It’s not winter yet, but as we head into fall it’s starting to get darker earlier. It’s also getting colder. Maybe some days you’ve even wished you’d worn a light scarf or gloves as you walked outside looking at the changing leaves and thinking about how much more beautiful they would be if you weren’t shivering. If you live in Alberta, it’s likely already snowed. If you live in Vancouver? You’ve likely bought an extra umbrella (or two) in preparation for the deluge to come.
But fall is seductive. It whispers to you about cozy sweaters and wool socks. It warms you with pumpkin spiced beverages and apple pies made with fruit you picked yourself. It practically hands you a blanket and insists you sit down and curl up with a book.
Fall can be good for a writer. After all, it makes it harder to spend time outdoors so you end up sitting inside staring at your laptop or notebook until the sight of them shames you into starting work on your manuscript.
Maybe you’ve been faithful to it all summer -- but let’s be honest – probably not. You’ve swam in too many lakes, sat on too many beaches, and tried desperately to get sand out from between your butt cheeks after doing those first two things.
But before you imagine yourself spending all fall and winter sipping artisanal hot chocolate while writing the next bestselling book, you might want to prepare yourself for Seasonal Creativity Disorder (SCD).
A frequent co-conspirator with Seasonal Affective Disorder, SCD stops cozy fireside writing sessions in their tracks.
Sure, you might get fired up for NaNoWriMo, blasting through word counts with the same regularity as an atomic clock, but then suddenly the creativity doldrums set in and you feel lost amidst a becalmed sea with a seemingly unending case of winter writer’s block (and mixed metaphors – although that might be just me).
Or maybe it won’t be writer’s block at all! Maybe you’ll instead be cursed to only write chapters that you will realize the next day when you reread them aren’t just the worst thing you’ve ever written but also the worst thing anyone in the history of written language has ever set to paper.
All joking aside, fall and winter can be a difficult time to just BE-- let alone to write. First of all, there are holidays to prepare for and recover from. Everyone thinks they’ll be so productive writing when they have days off for Thanksgiving or Christmas but you know you’ll be avoiding your relatives or just stuffing yourself with well… stuffing and then lying half-asleep on the sofa for hours as your food coma plays chicken with your day’s writing goals (Spoiler alert: your food coma will win. You will not write a single word. Stop lying to yourself).
Then there’s the fact that all sorts of amazing books come out in the fall and winter and that alone can make you spend endless hours reading and subsequently daydreaming about what The Globe and Mail or The Walrus might say if you also published a book and by some miracle they reviewed it. How exciting! You need to have a book out soon! Why isn’t your book done? What have you been doing with your life?
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That kind of pressure can make you feel like your writing life is an episode of 24, that terrible xenophobic TV show starring Kiefer Sutherland, only a clock is counting down until your book (or you) are no longer relevant.
Of course, one big reason winter and fall writing is so hard is because of… seasonal depression. Maybe I’m just saying this because I live in Vancouver and my ex-partner got to keep the SAD light in our breakup but feeling bad about things in general is more likely to happen in the upcoming months. And we’re writers – many of us are sensitive and some of us have histories with depression and mental illness. Seasonal depression is a real thing and it absolutely affects how we see our writing.
It is easy to go from feeling like you’re a decent writer one day to sobbing to your therapist about how you’re an abject failure in your profession (You will have brought an itemized list of reasons why this is true to this therapy session. It will have dozens of entries).
So, what can you do to anticipate SCD and outsmart it? Here are some of my tips. I would say they are good tips, but I have a mild case of SCD already and so I’m not sure:
1. Remember that SCD is a Vicious Liar
Remember that girl in high school who went around saying the meanest things about other girls? That’s a sexist stereotype (and if you knew someone like her she was probably struggling herself) –BUT that’s what SCD is. It’s the meanest part of you unleashed on yourself to tear your writing apart. Does your dialogue really bring to mind the conversational stylings of two socially awkward 13-year-olds trying to flirt for the first time? It’s unlikely to actually be that bad. Separating what your brain is telling you about how much your writing sucks from the reality of your manuscript or work is key.
Your piece might not be ready to win ALL the literary prizes just yet, but it’s neither irredeemable nor does it prove that you’re a terrible writer. You just have SCD glasses on colouring everything you’re creating with a veneer of terrible.
So, before you burn the printed copy of your work and smash your laptop with a hammer -- show your work to a friend. Their insights will bring you back to reality and to the real work you need to do to make your book better. And no, shredding it is not the solution.
Also, breathe. It’s going to be okay.
2. Prepare for Seasonal Stalls
One of the reasons that seasonal forms of depression or writer’s block hit so many of us is because we pretend we don’t know they’re coming.
What? You have seasonal writer’s block again? What do you mean? Why would you have it when you trek to and from your day job through the vicious, frigid hellscape that is much of Canada in winter every day? Why don’t you want to then drag your weary and frostbitten body in front of your laptop to write the evening away? What is creativity even if it fails you in this, your time of need?!
Let’s be honest. Winter is EXHAUSTING. Many of us arrive home from a long day of battling the dark and chilly winter streets only to want to eat all the carbs and collapse on the sofa to binge watch something that doesn’t require us to think. Stop expecting yourself to be a superhuman ‘scribe of winter’ capable of composing a sonnet while you spend an hour chipping ice off your windshield in the morning.
When winter doesn’t relent, it makes sense that your brain and body crave comfort and Netflix and can’t muster the creativity or attention needed to edit even flash fiction. Be gentle with yourself. But also – be prepared!
If you want to have a more productive winter as a writer, think about what your needs are and prepare for them. Do you need a SAD light next to your writing desk? Cute notebooks and pens delivered every month to make you excited to write? Your partner to agree to look after your kids for a few hours every weekend? Maybe you need to go back to therapy, join a writer’s group, or cancel your Netflix subscription so that you’re so bored your only choice will be to write? Maybe you even need to talk to your doctor about ways to deal with your low mood if it’s bothering you and affecting your life?
Think about why you get burned out in winter and what you can do to avoid or minimize writing burnout this time around. Have a written plan.
3. Take Breaks
We all have different writing processes. Some people have reasonable writing process and some people have impossibly high expectations for themselves and write every day – with staggering word count or editing goals and the inner monologue of Tracy Flick. Daily or weekly goals can help you stay accountable and on track. But when you miss a couple of days, that can feel bad and then you start to beat yourself up for not being as productive as you should be.
The voice in your head: What is wrong with you? Why aren’t you working from the moment you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed? Any good writer can do that! You are obviously not a good writer!
Add in caregiving and other requirements and I’m stressed out just thinking of it.
Give yourself winter breaks from writing. You did that in the summer when you were tempted outside to enjoy the sun – and you also need that in the winter. Go skiing or snowshoeing. Go to a holiday craft fair. Bake delicious things and share them with friends. Put days aside where you don’t do any work at all and you just relax. It will make you more productive because you’ll be rested and happy. You don’t even need to feel guilty about it. Writing isn’t the only thing in your life. Joy and other pleasures are apparently also important. Or, at least, I’ve heard a rumour that they are.
4. Work Together
I think all writers have the same winter writing fantasy. It involves being alone in a warm cabin or ski chalet with beautiful untouched snow outside the window and a cup of tea or hot chocolate that magically refills with every sip you take. There are cookies on a plate in front of you. There is a fire that’s crackling. You read a book and have a notebook next to you to write your brilliant musings in. It is peaceful and quiet, this solitude.
That is the dream.
But the reality is that we are often at home writing. Our house is a mess. The weather is disgusting outside. The power goes off and you can’t find your candles. Our tea and hot chocolate does not refill itself. In fact, we might forget to make it. We write for a little while and then family members interrupt us and make a lot of noise.
Or maybe you live alone and you write for a little while and then get bored so you start texting a friend (and by friend I mean a person you have a crush on who - in this hellish version of the story - has no reciprocal feelings for you) or posting about how you’re #writing on Twitter and checking every few minutes to see who has liked your post.
There is a perfect balance of solitude and togetherness to staying productive, in my opinion. I used to reach new levels of productivity when I went to a local Shut Up and Write meetup. You write for 25 minutes and then talk and break for 5 minutes. In the middle of your meetup, you have an extended 20 minute break. It gave me the perfect amount of socializing and productive time.
Some people write together in coffee shops. I like having people over to my house and writing together where there is unlimited coffee, snacks, and washroom breaks. Some people write together in sprints remotely and organize it via social media. Some people act as accountability buddies letting each other know how their work is coming along and cheering each other on. Just find a way to find community in writing and to feel less alone in the winter writing struggle.
Writing can feel like a solitary activity. That’s part of the appeal to so many of us but it’s also part of what makes it alienating and hard. It’s especially hard in the fall and winter when you might find yourself more likely to stay in during evening and weekends to avoid the weather. Finding ways to create community will help you stay the course.
Inch by Inch
Just like all the snow that you will soon be required to shovel or trudge through, writing accumulates inch by inch. What’s important to remember is that you keep going, even when Seasonal Creativity Disorder or Seasonal Affective Disorder tries to get in your way. Even if its just a little every day.
The progress you make might not feel meaningful now, but it will in the future. Someday. Probably in the spring when the crocuses peak out of the ground and the cherry blossom trees start blooming. Which, given that I live in Vancouver, will probably be in late January -- as snowpocalypses continue to terrorize Canadian writers in other provinces.
At that time, remember to mute or unfollow all your west coast friends who will be excitedly posting pictures of daffodils while you trudge through snowbanks to get to the bus stop. Trust me on this. That mute button is a crucial part of the winter writing process. No one likes Vancouverites when we get an early spring while the rest of the country freezes. We are extremely obnoxious about it.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
A.H. Reaume is a Vancouver-based fiction writer who reads too much and is currently in too many book clubs (four in total). Reaume has a background in feminist activism and an M.A. in Canadian Literature from UBC. She's been published in the Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, USAToday.com, and Time.com and is currently trying to finish her first novel.