Monday, February 11, 2013

Breaking the Literary Atrophy

Atrophy: decrease in size or wasting away of a body part or tissue ~

When we hear or read the word atrophy, we tend to think about muscles . . . parts of the body as the definition above suggests.

But what about writing? Can't it suffer from atrophy, too?

Surely, for some writers, there are moments (sometimes long stretches of moments) in which no writing gets done. We might call it writer's block. We might call it focusing on work and family and whatever else is on the list that goes before writing, but the fact remains, the word count is at a standstill.

There are some of us that can easily jump back into writer mode as if we never left, but there are others who find coming back to the page a daunting task. It's as if they lost the know-how of writing. Lost the joy and wonder of it as well.

I call this Literary Atrophy: the decrease in size or wasting away of writing in one's life.

The MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia suggests that to treat muscle atrophy, an individual should develop "an exercise program (under the direction of a therapist or doctor)" ("Muscle Atrophy").

To treat literary atrophy, writers should develop a program as well. Here are a few steps to help in doing so.

Step One: Get an accountability partner. Just as a patient should talk with a therapist or doctor, a writer should talk with someone who can help them back into their writing. This can be a fellow writer, a mentor, a writing group, a critique group. It should be someone you trust with your thoughts and your work and someone who is not going to let your writing muscle languish further. You need, in short, a drill sergeant. They should be tough . . . yet loving. Find this person, talk briefly to him/her about your writing woes, but mostly spend time talking about what you want to do writing wise, what time you have to write, and what role you want your partner to play in this journey.

Step Two: Find your writing "retreat". Almost three years ago, Kathryn Haueisen Cashen wrote "Create Your Own Mini-Writing Retreat" for Writer's Digest, and even now, the advice in it is important for most writers. Often, to hear "retreat" is to think about week long stays at places away from home where you are focused on all aspects of writing. Most of the time, we don't have the time for week long stays. According to Cashen, we can plan mini retreats. We can go to our favorite cafe. The library. Set up a spot in our home dedicated just for writing. Spend a day, or two, at a local hotel. The point is to find a place, a regular place, where you can bring all your writing essentials and where you will be comfortable writing.

Step Three: Devise a short-term writing plan. If you haven't exercised in five years, you wouldn't go to the gym, put 500 pounds on a weight bench, and try to lift it, would you? (I hope not). Why would you then develop such grandiose expectations for your writing if it's been a long time since you've written? With your accountability partner, talk about your plan. Decide on a length of time. Two weeks would be good. Decide on your retreat locale. Decide on what you will write, when you will write, and what goals you are setting in terms of how much you will write. Also, this is a time to think about other aspects of writing. Perhaps your goal is to start submitting to agents. If so, then time to research agents would be important. If you plan to work on a new writing project, perhaps you need to schedule in your research time on settings, characters, etc. These things and others like creating character charts and plotting and outlining are important to consider for your plan, too.

Step Four: Assess plan with accountability partner. After the plan has concluded, assess what transpired. Did you complete your goal(s)? What worked and what didn't work throughout the plan to help facilitate the results achieved? How can you eliminate the negatives and accentuate the positives?

Step Five: Revise plan and move forward with regular writing and assessment. The ultimate goal is to strengthen the writing muscle, and to do so, you need a regular writing program and assessment of that program.

As you work to break your literary atrophy, don't forget to add one other thing to this process: REWARDS. What you are doing (or are about to do) is no small task. Sometimes, the road back to smooth, steady, regular writing is bumpy with many side streets to distract you. As you move forward and strengthen your writing muscle, as you complete a writing to-do, be good to yourself, treat yourself. It will keep you happy and positive, and ultimately, that will keep you wanting to come back to the page.

Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both academically and creatively while also interviewing women writers on her popular blog, ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. In 2012, her second mystery, Into the Web and her short story "I Wanna Get Off Here" (in the short story collection, The Corner Cafe) were published. Her next release, Saying No to the Big O, will be published in mid-February. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University ... and trying to find the time to WRITE.


  1. Shon, great post. You've been spying on me! I try to write everyday in order to prevent atrophy, as you've pointed out. But I can still only manage tiny amounts with the distraction of two littlies and there's still no way (weigh) I can lift 500 pounds yet. It's very frustrating. I can see I'm going to have to rebuild my writing stamina again when they both go to school.

  2. Interesting post, Shon. Sometimes, we are so immersed in the everyday minutiae of life, we're not even aware that we're suffering this atrophy. A great wake up call. Thanks.

  3. Thanks, Elle! You know, I'm dealing with atrophy big time these days while I work on my dissertation and do all the other things I do. My writing constantly takes the back seat. I started writing this week, and I could definitely feel my literary muscles go, "Long time, no see!"

  4. That's true, Stuart. Twenty-four hours go by REALLY fast, and if we don't pause, we won't remember that we haven't taken a pause in a day to be creative. I'm not a writer that writes every day, but I do see why some find it very important in order to keep the writing muscles flexible.

  5. Shon, Thanks for the reminders. I'd like to add to your steps (perhaps it is a presteps step?), find a quality blog or two to help keep the inspiration flowing. That is how I found my way to Blood-Red, and it is definitely helping me to move back toward writing regularly and to take more serious steps, such as finding an accountability partner.

    I have to admit that just writing that (accountability partner) makes me nervous, I am such an "Oh, look, bright shiny thing" type. And in general, I am quite content with my divergent life. However, there are certain things that I wish for, like, "I wish I could drop fifteen pounds" or "I wish I had that book revision done."

    But I have found that accountability does work. As for the weight, I actually lost five pounds by tracking things via, where one of my cousins and I are "friends," and we encourage one another. (Though we both severely derailed with the holidays. hmm)

    As for writing, I know that when I used to meet with a couple friends every other week to discuss our writing, I got a lot more accomplished. Gotta revisit that plan.

    And I always have the wisdom of my youngest son bouncing around in my brain. When I'd raise an "I wish" as an "I want to," he'd say, "No you don't. If you did, you'd just do it." So, I am left with the question of do I truly want to accomplish those things or not. If so, then "just do it." Priorities.

    And I definitely should tear a page from my writing partner's book. He tries to write at least five pages a day, and he is often successful in that goal. That is why he has pushed out about ten babies for me to nurture, though I am still on the first one he gave me. (Although, I did get that one walking and talking and well-past potty training, but she came back from the beta readers with crooked teeth. So now I've got to straighten those out.) Anyway, I don't always feel like I am much of a partner, so I am grateful for posts like this one that shove me in the right direction to rectify that, posts that help me to just do it.

    Elle, I don't know if I could have written when my two sons were "littles" :-), I was so pleasantly distracted by them. They were delightfully interesting and interested, and they filled my days with exploration, creativity, and wonder. (Though once I got involved with homeschool organizations, I did get quite a bit of writing in for that.)

  6. Very helpful post, Shon. I think we all struggle with staying on point, so to speak. I find that when I am loaded with a lot of other work, that my writing muscle is okay with less words a day or week. If I don't have hours to write a few thousand words, I can still do quite a bit in an hour. But it is hard to stay deeply in the groove if I take too much time away from a story.

  7. Excellent post, Shon. You make the point so well that writing -- while a creative endeavor -- is still a business. Novelists are typically entrepreneurs -- business owners. Business owners who don't "go to work" don't stay in business. There's that accountability factor that may need a partner. :-)

  8. Of course rewarding oneself can swell into a whole different problem, as I know from my celebratory bent.

    A new organization is forming, the Women's Fiction Writers Association, which is now in its Yahoo group-only infancy. I mention them because we are in the midst of a February "Write-a-Thin." It began as a humorous typo and became a way to become accountable for both the writing muscle exercise and the over-rewarding syndrome. We are holding one another accountable, and it is working!

  9. Terrific advice. I've reached this point before and it always helps to work past it.

  10. Literary Atrophy ... now you're talkin' my language, Shon. I'm steppin', doctor!.

  11. I can really relate to that 'writing retreat' idea! In winter I have a conservatory and in summer, I scurry off to my garden shed - a disreputable place garlanded by cobwebs. But in the rare heat of an English summer, it's gloriously cool and has a beer chiller and I can pluck a plum just by sticking my hand out of the window. Bliss!

    I've written entire novels in that magic grotto. And if by chance I don't write a word, who cares? The spiders don't chide me...

  12. Hi there, Alison! I agree with the pre-step for sure. I learn a lot through BR-P articles, and I'm a fan of Write to Done, too. Good, reliable commentary on writing definitely helps!

    I find that if I'm being held accountable, I get more work done. One thing that OFTEN keeps me from writing is time, and I think another pre-step that could be added is making sure you realize how important writing is to the fabric of your everyday world. When we devalue our writing, we find a million reasons why it's not as important as other things. We have to believe the writing is important and as such, give it space in our daily activities.


  13. I know that feeling, Maryann. I made everything more important than writing for a long time, and now I'm working to make writing a priority, I find my writing muscles either very loose and unsure what to do, or so wound up and tight that even making a move causes me anxiety. I think even adding just a little writing to start and building from there can help alleviate anxiety and ultimately get a story done. The other day, I forced myself to do an hour-long writing jag on a story idea that has been percolating inside me for a few weeks. In that hour, I wrote 1200 words. One hour. Not a lot of words, but if I could give myself an hour a few times a week, those words add up!

  14. Thank you, Linda!

    We are entrepreneurs. Sure, there are writers that write for a hobby, but most of us are writing to DO something with the writing, to make a living from it. We can be really real with ourselves and say, "No writing, no food on the table!" Perhaps that's enough of an accountability partner to get us to keep writing. LOL.

  15. That is AWESOME, Kathryn!

    And you're right of course... we can go off the deep end with the rewarding, too. That's a whole other article right there! LOL

  16. Dr. Yeoman, I've been thinking more and more about writing retreats over the last few months. Would love to find me some places as great as yours to get literary in!


  17. Thanks, Christopher. LOL. I was actually whining to a friend months ago about the stall in my writing while she was complaining about her getting back into shape, and "literary atrophy" hit me. I immediately said, "I need to get my writing into shape." Hoping writing this and doing it myself can get me to writing more effectively!

  18. Thanks, IndyWriterGirl. Thing is, every piece of writing advice that's ever been given is just a repeat. We've heard it all before, and we need to! LOL We go in cycles with our writing sometimes, and we often come back to the same issues when we hit a wall. It's good to be reminded so that we can, each time we come back to an issue, quickly realize where we're at in the journey and move on and get the writing done!

  19. Excellent, Shon!! I agree with you: it's hard to get back into writing once you've been away from it for awhile. You lose momentum. Interesting way to think of it, as atrophy.

  20. Solid approach to using those writing muscles!

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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