What I do when my writing isn’t going well (aka spice organization!)

funny charming sign "free positive thoughts"

How’s your novel coming along?[1]

It isn’t. It’s horrible. It’s awful. It’s so difficult. Not a single talented, published, critically acclaimed writer I know will say it’s easy to write a novel. And it doesn’t get easier with time or experience. Even if you win a Pulitzer, you just start over again when you sit down to write the novel-after-the-Pulitzer. It’s an uphill climb through swamp and rain and snow and rocky terrain, all around.

When my novel isn’t coming along, when the ideas don’t come, when the words for the ideas don’t come, it’s like the worst case of constipation, ever. You know what you have to do (push out that G*dawful brick of a turd), but knowing what to do, isn’t the same as having it happen. So you wait.

The ideas are swirling around in my subconscious, and they’re just not coming together just yet. They’re just stuck. I know what I’ve got to do –I’ve got to integrate a new character into my novel revision, and I’ve got to re-design another character, before I can really earnestly dive into this next revision. But. It’s not. Coming. Together.

So what do I do when my writing isn’t going well?

I go bookshopping. I read. I eat. I go to yoga (well, not nearly enough). Hell, I even bake.

I bake chocolate peanut butter cookies:

peanut butter and milk chocolate cookies

I had to give many of them away. I’m a weird animal; I bake for the sake of baking. I like making exact measurements, and throwing them together into a concoction that when exposed to heat, becomes something else entirely. I like giving people baked goods, watching their faces light up.

I like butter. I love sugar. I respect flour. What a triumvirate.

I make blueberry pancakes (flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, milk, egg) from scratch, with homemade blueberry maple syrup (blueberries, maple syrup). Liquid to fluffy solid.

blueberry pancakes + blueberry maple syrup

And apple dutch bunnies. I love the names of these things, which are also known as German baked pancakes. Because they’re a a sort of pancake that is baked!

Apple dutch bunny pancake: YUM

I bake lasagna. Drool.


And I make kimchi. My house is rarely without kimchi. And I like making the kimchi, too–I like prepping the radish, and making the fermenting sauce, and I like mixing it together, and I like watching it transform overnight and over the next couple of weeks into something I’ve known my entire life, something that’s part of who I am.

kimchi done, fermenting

I go to Lit Crawl. And read my work aloud. If my writing isn’t going well, at least I’m reaping the benefits of what I’ve already written. Right?

I go to a Martha Stewart Show taping. That’s a nice distraction. And when I watch Martha, I think of how talented she is, and also what kind of controlling tyrant she can be. I love her. But I’m also afraid of her. And it reminds me not to be a tyrant to my characters. Let them be. Let them unfold. I’m stuck on my novel, but I’m going to let it unfold.

Martha Stewart Show taping

I socialize with friends to the point where my extrovert self is more than satiated. And I begin to wonder if perhaps I am introverted, after all. And then I feel physically ill, and realize I’m just wearing myself down.

I even apply to residencies. Pushing that submission button makes me feel like a crazy person–because I know the chances are that I’ll be rejected, but I push that button anyway, in hopes the results will be different than all the other 100 times previous.

I take a letterpress class. And love it.


And I organize my spices. I am verrry excited about organizing my spices.

Here is a before picture. See the jumble? See how you can’t see what spices are where? And how when I am cooking, I *might* have a difficult time figuring out where the oregano might be? How I might have to blindly lift jars one after another, until I find the right one? And also, how unsightly this all is?

the "before" picture

After moving into our new place, we began cooking more. And gathering more spices (see above). With no organization method (see above). And then I remembered my friend Tea’s post on spice organization earlier this year. I clicked around, looked at the other spice organization methods to which she referred. And I liked her straight-sided, widish mouthed jars the most, even though Smitten Kitchen’s jars were beautiful and The Traveler’s Lunchbox’s system spoke to me, given my recent foray into letterpress.

And because I prefer a ribbed lid, I ordered a bunch of spice jars from Specialty Bottle. And got a label maker (oh, how I love label makers).

This is how my spices looked afterward, in uniform jars:

pretty spices, in pretty, uniform jars

I did not put labels on the glass part of the jars. I put the labels on the lids, because I was going to put them in a drawer and view them from the tops of their lids. (Yes, I know there is the possibility of lid switching (and thus label switching) tragedy–hrm. Maybe I will put labels on the glass part of the jars).

And this is how they look, organized in a drawer. Yes, they’re in alphabetical order, at least for now.

There will be no hunting and guessing as oil spits in a pan or a stew bubbles or as I mix a cake batter, anymore!

spices, organized and in drawer!

For the record, a writer friend was staying at my place with me this week, and found my excitement over spice organization inordinately strange. She didn’t say so, but I could see it in her eyes watching my anticipation crescendo as my box of spice jars neared (yay for UPS tracking!). I opened up the box of jars, when they arrived, with as much glee as I would a box of new shoes books. And when I showed her what I’d done with my spices she politely commended me. Like I do when my dogs are high as a kite about having eaten a fly (ahem good girl, *pats head* ahem). So, I don’t expect everyone to get too excited, but I.am.excited! About! My! Spice! Organization!

And yes, when my writing isn’t going well, I also sit down to write. Because sometimes the Muse visits, and if you’re not ready to greet her, then well, you’ve missed her. And that won’t do.

[1] Most impossible question to be asked, ever.



Filed under Life, Writing

13 responses to “What I do when my writing isn’t going well (aka spice organization!)

  1. I do all of this – just in different ways.

  2. Actually, I thought your spice jar excitement was very cute. I’m a huge fan of odd passions.^^

  3. spices in a drawer with labels on top…stroke of genius! you make baking (and cooking in general) sound downright poetic. please tell me your novel includes some prose about food.

    • @Krys: I also think it’s cute when Scarlet the Wiener Dog eats flies and comes up to me for a reward. I am a huge fan of odd passions. 😉

      @northern girl: the spice-in-a-drawer was not an idea I came up with on my own! I snarfed the idea from Amanda Hesser who put her spices in a drawer with labels on top (well, she physically wrote on the containers, and the containers were not the same as mine). man, i gotta put some food in my novel, don’t i? I used to have a food blog over at http://muffintop.wordpress.com/, and I miss writing about food. thank you for the encouragement.

  4. I am inspired just by looking at all your delicious food pictures. When novel writing isn’t going well, it also feels so great to finish something, whether it’s a baking project or a knitting one. Novels take so long that a dash of instant gratification always makes me feel better!

  5. Almost nothing makes me happier than to know that another writer out there orders things from Specialty Bottle! My spices aren’t in uniform jars because I am too fickle with my jar tastes. I just bought a bunch of wire bail jars from The Container Store for my pantry but what I really wanted to do was order cases of 12 of each size from Freund Container…
    So, that’s what I was doing this past weekend because I can’t seem to move on from the novel I finished this summer. I am supposed to be querying agents (I queried only one, she’s had my manuscript for 3 months) but I can’t seem to get back into the groove. So I put bulk beans in pretty jars.

    Love your blog!

  6. Is it wrong that my heart beat a little faster when I saw the final organized spice pictures? Hey, at least it’s not hard to make me happy!
    When the muse arrives, she’ll find a nice and tidy spice rack to greet her:-)

  7. Love your food photos and that, in between, you cook. And thanks for the container links. I’ve wanted to do this for years.

  8. mmm, food. I must write something. But first I eat. And it’s your fault.


  9. Reading:Buying Books::Eating:Baking

    Thumbs up on the bbs in batter and bb/maple syrup, but no buttermilk in those pancakes?

    Lock & Lock=best food storage ever!

    Aren’t the spices in the first picture organized? (Seriously, they look beautiful. My spices are in various old jars labelled w/ a stack of found nametags, e.g. “HELLO my name is: Bay Leaves”.)

    • @laurastanfill: the instant gratification of making food (and sharing it with others) is wonderful. and it’s more likely someone will eat my food than read my writing!

      @Angelina: specialty bottle is ‘da bomb. and good luck on your queries! Can’t wait to read your novel when it comes out.

      @tea_austen: you’re so inspiring. 🙂

      @Jill: i have friends who dread cooking. but it gives me so much pleasure, and calms me. it’s no wonder i cook when my novel isn’t humming along.

      @redjim: hope you had something yummy

      @Nate: I didn’t have buttermilk! and I was dying to try Nigella’s quick pancake recipe, which really was very good. and maybe I’m anal, but I don’t consider the spices in the first picture organized (the ones with spices in their original purchased jars?)–they were impossible to pull in and out of the cabinet, seeing as how I couldn’t tell which spice was where, etc., etc. I love that your spices had nametags.

  10. Well, I for one am envious of your spice organization! I have dreams of my own. I am dreams of organizing MANY things in my household! And you have been VERY busy between reading at Litquake and all your baking and organizing and applying and socializing – you’ve accomplished a lot while you weren’t writing! As for the novel – keep at it – it will come.

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