Writing through Hard Times

Writing through Hard Times

Ruth E. Walker

When we were looking at the focus for The Top Drawer for December of 2016, we thought it would be good to highlight positive, uplifting topics. For too long, we thought, the world’s been listening to a lot of negative words and ideas. Let’s keep it optimistic and encouraging. Set the tone!

So we celebrated the delightful and inspired writing spaces of Noelle Bickle and Heather Tucker. Creative writing teacher Dorothea Helms (a.k.a. The Writing Fairy) made us smile about the tough realities of humour writing. And we ended the year with some easy-to-accomplish writerly resolutions for 2017.


Cue fireworks and happy music…wha-?


For 2017, we wanted to continue that positive vibe. But world events are impossible to ignore. Negative politics and incomprehensible behaviours are being analyzed in every form of media, social or otherwise. Protests are erupting worldwide like pre-holiday pop-up shops.

Frankly, with a son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Texas, it’s difficult for me to look away. Not even the keening call of my nearly finished novel is pulling me from the news. Indeed, on Sunday night, the horrific attack in Ste. Foy, Québec, brought me to my knees.


As a writer, what can I do to work through this deep foreboding in my heart? Sure, I marched in the Women’s March (in Texas, no less.) In actions and in words posted on my personal social media, I share my support for thoughtful discourse, equality and empathy. I believe in social justice.

Writing strategies for challenging times


I am also a creative writing teacher, and dedicated to sharing ideas on technique, craft and inspiration. Indeed, Gwynn Scheltema and I started Writescape to encourage and support writers, and that isn’t going to change.

So what can we writers do when the world sucks away our energy?  As part of our “2016 positive words” theme, Gwynn brought constructive ideas about what we writers can do when writing is just not possible. Her Art of Noticing is one way to work through emotional fatigue and rekindle your muse.

I find physical exercise is also helpful. I’ll be at the gym tonight, pedalling off steam and worry, and trying not to look at the latest headlines scrolling past on the overhead TVs. I hope that when I come back home, my manuscript will forgive my lapse of the past couple of days and allow me back into my characters’ lives.

All writers (because writers are also people) have found themselves without the will to think and to express themselves creatively. So I turn to four wonderful writers for their words of wisdom.

Advice for writers from beloved best-selling authors:


Poet, civil rights activist and beautiful thinker, Maya Angelou said: What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’


Novelist Jack London offers up some tough love for writers who are distracted or down in the dumps: You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.


Poet, novelist and so-very-wise Margaret Atwood advises us to face our reality and use it to make true our writing: The darkness is really out there. It’s not something that’s in my head, just. It’s in my work because it’s in the world.

And I’ll end with some words from the great science fiction writer who first spoke to my adolescent heart from the shelves of my public school library, Ray Bradbury: You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.


There you go writers:

  • seduce your muse by not giving up
  • chase down inspiration like a Palaeolithic hunter
  • remember you’re a writer and awful is necessary even in fiction, and
  • whatever you do, don’t let reality take you down.

How are you coping? Comments please:

Let us know if world events are simply background noise and not distracting you. Or If you’re struggling with staying focused these days, share some tips or ideas on how to write through it all.

Check out more Top Drawer posts in our blog archive

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21 thoughts on “Writing through Hard Times

  1. Great idea for an article at this time. My mother died suddenly in Mexico, right after I had just signed up for a mentorship with Barbara Turner-Vessellago. Barbara gave me a few weeks off then insisted I keep writing through the grief. I had to meet my assignments every other week. It saved me and my writing life!

    1. Barbara Turner-Vesselago was a wise mentor by encouraging you to your way through the pain and loss. And you were a wise mentee for allowing yourself to rise to the challenge. Thank you, Kelly, for sharing your experience with us.

  2. I find it interesting that there has been a resurgence in sales of George Orwell’s 1984. For years I’ve been asking younger friends if they had ever read it. They all responded with curious and puzzled expressions. They had never even heard of the book. It’s well worth a first or second look.

    1. Thanks, Barbara. It’s true that we can find our world reflected in fiction. It can be a solace. It can also be the canary in the mine. Science fiction, especially, is often a place to see what can happen if we don’t pay attention. 1984. The Handmaid’s Tale. Brave New World. All worth a close look.

  3. I haven’t figure it out yet. As a citizen of the world, I feel I must look, but as an individual I am nervous about letting this level of negativity into my head. The good news however, is I am writing. This week, I gave myself permission to watch the news and scroll through my social media, but only after I have reached my writing goal for that day. I have also given myself permission to re-evaluate this approach on a weekly basis. If the day comes that I have to put my fiction writing to one side to protect my rights as an artist and as a human being, I am willing–in fact obligated–to do so.

    1. Thanks, Sharon. You’ve got the right idea: set a daily goal and write to it. Then, give yourself over to that other role of the writer and observe. Linwood Barclay made an interesting choice yesterday, choosing to cancel U.S. book appearances until the travel ban is lifted. Writers do have ways of making their voices heard and not always with a pen.

  4. World events are making me edgy, too. Procrastination reigns. Facebook beckons, and I keep turning to it with horrified fascination. In “Ron Carlson Writes a Story,” he says, “All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.” He makes me laugh. He says he finishes a section and thinks he “might be able to do some better thinking out in the kitchen with Mr. Coffee and Mr. Refrigerator, and oh, there in the other room is Mr. Television, and there’s Mr. Bed. And others. No, we won’t go there.” I am fighting this by putting my cell phone in the bathroom (which as a side benefit encourages me to drink more water), and for maybe a couple of hours at a time I’m able to keep “bum in seat.”

    1. Thanks, Heidi, for your comments. Yup. C-SPAN. CBC. CNN. PBS. They certainly have a hold on my attention and keep me from my keyboard. Actually writing this article was a challenge because I wanted it to be timely and at the pace of change… I’m afraid if I put my TV in the bathroom, I’d never leave that room. Nonetheless, I like your strategy.

  5. When my wife was going through her cancer treatments my creativity all but abandoned me.
    What helse’s through was my writing friends, specifically Tobin Elliott, forces me to branch out, to write collaboratively. The act of moving in a different direction reignited my muse.

  6. Thank you for acknowledging the emotional beating I feel like anyone who is sensitive is going through. The encouragement is much appreciated. We can make a difference through our writing. We can write to editors, write to politicians, and write literature that suggests creative, empathetic ways that we can help each other through. Heading off to get drunk after lunch, with gratitude,

    1. Thank you, Elaine. I hope that your lunch companions can also encourage positive ideas. And, of course, great food and a glass of wine or two (as long as you’re not driving) can always energize the conversation.

      1. Hi Elaine. Well, maybe I should have re-read my own post. 🙂 I hope this afternoon found you absolutely wallowing in words, and that the giddy, tipsy joy of creativity held you tight. Write On!

  7. Very timely and inspiring article. Just in time. As a writer it is impossible to turn your head as a human it is impossible not to. I don’t find the antics so hard to believe – what is most disheartening is the resulting discourse among people you “thought” you knew.

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