On not writing for pleasure

One of the hazards of becoming a published ‘professional’ writer is that it’s all too easy to lose the ability to write for pleasure. Suddenly you’re up against deadlines, and your work has to be shaped to fit commercial targets. And then there’s the fear of failure - everyone expects you to be good - you’re a published author. Right?

The sense of freedom to experiment, to play with words, vanishes. Writing for a living is a serious business. It’s a bit like playing sport for money rather than for fun.

This is rather how I feel at the moment after completing a 400 page biography, two academic papers, a number of reviews, talks and a commissioned story. The well is dry and putting pencil to pad feels more like going to work at the tax office. Writing simply isn’t fun any more and without that ability to play, nothing new and interesting is likely to appear on the page. I’ve even lost sight of why I began to write in the first place.

So what to do about this? After discussions with friends, there seem to be a number of different things that work for them. Here are some of them.

1. Give yourself a holiday. Set a period of time and don’t write anything until it’s over.

2. Avoid assignments - if money is tight take a mundane job that doesn’t take up any head-space instead.

3. Read a lot - all those books you never had time for.

4. Open a bottle of wine - give yourself time to daydream.

5. Do a short free-write every day - no more than 15 minutes.

6. Be very disciplined and wait for something to go ‘ping’ in your head.

I’m determined not to write until something demands to be written, and I’m experimenting with free-writes. There are lots of internet sites which offer prompts, but I’ve been looking at a book called ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ (subtitled ‘A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life’) by Judy Reeves, which offers a programme of writing, month by month, including a sequence of prompts - one for every day of the year. I’m not a great fan of free-writing, but I’m surprised by what is emerging. My last blog started out as a response to ‘What was forgotten’, followed by a walk on the moors. I think I might put ‘walking’ as the magic number seven on the list - it always worked for Wordsworth and I have several friends who walk enthusiastically when they’re incubating something.


  1. Kathleen, this very week I'm preparing a speech for the Society for Technical Communication, India conference in Delhi next month, on exactly this topic. I'm calling it Knowledge, Wisdom and the Joy of Writing. How refreshing to see how your tips overlap with mine. I wonder who else has great advice? Thank you! I'll quote you with attribution, if that's OK?

  2. Having just finished my Romancer project to a self-imposed deadline I have to say that my thoughts echo yours, But within that intense task of writing there has been so much joy, such great play. These are bought, of course, by hard sequences of editing, structural thinking and awareness of the needs of potential readers. For a professional writer, these are two parts of the discipline, I feel.

    My top tip would be to buy a couple of new notebooks, some new soft pencils or pens, and to start to make lists based on looking and sensing with no obligations to make the lists into phrases, sentences or paragraphs.
    But we know that will happen....

  3. Thank you both - Wendy, I've already succombed to a couple of notebooks in a stationers! One had a beautiful green fern across the cover and it reminded of the tree ferns in New Zealand.
    Rachel - please feel free to quote whatever you want - I hope your talk goes really well.

  4. Walking - especially by the sea, alone, or up in the bush, alone (preferably NZ bush). Writing by hand whatever comes to mind. Writing something new - more poetry, perhaps, Kathleen? Teaching - I find that inspires me because I re-read carefully to teach and then there are the discussions and the giving and the fun involved. It just sparks something... I am loving your Mansfield book by the way - no wonder you're exhausted. You must have poured all of yourself into it. It is magnificent.

  5. Thank you Mary for your lovely comments. I did indeed pour myself into it. I felt so passionately about the story. The amount of reading I had to do for it was also crippling. It will take my poor little brain some time to recover I think!


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