THE BOOK DOCTOR
★ ★ ★ ★
HOW TO WINTER AS A WRITER
By Caroline Donahue
There are enough beliefs about how writers are supposed to operate to fill multiple volumes. One of the most insidious is that ‘real’ writers create every day with the same level of productivity, no matter what.
Like water flowing over a dam, we believe that this mythical ‘real’ writer has unlimited creative energy available and simply needs to direct the stream in the direction they want it to go, like a narrative firehose. The ‘real’ writer is the fountain of story, always bursting with character, plot, and conflict and can sit down anywhere in the world and fill oceans with words.
If this is what a ‘real’ writer is, then I have never met one. Not even the ones who’ve won prizes and published dozens of books operate this way.
Creativity is seasonal, and winter always comes.
Writing fiction, and in fact writing anything, has phases. There are different ways of thinking and working throughout the completion of a book. A story or article or even a poem has these phases too; they just happen more quickly. Beginning to sketch out an idea is a different experience from actually drafting that idea. Going back and reading it to see what you’ve created is different yet again. Polishing it up into something you can share is its own stage. And if after all that you don’t need a rest, I’ll have whatever you’re having.
Or will I? Many writers come to me because they want to skip the winter. They love the spring when the idea is fresh and new, the summer when they grow it into a draft, and most can be convinced to enjoy the autumn of revision and the harvesting of the idea into a final form. But winter? Everyone’s afraid of that season, when it gets quiet and cold, and all you can do is rest.
Winter is the season of trust. Trust that you will write again, that new ideas will send up shoots once the ground softens, that there will be another summer. It’s also the season when the writing isn’t there to distract you from how quiet it can feel between projects.
When I finished my novel in mid-2021, it was summer outside but it was winter inside my writing life. I’d been working on the book for five years and had completed ten drafts. My editor finally asked me, “Are you making it better, or just different?” I stopped switching adjectives back and forth and accepted that it was done.
But the winter was hard, at first. I didn’t know how to tolerate the pandemic world without an active project to distract me, but more than anything I needed some rest. I had another story in my head, but every time I moved toward it, it pulled away.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and your writing is to welcome the winter.
Here’s how to winter as a writer.
Remind yourself that this is a temporary phase. This is not forever. You haven’t lost your ability to write, you just need to replenish the ground so it can grow new ideas again in spring.
We are often terrible at resting, but this isn’t just about lying around on the floor. It’s about taking in inspiration, which can become extremely enjoyable once you get the hang of it. You might even begin to look forward to these winters between writing.
Here’s how I make the most of a creative winter:
Rest as much as you can. It takes a lot to conjure a world in a book, so rest by taking naps if your schedule allows. Go to bed earlier. At the very least, don’t cram your schedule full of activity. Leave space to breathe and do what you need to slowly.
Infuse yourself with story. Between writing novels, I read even more than I do when I’m writing. Get yourself a juicy pile of books and luxuriate in them. Films and shows count, too. Steep in story and absorb as much as possible. When you find something you love, go back through to see some of the workings behind the scenes. Bonus points if you read genres you don’t normally gravitate toward. Give your creative fields some nutrients they don’t get regularly.
Be kind to yourself. Forcing yourself to write when you’re in a winter is a bit like planting tulips and putting them on the balcony in a snowstorm. If the conditions aren’t right, nothing will flourish. Asking yourself to be productive when you’ve just completed a big project is asking for Writer’s Block or even burnout, which is the longest winter of all. People get blocked because they’re exhausted. The ones who avoid getting stuck are those who see winter as natural. Embracing it and enjoying the break leaves you ready for a glorious spring with ideas blooming like a hillside of crocuses.
Winter isn’t Writer’s Block. It’s the pause before the spring when you can absorb what you’ve achieved.
Trust that there is always a next story for you and it will be there waiting before you know it.
Caroline Donahue is an American writer, podcaster, and English teacher living in Berlin. She is the host of The Secret Library podcast and co-host of GTFO pod. She is the co-editor of I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays, and the author of Story Arcana : Using Tarot for Writing. She is currently at work on her first novel. Learn more at carolinedonahue.com