Writing tends to follow a cyclical pattern. Anybody who has been writing for a significant amount of time knows that it's difficult—or impossible—to sustain a very fast writing pace for a long period of time. Events like National Novel Writing Month can help motivate writers to knock out a large chunk of words very quickly, but at the end of that month, it's normal to feel like you just can't write any more words—to feel drained.
That's because writing takes energy! Just because we're sitting at our desks (or on our couch, in the woods, at the pool, whatever) doesn't mean that we're resting. Writing is mentally and emotionally exhausting. It's easy for us to see that in the short term—you finish a particularly emotional scene and slump back in your chair, totally drained—but sometimes we set unrealistic expectations for our long-term productivity. If scenes are able to drain us in that way, it stands to reason that we can expect periods of exhaustion over months and years.
I like to compare this natural pattern to the tide, so let's talk about what to expect during high tide and low tide—and how to be a productive writer while taking care of yourself and ensuring you don't burn out.
This is when the words are flowing. Maybe you naturally feel inspired and productive, or maybe you've engineered the productivity to meet a contest or a fixed deadline. Maybe you have a ton of extra time because of a break from school or a writing retreat. Whatever the reason, you are knocking out your word count. You feel great, and you're probably producing good work because you're not stressing about how many words you're writing.
There aren't many things in this world that feel better than writing during your high tide, and most of us don't need to be reminded to take advantage of this time. When the words come easily, we want to write. We blast through other activities so we can get back to our writing desks quickly. But I'll say it anyway: Use this time. Keep writing while you're in high tide, because if you lose your momentum, you may find the tide receding. It's basic physics—words in motion stay in motion. When we stop writing and let our minds drift away from our work, suddenly that river of inspiration falls to a trickle, and it's that much more difficult to get it flowing again.
So when you're in high tide, use it and enjoy it. And don't let the waters fall until they naturally recede to low tide.
Low tide happens when the words and ideas begin to dry up. While we're in high tide, we may feel like if we just keep writing, the rush of inspiration and productivity will last forever. But in the end, that's just not sustainable. Eventually, we will become drained and will find ourselves in the lower part of our writing cycle. It's important to remember that this is not a bad thing.
A writer's low tide is a natural part of the process, and it's just as important to long-term health and success as high tide. [click to tweet]
This is our time to recharge. We wouldn't expect to be able to go a week without sleeping. Why do we think we can maintain a pace of three thousand words a day for a year? We have to give our minds time to rest and recover. And it's very clear when it's time for us to let that happen. Writing becomes difficult. Each word is a challenge. Our characters stop speaking to us. The plot that looked like crystal is now muddy and opaque. We have no idea where the story is supposed to go.
Although we can sometimes push through these periods of exhaustion, that's not always the best course of action. In fact, I would argue that it is rarely the best course of action. If you've reached the point of natural exhaustion, trying to push through is only going to make the situation worse. It's time to stop and take a break. Remember, high tide will come back around!