“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

What to Do When You Run Out of Creative Steam

Here’s the thing about creative energy: it can dry up.

What to Do When You Run Out of Creative Energy

Writing is an amazing act of courage and creation, and it takes a lot out of us. All too often, we run out of steam, and usually at the worst possible moments—when we have a deadline, a story to finish, a publisher breathing down our necks, or even just our own internal editor’s demands.

The good news: it happens to us all.

The better news: there’s a way out. Read on.

Why Our Creative Energy Dries Up

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a crazy, hectic week filled with crazy-makersweird health-bugs, and schedule conflicts all at once, and while I survived (to my husband’s great praise), it left me—and him—out of creative energy.

I need my creative energy. I have a master’s degree to earn. I have a book to produce by December. I have responsibilities at Becoming Writer. To paraphrase one of my favorite internet memes, I don’t have time for this.

AintNobodyGotTimeforDay

So what’s a flustered writer to do? Whether you find yourself running out of steam, running into writer’s block, or just running slowly with writer’s exhaustion, the problem is often a matter of needing to rejuvenate yourself.

It’s time to refill your creative rain barrel. 

How to Refill Your Creative Rain Barrel

Think of creativity as a rain barrel. As we walk through life, rain falls and fills that barrel with emotions, observations, and experiences—which is why there are times when pouring your heart out on the page is really like somebody poked a hole in a dam.

But it’s exhausting. Life is exhausting, and that barrel can run dry. So how do you do refill it?

1. Read

Read. Don’t stop reading.

Read your genre and other genres. Read books you don’t like and ones you do. Read books about topics you’d never write about in a million years. No matter what, keep reading.

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
― William Faulkner

Reading will give you ideas. It will enlighten you on what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly of all, it will remind you of the joy of writing, which is why you got into this crazy job to begin with.

Renewed joy always leads to better writing.

2. Reset

This means applying yourself to a hobby that isn’t reading or writing.

(I can hear your horrified gasps from here.)

This other hobby has one major purpose: getting you out of your chair and into a different head-space. Photography, cooking, exercising, animal care, volunteering, gardening, painting, music-making, cross-stitching—there are a billion options. Show up at a soup-kitchen. Get really good at painting that shed out back.

Just make sure this hobby is completely disconnected from writing. You’re giving your brain a rest. Just like your body won’t recover from the day if you don’t sleep, your creativity cannot reset unless you do this.

3. Relax

But not the way you think. “Relax” is scary because it means this: Give yourself permission to suck.

It means letting go of your perfectionism.

I know this is hard. You most likely got into writing because you love good books. Stories touched you in some way, and you want to write something that touches others, too. The problem is that as we learn to create, there’s a gap between the level we know our writing should be, and the level we’re actually producing.

This. Is. Normal.

Watch this video by Ira Glass. I know you’re busy; you can afford one minute and fifty-four seconds.

To put it another way, let go of the horrendous pressure on yourself to write perfectly, and you’ll write better.

YA author Maureen Johnson says it like this in her own particular, witty style:

“Dare to suck. […] When you are learning to write, you are going to suck. You’re going to suck a lot. you’re just going to keep sucking for a while, and you’re going to feel like you’re sucking, and that’s’ a sign you’re on the right path, because when you are learning things, you will suck at them.”

Scary, isn’t it? I know. I want to write like Neil Gaiman, and seriously, I’m nowhere close. But if I don’t give myself permission to write what I think is terrible writing, I won’t hone my craft like he has over decades. I won’t write anything to edit and make readable. In fact, I won’t write at all because I’ll be too busy comparing the water in my rain barrel to someone else’s—and that just doesn’t work.

“I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”
― Nora Roberts

For the record, this doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can be fun. 

  • Take your characters and put them in an absurd situation, like commenting on a movie Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style.
  • Change their positions, giving them a weird day in an alternate universe  (corporate millionaire stuck in the body of a cute, fuzzy kitten? CHECK).
  • Eschew story consistency, and instead have your big, bad, evil antagonist sing about making bacon pancakes while making bacon pancakes. 
  • You can get crazy. Swap their genders, or their continent, or have them meet aliens. Write your hardened lizard-alien commander waking up with an irresistible craving for Italian cannolis (whether or not cannolis have been invented yet and regardless if your world contains an Italy).

Have fun with it. Let yourself write nonsense that doesn’t have to be perfect. You’ll smile, your characters will show you sides of themselves you’ve never seen, and you’ll find your creative barrel refilled.

4. Rest

This is the scariest one of all: stop writing and walk away.

Whoa, there. Put the fire extinguisher down. I’m not asking you to stop writing for long. But there are times when the barrel is empty, and yet we’re so desperate to write at this moment that we keep scraping the bottom, bodily blocking the rain from getting in, and growing more desperate as our creativity comes up dry.

Stop writing and walk away.

There’s a principle in competitive sports called rest and recovery. It means that while training competitively, the human body requires a certain amount of not training competitively.

Most athletes know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance, but many still over train and feel guilty when they take a day off. The body repairs and strengthens itself in the time between workouts, and continuous training can actually weaken the strongest athletes.
Rest days are critical to sports performance[.]
— Elizabeth Quinn

Both your body and your mind need to rest. You have to rest. That means putting down the writing and walking away.

This one is scary because it feels like maybe you won’t be able to pick it up again. I promise you that isn’t true. You will write again, and when you do, you’ll find it’s easier than it was—that your writing muscles are strengthened.

Refill Your Creative Energy

  1. Read. Read everything.
  2. Reset. Choose a hobby that isn’t reading or writing.
  3. Relax. Let go of perfectionism and give yourself permission to suck.
  4. Rest. For at least a day, put your writing down and walk away.

Don’t be afraid. Everyone runs out of creative energy; everyone’s rain barrel needs refilling. If you take these steps, you will find yourself recovering from even the worst drought.

You can beat that writer’s block and that creative exhaustion.

Now go and refill your well.

How about you? Do you struggle with creative exhaustion? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Today, let’s practice relaxing. Your challenge is to put away the tension of perfectionism and simply write—to give yourself permission to suck.

Take fifteen minutes and put your characters in a bizarre situation (possibly including bacon pancakes). When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section below.

About Ruthanne Reid

Bestselling author Ruthanne Reid writes about elves, aliens, vampires, and space-travel, and she is the author of the Among the Mythos series. Subscribe to her articles at RuthanneReid.com, and follow her on Twitter (@RuthanneReid)

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Absolutely brilliant – my well is in fumes for the last 1 month! LOL

    I am going to remember your R’s for life: Rest, Relax, Read and Reset

    Thank you so much #HUGS
    Kitto

    • ruthannereid

      I’m so glad this helped, Krithika! #HUGS

  • Well, it certainly is a relief that it’s normal. My rain barrel’s pretty full right now (In the past 24 hours I’ve written a song, a poem, and completely re-did a few scenes in my novel, plus keeping up with the Write Practice and waiting for a response from an editor.) But I will definitely keep this article for when I do run out of steam (which is bound to happen). Brilliant advice!
    Your practice is genius, but I’m sorry, I couldn’t make myself do it! It’s like making a family member do something like that, and I wouldn’t be able to do that, either! I’m looking forward to seeing some of the others that’ll be posted,
    Great article, Ruthanne!
    “Whatever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men”

    • ruthannereid

      I love those times when the rain barrel is full! It’s okay – you can take practice on your own time when it’s a little less full. 🙂 (And I do indeed do it all unto the Lord!)

  • Jodi

    Trina peeled apples frantically. “Hurry up Buzz! We need to make the pancakes before Joe and Sue get here!”

    The shrill cry of an angry baby drowns out his reply.

    She yells. “What? I can’t hear you.”

    Buzz hollers back. “Why in the hell did we invite them over for pancakes? Are you crazy?
    Why can’t we invite them over for dinner like normal people?”

    The rest of his tirade is lost in the noise since the family dog has joined the baby in a duet.
    “it’s just as well I can’t hear the rest of what he’s saying.” She muttered to herself. No doubt, some choice words slipped out in front of the three year old. Knowing their luck, she would share the new words she learned from Daddy with their company.

    “Buzz… get the baby please!” Now to mix the batter. Apples diced-check. Flour-check.
    Milk-check . Eggs? “What no eggs? You’ve got to be kidding! Buzz, we’re out of eggs!”

    He comes to the kitchen with the baby who is wearing a a makeshift diaper made out of a towel. “Well, that works out cause we’re out of diapers, too.”

    “Oh shit,” Trina replied.

    “Exactly!” Buzz grinned. Seeing the look on her face he quickly added, “I’ve got this Hon.
    I’ll make a trip to the convenience story for diapers and then it’s off to the Golden Arches.
    We can still have our pancakes.”

    His bravado is rudely interrupted by the doorbell.

    • Christine

      Good job with this story! And hurray for Buzz — he starts out complaining and morphs into co-operative. Some people would only get MORE gripey.

      (And in the real world Joe & Sue will remember and cherish this zany fun night more than if everything had been done and on the table. We love it when we find others are as human & fallible as we are.)

      Love the “duet.” 🙂

      • Jodi

        Thanks Christine!! I appreciate your feedback. It’s the first thing I’ve written that I like since the contest.
        I even had fun. Ruthanne’s tips work!

    • ruthannereid

      Hahaha! What a scenario! That was really funny to read. Great practice!

      • Jodi

        Ruthanne,
        I appreciate your feedback and thank you for the inspiration!

    • Well done and very funny!

  • Oh boy, I think I just found my new favorite blog. Great advice, Ruthanne.

    • ruthannereid

      Thanks a ton, Vincent! I’m really glad you found it helpful.

  • Ruth

    Thanks for a great blog, Ruthanne! I have no idea how you do all you do but you have helped so many writers. Your message to rest resonates with me. Thank you!

    • ruthannereid

      You’re welcome, Ruth. I’m so, so glad to hear that! helping others is the reason I do all this. 🙂

  • RuthAnn,

    Creative stillnesses are often seen as bad things, but I’ve thought for some time that they also serve a purpose.

    I love the idea of putting characters in bizarre situations and seeing what happens. I’ve used that before to find my way out of a scene gone bad or into the next scene, but I’ve never considered it to be a solution to writer’s block.

    Bonus! It could be a good way to develop characters, too!

    Stepping back and letting go…. That’s where I am right now and have been for some time. Long enough, in fact, to have written a couple of posts about it.

    You’re right. It is scary, but it also comes with a measure of peace once I learned to embrace and welcome it.

    Thanks so much for an excellent post!

    • ruthannereid

      You’re so welcome, Carrie! Best of luck with all your writing. 🙂

  • Susan Barker

    My writing barrel is definitely empty. I like the idea of putting my characters in weird situations. Maybe that’s what I need too!

    • ruthannereid

      I’m so glad this helps, Susan! Best of luck refilling your barrel. 🙂

  • Natalia

    Great article! Every point is true! It took me a really long time to realize the 4th point , yeah, you should take a deep breath, take your courage and walk away to refill. How long did it take you to understand that? I learned it the hard way, untill I was completely exhausted. Very well said “But there are times when the barrel is empty, and yet we’re so desperate to write at this moment that we keep scraping the bottom, bodily blocking the rain from getting in…”
    Thanks for the article and sharing what you’ve learnt. It really works.

    • ruthannereid

      Thank you, Natalia! I had to learn in the hard way, too, tears and all. It’s a rough road, but I’m glad I understand it now.

  • Christina

    Mattie wasnt exactly surprised Lola had suggested making pancakes at midnight. It was just Lola, reckless and brave but mostly harmless. Some reckless people wanted to base jump or instigate a car chase, Lola wanted pancakes.
    She’d rung at about 11:30, “MATTIE” she had yelled as soon as he picked up, “PANCAKES” she’d continued. Mattie just laughed and promised to be at hers in 10. Becuase he couldn’t deny Lola, he couldn’t say no to those glowing brown eyes that filled with passion, passion that seeped into his skin and infected him, passion that grew inside and made the world seem plastered in gold,and made him feel like more than a blundering fool, more than a gangly empty teenager. More than just Mattie.

    • ruthannereid

      This made me laugh, Christina! It’s a touching little moment, too; real love can make us feel like more than “just” ourselves. I hope they enjoyed the pancakes. 🙂

  • Christine

    One of the suggestions above is to change their positions, give them a weird day in an alternate universe. I decided on the corporate millionaire (well, at least a successful businessman) stuck in the body of…

    WHAM!

    It would have been a perfect landing, if only those crazy birds had stayed put.

    I could see the fairway green on my left, farther up, and I took note of the winding stream below as I nosed my small plane down, focused on the green strip of asphalt ahead. I never saw the two birds they say rose up from the river below. I only felt a violent jerk as something hit the prop and I lost control.

    I vaguely recall a tumbling, falling sensation, the far-off wail of sirens. I remember thinking at one point, Guess my buddies will have to play without me, ‘cause I won’t be making it to the fairway today.

    Then I woke up flat out on a bed, hearing blimps and bleeps from machines and soft voices. Definitely hospital sounds. I tried to open my eyes or turn my head, but my body was like stone. I couldn’t stay awake.

    I came to later, hearing familiar voices right near my bed. My wife, Lacey, my mom and dad. They were murmuring, talking about the crash of a small plane, a bird in the prop. Bit by bit the memory came back to me. I tried to open my eyes, to make some noise. I tried moving my hand, my foot — anything to let them know I was awake — but my body didn’t cooperate. I couldn’t even tell that I even had arms or legs. Maybe I didn’t? That thought scared the living daylights out of me.

    “How long do you think it will be until he comes out of this?” I could hear the fear in Lacey’s voice.

    Another voice, professional, yet kind. “We can never be sure. A lot of patients with similar injuries come to within a week or two. Some don’t.”

    NO! I don’t want to lie here another week or two, I want to get up, move around. Then his last words buzzed around in my brain, torturing me. Some don’t. Ever.

    “What are the chances that Troy will ever walk and talk again?” Dad’s voice.

    “That’s impossible to determine until he wakes up and we assess how much neurological damage has been done.”

    Hours passed — or was it days? I came to many times and tried to move, but it was like someone had set me in concrete. What I wouldn’t give to at least say a few words, find out what was going on! When the doctor was in the room I tried my hardest to scream, but not even a squeak came out.

    I lived for the visits of my family. Lacey brought Kyle and Tianna. They were full of questions. Lacey explained, “Daddy’s in a coma. It’s like he’s asleep. But maybe he can hear us, so talk to him.”

    Poor kids. They didn’t understand, but they tried. Kyle told me about school. Tianna told me about the new girl on our street. Their voices were like a lifesaver to a drowning sailor. If only I could communicate just how much those visits meant to me.

    Even the medical people brightened my dark world. How I wish I could tell them that! I knew from the few comments the nurses made right by my bed that they were moving me, washing me, but I felt nothing. Much as I hated to be so helpless, their snatches of gossip as they worked with me reassured me that I was still in the land of the living.

    Then came that marvelous day when my eyes opened.

    If you only knew what it’s like to live in grey shadows for days — or was it even weeks? — and then one day be able to see light and color and people. Wonderful is far too small a word; it’s like saying the Grand Canyon is large. And to see the faces of Lacey, the kids, my parents, standing around me with great big grins. To see the hope shining in their eyes.

    The only thing that it was the day I took my first step. It was the first step of my new life as a husband, a father, a son.

    • Beautiful! Very descriptive for something as complicated as a coma. One of my characters goes through a similar experience, but it’s not from their POV. Doing it your way seems like it would be much more complicated, and you did it great!

      • Christine

        Thank you!

    • ruthannereid

      Excellent, Christine. Wow. So tell me: do you feel like this refilled your well? It certainly feels like it relieved some pressure!

      • Christine

        I’ve been in a dearth this spring as far as writing is concerned, sticking to short poems. But lately (since the Becoming Writer contest) I’m opening myself more to my dream of writing fiction — and it’s flowing forth nicely. As I’m sure you can tell. 🙂 Thanks for your encouragements and helpful critiques.

        • ruthannereid

          That’s FANTASTIC! What great news!

    • Wow! That was touching and compelling. I’d say your creative juices are flowing very well!

  • Traci

    I laughed out loud when I read the suggestion about singing while making pancakes. THANK YOU! The suggestion will be used WITH GUSTO.

    • ruthannereid

      You’re so welcome, Traci! Haha, I really hope it helps. 🙂

  • Barbara

    Many years ago, I used to crochet, a lot. One year I sold over 60 dozen crocheted snowflakes on ebay for ten to fifteen dollars a dozen around Christmas. I can almost make those things in my sleep. When my writing creativity deserts me, I listen to mindless TV and crochet snowflakes. I almost always hear something that jogs my creativity, and I turn the TV off. I put the crochet down, and I’m back to the computer.

    Once I heard a character talking about another character having a seizure. but called it a fit, which jogged my memory about something my mother said years before. I wrote a scene into my novel about my MC pitching a hissie fit.

    Another time I heard that someone had gotten a snakebite which caused me to remember an old southern expression – nothing to do with an actual snakebite. My protagonist told my MC, “I know you’ve been ‘snakebit,’ . . . .” (it means he’s ‘done her wrong’ too many times.)

    I use other methods to get my creativity going, too, including writing prompts. But the TV thing seems to work best for me.

    • ruthannereid

      These are great suggestions, Barbara! I love your alternative hobbies, and it’s great that you’ve got a reliable way to refill your well.

      • Barbara

        I hope you have something that works as well for you.

        • ruthannereid

          These four work for me, usually. 🙂

  • kriti rai tiwari

    Hi, So I am an amateur writer. I started not so long ago. Please give it a read, feedback is accepted with wide open arms!

    CAPTAIN SWEATPANTS!

    It has happened! Oh, it has happened. Mighty lord it has
    happened! I was worried that it would happen, but, it actually happened. Simon
    told me not to mess with the “Jargons”, but I ignored him. Jargons are there
    for a reason, after all. And look at me now, Sweet mother of Honey Comb Maze, I
    am transformed, for real, now. I am a Dog. Not a macho, Dauber man or Siberian husky,
    but I am trapped in a body of a cute little pug! A PUG! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

    I am a badass 30 year old Business Tycoon who earns more
    than 20, 00,000 INR ($31000) per month but now I am pug. A fucking pug who only
    knows how to stick its tongue out and walk weirdly. A pug that cannot even walk
    straight. All these 15 years’ worth of odd jobs and difficult life for this?

    I agree I was arrogant and mean. Okay, I used to look down
    upon people as well because simply, I am better than them! Only, if I had known
    that it would turn me into a pug one day, I would not have done that. Those Jargons.
    I think this is one of those parallel universe that they always talk about, where
    things are in opposite than our universe. But can that mean, Does that mean there’s
    a Pug handling my multi-dollar business?? WHAT?

    I don’t know if dogs can have heart attacks, because I
    swear, I would have died of one right now, if that was possible. Now, I am tied
    to a leech and a fat man with zero interest in fitness is walking me down in an
    average neighborhood. The kind that I use to deliver newspapers at, during my
    high school. I know that he is not interested in fitness because he is walking
    very slowly and complaining to someone on the phone that He has to walk the
    adopted dog today and he just never feels like getting out of the couch.

    I was a very fit human, maybe that means I can be one of
    those dogs with a six-pack, but, I am a pug! Lord, you should have had at least
    made me a Labrador. Wait, what? Adopted? I am an adopted dog, which means
    somebody abandoned me and left me to die in the cold without looking back? That’s
    just so sad. On one side, I have a life where people are dying to spend few
    minutes with me, girls want to marry me and everyone feels prestigious to be
    associated with me and on the other, I am a dog with no owner.

    Damn World, Dogs have feelings too!

    I will be the badass pug with six packs and military training;
    I would be the cool pug who knows stuff. Dammit, I am Captain Sweatpants!

    • ruthannereid

      Hahaha! Poor doggy! Great job, kriti. I hope you enjoyed writing that as much as I enjoyed reading it.

      So what happens to him next? Does he switch back? Is there hope for captain sweatpans? 🙂

      • Thanks for the positive feedback. This just made my day. REALLY. I was not thinking as for the future of the story, but now I will. I have started a blog, fourinfinities.wordpress.com, I’d be posting the second part there and I could really use your guidance to improve my writing. Do check it out if you find time on your hands. Thanks a lot again, you are doing such an amazing job.

        • ruthannereid

          I will! Thank you, Kriti!

  • Melvina

    This post is just FANTASTIC! I’m not creative person with bad imagination, I need to pay
    someone to write my college paper mla, to services like payforessaypapers.com

    • ruthannereid

      Melvina, I’m glad it helped.

  • Brodie Bonwick

    Wow, that’s amazing! I’m sure I use al these tips. It is a great shame, but when i had some problems with writing I bought small essays on the essay writing and proofreading services and just edded there more information, but the main point wasn’t mine.

    • ruthannereid

      Thanks, Brodie!

  • Pingback: Day 34 | teachersummerwrite()

  • Great tips, Ruthanne! We all struggle with creativity dips from time to time. For me, it also helps to write on something completely different when I get a creativity dip. A bit like using characters in weird situations, you just write on a completely different story or non fiction when you start feeling as if you’re not making progress on your writing.

    • ruthannereid

      Thank you, Camilla! That’s a terrific suggestion, too. It’s often good to have more than one story going at a time!

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  • Dana Feero

    Danicka, Mikki, Becca, Carlton, Scary Man In The Big Hat are the players. Danicka is stalking Carlton and Scary man with a paint ball gun, ready to splat one of them. All five are going through a large maze of shrubs, the path is dirt. Danicka rounds
    a corner and spots the Big man looking in the opposite direction. The time is right, no one else in sight, splat! The Big man turns as turquoise paint covers the side of his face, hat and shirt. He smiles, laughs and goes after her. She squeals and runs back along the path towards the entrance.
    Elsewhere, Mikki and Becca are filling water balloons, and Carlton is out looking for earth worms to make a pie. He sneaks up behind Mikki and gently, quietly, deposits ia worm between her collar and her neck. Cold, sticky, Mikki screams at Becca, get it out, get it out, but Becca just leans back and laughs. “Serves you right,” she says, folding her arms. That’s what you get for hitting me with one of those water balloons.” “Oh yeah?” Mikki says, grabbing another one, ready to pummel her with another one.

    “You freak!” Becca laughs and picks up one herself, ready to hurl it at Mikki. Just then Mikki ducks and Carlton gets a cold water splash square in the face.

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Big Scary man catches up to Danicka and says, “Tag, you’re it!” Much to Danicka’s surprise he yells with delight and runs back along the path. She gears up, ready to let lose another paint ball, this time hot pink. She aims and
    fires, catching him square in the back.

    It’s time for the pick nick. Everyone stops, ready for iced tea and BBQ. The three girls get the deserts ready while Carlton handles the salads and Big Scary prepares the BBQ pit. They’re having roasted gob stoppers with BBQ’d sweet potatoes, salmon and roasted Arnuky Beast, freshly caught. It took time to peel all the purple polka dotted fuzz off its body. After dinner, they all sit back around the camp fire and sing “The Bears Goes Over the Mountain.”

    • ruthannereid

      What a delightful scene! I’m so glad that exercise worked for you. 🙂

  • This exercise helped a bunch to get my characters out of their roles and helped lighten up my mood towards some of the characters. Big Scary Man and Carlton to be more specific. Mikki’s character is not far from the truth, Becca is the one who’s always the voice of reason, and Danicka is the moody artistic type, and she would NEVER be playing paint ball or tag with Big Scary!

    • ruthannereid

      I’m so glad to hear that, Dana!