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The Writer's Life

How Long Does It Take You to Get in the Mood?

How long will it take to get into the writing mood today? Almost every day, when I arrive home from work, I have a plan for the day’s writing. And almost every day I deviate.

Even being 50,000 words into the fourth draft of a novel—a point where I can see the flicker at the end of the writing tunnel—isn’t enough motivation. I’m happy with the progress. I want to know the end of the story. And yet each day it takes me up to several hours to invoke the muse and dive back in.

I even have a strategy to cajole myself into writing—all I have to do, I tell myself, is start by reading what I wrote yesterday and I’ll acquire the frame of mind that will get me back into the story. But that is not as easy as it sounds.

Shifting the mindset from the working life—where I cope with an annoying commute[1], marketing projects, technical writing about systems I barely understand, and having to deal with other people—to the isolation and deep immersion of the writing life is always a difficult transition. They are both forms of writing, but they are polar opposites in the writer’s world.

And then there are the daily distractions of course, and I think it’s fair to name and blame them: Henry, telemarketers, Henry, the UPS guy, Henry, the other dogs barking across the street, Henry, the kid three houses down thumping his basketball on the patio, Henry, the lawn guys and their two-ton noisemakers, squirrels… Did I mention Henry? He barks at all of the above, in case I haven’t heard them. And then we have to take our walk. And then we have to play. And then he needs to eat.

It seems so simple to the uninitiated—you sit down at the keyboard, you flex your fingers and start writing. In fact I used to do that when I worked as a journalist, the news stories already mapped out in my head based on the facts. But creative writing is a different species. There are no facts, per se, but truths, and those are buried farther down. Even when they’re uncovered they defy expression. You can’t just blurt them out. You have to find that thing called context.

Detail from The Hours by Maria CoswayNo wonder the muse is afraid to come to my house. But like a desperate suitor I continue to call her, to beg her to visit for just a short time each day and give me enough inspiration for a few hundred more words. Clearly, a semi-normal, 21st century life is not conducive to serious writing. But enough excuses. Sometimes to invoke the muse you just have to invoke the muse…

O divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus…

How long does it take you to get in the mood?

[1] An oxymoron, I know.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


36 thoughts on “How Long Does It Take You to Get in the Mood?

  1. Hi! I empathise with what you have written here so much. And I loved when you wrote, “There are no facts, per se, but truths, and those are buried farther down.” So true! Good luck :-)

    Posted by emilyardagh | September 21, 2013, 1:06 PM
    • Having worked as a journalist is great training for writing every day, but when I switched to creative writing I still had to re-learn what good writing is all about. Thanks!

      Posted by jpon | September 21, 2013, 1:27 PM
  2. Great post! Sometimes for me (like right now, in fact) it’s not so much about getting in the mood, but staying in the mood. There are so many distractions!

    Posted by Kyra Bandte | September 21, 2013, 1:14 PM
    • So right. Sometimes it seems like the distractions wait until I get into a good writing groove and then come out.

      Posted by jpon | September 21, 2013, 1:25 PM
  3. I don’t get in the mood anymore. Full time +, 2 kids, volunteering in classrooms and at the library, plus normal life, and I’m lucky if I get a couple hours a week. A year ago I thrived on that buzz– it took awhile to get there, but I’d ride the wave for days. Now I’m learning to carry on without it, keep my eyes on the satisfaction of the end product instead. Just finishing something does offer it’s own little thrill.

    Posted by girl in the hat | September 21, 2013, 3:00 PM
    • Amazing that you are able to write so beautifully with all those other things going on. (Those of you who don’t know what I mean, see Anna’s blog.) I hope someday you’re able to spend more time again.

      Posted by jpon | September 21, 2013, 5:41 PM
  4. I’ve found that the best way for me to get into the mood is not to try: I don’t write every day, and have freed myself considerably from the pressure called “writer’s block” by something an academic named Ian Lancashire (from the University of Toronto) was reported to have said by my supervisor in grad school, Greig Henderson: Professor Lancashire reportedly said: “Writer’s block is arrogant perfectionism.” I like that more every time I think of it, and have learned to write when there is opportunity and time, regardless if I think I have anything to say or not. Sooner or later, I will have to revise, but the point is in getting something down on paper, my Waterloo before I took Lancashire’s nostrum to heart.

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 21, 2013, 3:20 PM
    • Interesting quote. I don’t think of the time spent getting ready to write as writer’s block, though, since I write every day. It’s more like prolonged digging my feet into the batter’s box.

      Posted by jpon | September 21, 2013, 5:43 PM
  5. I can’t force the mood. I show up and work, and sometimes it’s good but most of the time it isn’t. When the mood does strike, I’m crazed with happiness and I try to work as long and hard as possible to make the most of it.

    Posted by Averil Dean | September 21, 2013, 3:53 PM
    • I envy your ability to focus like that. I’ve tried setting a schedule, but my inspiration refuses to comply.

      Posted by jpon | September 21, 2013, 5:51 PM
  6. As much as I adored our senior lab rescue, Annie, I feel like I barely wrote anything in the 7 months we had with her. Not only, then, did I have my 2 original dogs and their routine, but here came Annie, elderly and not feeling well, weekly vet visits, stomach issues, new to our house, new to the noises of the neighborhood, following me worriedly around and around and around.

    That said, I wouldn’t trade our time with her for anything. But writing or focusing? Not so much.

    Our house is small with no space for a desk, so I normally work on a tall, bedside table in the guest room. A few weeks ago I moved my writing paraphernalia to the dining room. New view for a new mood.

    Posted by Teri | September 21, 2013, 4:39 PM
    • I like this: New view for a new mood. I’ve set up shop in four locations around the house in the last few years, and am eyeing an upstairs bedroom with a bit of a view for my next stop. Whatever we can do to keep the inspiration coming, I guess.

      BTW, if I ever had three Henrys around here, my blog would be sent in from an asylum.

      Posted by jpon | September 21, 2013, 5:56 PM
      • When the I-now-have-three-dogs events occur, I try to alleviate my writing-frustration with the mantra, I’m living my life.

        And if I’m living my life there will, in theory, be more to write about?

        Some of the best work I’ve done in this house was in the spare bedroom, with the door closed, sitting in a tiny corner.

        Posted by Teri | September 21, 2013, 6:53 PM
      • It’s funny how it doesn’t really matter where we write, once we get into the writing. But finding the right place to start seems critical. Some places just make one want to write. Strangely, the most inspirational place I ever found to write was sitting outside the coffee shop in a bustling hotel at AWP. I was watching people race to their sessions and an idea for a story came to me, almost fully formed.

        Posted by jpon | September 22, 2013, 12:49 PM
  7. I tended not to get back into the story. It was the character I needed to channel. I very often have a story idea, and I’ll let it sit until the protagonist introduces himself or herself to me. Then we live together in my head for a while. After that, I can more or less “wear” that character.
    I’d read a bit of what I’d written already and by the time I finished that, I was usually settled into being Wisson Berryboy, or Buck Crimmins or John Holland. Then I’d see what they saw and knew what they knew, and stories happened. Stories I didn’t do like that always feel forced to me.

    Posted by Jon Zech | September 21, 2013, 5:01 PM
    • I think this helps explain why your stories are so brief and so powerful. You might try explaining your approach to the new guy in our group. He needs to hear it.

      Posted by jpon | September 21, 2013, 5:58 PM
      • Thanks. I’m in touch with him. Despite the moans and groans last Thursday, the movie analogy I use often works.

        Posted by jonzech | September 21, 2013, 7:34 PM
  8. The story is always there throbbing at the base of my brain. Interfering with the everyday. Bursting out of my mouth when it shouldn’t. Then I sit down to write and almost weep with relief.

    Posted by joplingirl | September 21, 2013, 5:34 PM
    • I know the feeling. There are times when I get inspired in the wrong place, like when I’m driving to work. Then I write a pile of notes to myself, but have to keep the ideas on the back burner while I pretend to care about my job. You’re right, it’s such a great relief to finalyl sit down at the keyboard and get to work on them.

      Posted by jpon | September 21, 2013, 6:01 PM
  9. Well said! It’s so much easier to write a blog post, or some other short subject, rather than continue novel #2 which is right at the halfway point where it’s easy to see the way ahead. I was booking right along on it, then came moving, job change, moving, losing my comfy writer’s nook, and moving. Now, the reading the last bit I wrote is not working as it used to. I know I will have to buckle down and just write, but it’s not easy.

    Posted by Julianne Q Johnson | September 21, 2013, 6:32 PM
    • Life does have a way of getting in the way of writing, doesn’t it? We try to find a balance, but sometimes we just have to choose one and go with it.

      Posted by jpon | September 22, 2013, 12:40 PM
  10. I agree with shadow operator about “arrogant perfectionism,” so I write without stopping to think or correct the flow of words. A story or a poem materializes, usually in need of serious editing, but I keep at it, submit it to critique groups, rework it. When I’m completely “blocked,” I read a favorite author’s work, get inspired by the fact that I can do just as well, pending a great deal of effort. Enjoyed your post, as usual.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | September 22, 2013, 4:44 AM
  11. This might sound kinda stupid, but what is it that all writing has in common?


    I try NOT to separate out the different types of writing in my life, the tech writing, the blog writing, the short story and novel writing. What I do do is allow all of my writing to help all of my writing (hence my e-mail coined signature block phrase “All Writing Helps All Writing.”). To me there are metaphysical qualities to writing that I cannot explain, and, like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, were I to try to quantify them, I’d screw it up, so I learned a long time ago to simply allow each of my different forms of my writing to help each of the other forms…and stopped worrying about them. There are qualities in each form of writing that can help other forms of writing. I stopped trying to quantify and simply ALLOWED. I simply…write. I sit down to the task before me and put fingers to the keyboard. Now, that doesn’t mean I never have bad days, but either you muscle through those days by working on a different aspect of the same writing, working on another and different piece of writing, or you go for a walk or something. Do something else (preferably physical), getting the blood flowing though your body and brain, which CAN HELP CLEAR your thoughts. More blood through the brain, brain works better, mind benefits.

    I also do my fiction work first thing in the day. This might help you? Doing it this way might free your mind of your daily distractions. Maybe take off the “having to perform” feel at the end of a long workday, when you know other responsibilities await you?

    Something else to consider is maybe you need a break AWAY from HAVING TO WRITE. Important,: it’s not just about not writing…it’s about giving yourself permission to not having to write.

    And one more thing, Joe, and I hope you don’t mind me going “there,” is this…you might have “issues” (we all do, at one time or another) affecting your ability to sit down and write that are more than mere mechanical or structural. Above and beyond whatever we all recommend, here, you might need to (like you need some stranger telling you this! :-] ) really try to figure out what it all means, *on a Zen level*, because, really, all this other stuff we’re putting forth, here, is all mechanics and fluff. Not treating the actual issue. If you really were zeroed in on what you’re trying to do none of this other stuff would matter. None of it. You would simply rock on through all of it–Henry, UPS guy, Henry, the other dogs, the basketball kid, the squirrels–like a Multitasking Monster! So don’t overlook that. Go on some walks–with Henry, of course (but I’d also recommend going it ALONE, just yourself, somewhere, whether on a work lunch break in town, or something else; even writing out your troubles might help)–and ask and allow yourself to be open with yourself on why this “is as it is,” and see what first comes to mind. It might take a couple attempts, might come during the walks, but if you allow yourself to be open with yourself, it will weasel through. And the reason may sound stupid…but allow it to sound stupid! Don’t discount what comes to mind! Accept it and see if it FEELS true to you. I’ve been there and this smacks of all I’ve been through. Once you get through that, all the rest of “this” is simply white noise, will melt away, and you will be able to “get ‘er done.” It’s not mechanics bugging you. It’s not squirrels. It’s something else. Address it head on, my friend, and accept my humblest apologies if I’ve tread somewhere I shouldn’t have in a public forum….

    Posted by fpdorchak | September 22, 2013, 11:09 AM
    • Thanks, Frank. I hope you’re not getting the wrong idea here. There’s no writer’s block going on. I’m still writing every day and actually writing a lot, and some of it is pretty good (to me). I’m just talking about getting started. Some people can sit down and write anywhere, anytime. That’s great for them. Like Nadia and Averil, above, they write and plan to fix it later. I prefer to write the absolute best I can first time through (not that I won’t revise, but I like to get as close to the mark as I can). I write and then read almost every sentence over and over until the next sentence presents itself. Therefore, it takes me a while to gather my thoughts and create a perspective that’s conducive to my form of writing. This is why I don’t participate in group writing prompts–by the time everyone else is finished with their paragraphs, I’m still working on my first sentence. Neither approach is wrong.

      And I’m constantly considering changes to the setup. I’d probably be more productive in the morning. It’s Sunday morning as I write this, and Henry is sleeping on the couch, still exhausted from yesterday’s activity. (I’m getting into a short story as soon as I finish this comment.) But weekdays are problematic. I usually head off to work at 7 and get back at 2. I could try going in later, but the trade offs would include a traffic nightmare, and finding other time to take care of house stuff (finances, maintenance, etc).

      To be honest, to me, writing is not just writing. in my technical writing at work, it’s my responsibility to be blatantly direct. Users should have no questions about procedures and equipment. In my creative writing it’s all about creating questions for the reader to consider. The writing should reflect the ambiguities of life and force readers to question their beliefs (see Roberto Bolano about a writer’s courage). That takes a while for me to get into. But once I’m in, I’m in — unless Henry tries to launch himself through a window to get at a squirrel (I’m not kidding here). No matter how deep the concentration, that stuff is tough to ignore.

      But I appreciate your concern, and most of all your support. I know that you feel much the same way I do about our profession and especially the ways in which our industry is being corrupted by money grubbers. Keep on speaking truth to those powers, and I’ll be right beside you as you do, my friend.

      Posted by jpon | September 22, 2013, 1:10 PM
  12. Ugh, I go through the same, but at the opposite end of the clock. I rise before the sun comes up to squeeze in a couple hours before work. Though the house is quiet, I’m still able to find endless distractions. When I finally get going, I’m irritated with myself that I wasted so much time!

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | September 22, 2013, 12:58 PM
    • I usually get up at 5 so I’ve got an hour or so before I have to get ready for work, but just about the time I get something going I have to stop. I’ve found it’s better for me to read for that hour, which seems to prime the pump for later in the day.

      Posted by jpon | September 22, 2013, 1:19 PM
  13. a timely post. i’m so involved with so many work-related and financially-related matters, that I’m not writing much. After reading this post I’m vowing to at least journal — just to keep the joints lubricated. thanks again.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 22, 2013, 4:47 PM
  14. This is hitting the nail on the head and burying it in one swing. I’ve been fantasizing about a cone-of-silence but am not sure if sitting down to that will work — I’ve tried the Bose noise inhibitor. It would appear that this phenomena doesn’t abate but is a recurring aspect for all writers. Knowing more about it might help — thanks.

    Posted by Robert Hoffman | September 22, 2013, 8:59 PM
    • You know, I’ve been after my wife to get me those Bose headphones for a while. I’ll make sure she sees your comment. It may be the only way the modern writer can cope.

      Posted by jpon | September 23, 2013, 12:11 AM
  15. So many different writers, so many different ways of going about “courting the muse”! If your posts did nothing else, Joe, which they definitely do, they would supply a much-needed forum for writers’ concerns, issues, and ideas. Everyone seems to speak from a slightly different angle, agree on some things, dissent on others, but as long as we all get there one way or another, we can all thank you for opening the question(s) up to discussion. Good show!

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 22, 2013, 10:35 PM
    • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: writing is not about giving answers, it’s about raising the right questions. I just hope that the things that I find worthy of discussion appeal to others. Thanks as always for your comment.

      Posted by jpon | September 23, 2013, 12:13 AM

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