How to Keep Your Writing Warm When You Can't Write

It's a blessing to take a writer's retreat, whether you do it officially at a place like Yaddo or the MacDowell Colony, or whether you arrange your own intensive quickie retreat like I did recently, thanks to my friend Melanie loaning me her cottage in Maine. For working moms like me, it's a spectacularly liberating feeling to know that your teacup will be right where you left it the next morning, you don't have to cook if you don't feel like it, and you can string two thoughts -- or even two pages -- together without interruption. I have no trouble pounding out the pages on a retreat.

Unfortunately, afterward there's always the letdown. You come back and family life is the same exhilarating, exhausting Bermuda Triangle it always is: There are work deadlines, groceries to lug home, floors to sweep, dogs to walk, kids to help with homework. And there your bag sits with those fresh pages of your novel, untouched, as mine has been for the past four days since coming home.

It can be agonizing when that happens, because when you're not writing is when the fear sets in: Can I really make this book work? What makes me think I'm a writer? Why is this worth the trouble, when it probably won't even get published? Etc. Pretty soon you're drowning in the icy black waters of self-doubt.

By now, though, I've learned a few tips for what I call "keeping my writing warm" even when I can't actually spend much time on hammering out my new novel because ordinary life keeps throwing up roadblocks. See if any of these work for you:

1. Stop with the guilt. Guilt is never productive. And your brain sometimes works out problems in your manuscript in a different way when you're tending to ordinary life. I think of this as a farmer letting fields lie fallow for a little while: sometimes things grow better when you let the land rejuvenate. Just be in the moment.

2. Keep journals everywhere. I know these are old school, but I have small journals that I keep everywhere around the house so that I always, always have a place to jot down an idea when it comes. I have a journal next to the bed, another one in the car, a tiny journal in my handbag, and -- most importantly -- a journal in the bathroom, because I often get my ideas when I'm in the shower. (Probably because it's the only room in the house where I'm guaranteed privacy.) Writing those tiny snippets will help you beat back writer's block, because you'll always have something to turn to for a new idea.

3. Type up your notes. I often collect these journal notes into a document I call "novel brainstorms" on my computer, just so I can have everything together. Then from time to time I print out my brainstorms and carry them with me in my purse everywhere I go, so that if I'm stuck at a doctor's appointment I can fish them out and read them over.

4. Read, read, read. It always strikes me as odd that writers don't think they're writing when they're reading. Even when we're reading for sheer entertainment, we're noticing things. You can up your game by making notes on what you're reading: What do you love about that description? The way the writer used flashbacks or cut right to the chase in a story?

5. Go for a mini-retreat. Finally, and most importantly: Give yourself mini-retreats when you can't get away for a long one. I have a favorite cafe I go to near my son's school now that he's taking a weekly three-hour SAT prep class. On Saturdays, I might also take the recycling and do the other weekend chores, then zip off to a Barnes & Noble near my house for a guilt-free hour to write. Even that much can keep me feeling like a writer. More importantly, keeping my writing warm through those small rituals makes it much easier for me to focus when I do get another solid block of time to write fiction.