of low self-efficacy like frustration, imposter syndrome, blaming others, or complaining?
  • If so, then what’s one small thing you can do to make just a smidgen of progress toward your goal, despite how you feel?
  • Who do you know who’s been through what you’re going through? (Trust me, you are in very good company with other writers who struggle.)
  •  Who can you reach out to and say, “Hey, friend—I’m struggling. Got any words of encouragement for me?” You don’t have to tell them exactly what’s going on if it feels too vulnerable, but asking for encouragement is always ok. And if you can’t think of anyone, ask me!
  • What’s going on in your body? How do you feel physically? How can you give your body what it needs right now?

Let me end with some words of encouragement:

You’re going to be able to do this. You’ve done hard things before. Everything takes practice—even, and especially, writing. Everyone struggles at times. Remember what Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art

“This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance.”