• Your Writing Fugue and You

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 12 comments

    TL;DR version: If you lose track of all time and space when you write, you’re not alone. It’s (unofficially) called a writing fugue, and it happens to many of us. WriteByNighter Joe C. worries that his writing fugues are a problem: he forgets to eat, forgets to move around, forgets to pee. If a writing fugue leads to better writing but some physical discomfort, is it worth it? It’s a question each fuguer must answer for him or herself.


    Lately we’ve all spent a lot of time discussing process, inspiration, where we write, how we write. What kind of headspace we need to get into in order to produce words.

    WriteByNighter Joe C. emailed to ask us about his process, in which he goes into a sort of trance when he writes, losing touch with both the world outside and with his own internal workings.

    “It’s almost self-destructive, what I do,” Joe writes. “Basically, I forget to do a fuckn’ thing. I have coffee [and start writing] … and then suddenly it’s 4 p.m., my back is stiff, and I realize I’ve been holding my bladder to the point of pain. I lose myself completely, and it happens all the time. … It’s weird.  My question is if you know of anyone who experiences this same behavior when they write.”

    Justine and I had a writing professor who refers to this as a “fugue state.” It’s not the actual dissociative disorder — don’t panic! — but it does resemble it in some ways.

    And it happens to me all the time.

    Your turn: Do you enter a fugue state when you write? What are the effects? Are you disoriented when you come out of it? Let us know in the comments below.


    Fugue Me

    In fact, I remember my first writing fugue. I was an undergrad taking my first fiction workshop, and I had a story due the following day. I was in a procrastination panic, starting to feel frantic; and with no ideas coming my way, I could almost hear the blinking cursor mock me: “You can’t write [blink] you can’t write [blink].”

    Then an idea came to me about a kid taking his dead father’s ashes across the country by train. It was a silly little story — I knew it even then — but I started typing. About three hours later I reached the end… and then realized that during that session I had lost all awareness of time and space.

    I was so confused. I did a double-take at the clock, and then tried to remember one thing that had happened since I started writing. There’d been no bathroom or beverage breaks; my ashtray was near to overflowing with butts, but I couldn’t recall smoking a single cigarette.

    The weirdest thing? I could remember hardly a single passage I’d written, nor more than a couple of plot points. The process, and the story itself, were almost complete mysteries to me.

    It was a little bit frightening, but also exhilarating.

    Now it’s merely a familiar part of my process.


    Destroy in Order to Create

    Joe worries that his fugue states are affecting his physiology: “Bad diet, totally sedentary activity, bad for the back and everything in the body, poor posture,” he writes. A fugue state “ruins my biorhythms, sleep, diet, exercise, spiritual practice, it all goes out the window.”

    There’s no way to force a fugue state — it either happens or it doesn’t — but it’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, when I snap out of a fugue state, I know the odds are good that I’ve just done some quality writing.

    In my response to Joe, I dragged out a (semi-) relevant quote from Picasso, who said, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.

    If you’re like many artists, you believe that creativity should come at a cost; that an artist should suffer for his or her art. If that’s the case, losing oneself in a writing fugue every now and then is a small price.

    If you think that’s balderdash, then look at it this way: If going into a writing fugue helps you produce better work, is it worth some bodily discomfort? That’s a question for each of us to answer for ourselves.

    For me, it’s worth it. All it really means is that I’ve allowed myself to be swept away by the work. My writing while in a fugue state is usually better than the writing I produce when mentally present.

    Your turn: If you’re a writing fuguer, revisit some passages you’ve written while in such a state and some passages you’ve written when not in such a state. Do you see a difference?


    Be You

    We all have different approaches to writing: what works for Joe won’t work for Jane and vice versa.

    Some writers do better working in short daily bursts. It’s hard to enter a writing fugue that way, but it’s also hard to argue with daily production.

    This doesn’t work for Joe, though. “When I do the typical writer disciplined routine thing, like take time every day to write,” he says, “I barely get into whatever epiphany I’ve come up with and it’s time to return to the real world. … I’m better with larger blocks of time, once or twice a week if I’m lucky.”

    I believe I’m at my best when I’m writing nearly every day and with a fairly even mix of short sessions and long (fugue-inducing) ones.

    There’s never a right way or a wrong way. There’s only your way. Embrace it.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and writes about literature for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Mel Daniels

    My daughter calls it “my writing trance.” When she
    tries to get my attention. “Dad’s in his writing trance.”
    When I snap out of it I sometimes feel bad, she could
    have set off a bomb next to me and I would barely
    move. But after I write unless it’s too late at night
    we spend time together and some times I’ll even read
    her what I wrote.

    Barbara A Mealer

    Going into a creative trance, is part of my writing. I become a character in the story, getting into the feelings and thoughts of that character while putting them all down on paper. It doesn’t mean it is excellent writing, but it does have an emotional connection you can use to make it good. Multiple times I have sat at the computer, only to come back to reality when I have to make a nature call or get something to eat. It is a time when you can put down 5 or 6 K words and they actually make sense.… Read more »

    Charity Marie

    I love writing fugues! I have been calling it that for many years. My longest one was over a three day weekend where I lived off of Pepsi, Lemon heads, and Papa John’s BBQ chicken pizza. I slept about five hours each day and the rest of the time I was at my keyboard. I wrote over 70,000 words in three days and then slept for an entire day when I was finished (this was way before kids, when I was young and single, and was over a holiday weekend). After twenty years, I have learned how to tap into… Read more »

    Patrick F

    Makes me wonder the diff between a writing fug
    and just deep concentration, or if there is one? I go
    into focus when I write, but I can answer the phone
    or go to the bathroom without losing focus. But I
    don’t lose the ability to hear the phone or to recognize
    bladder pressure.


    David, you asked us to review passages out of our writing that was from a “writing fugue” and a non-“writing-fugue.” Something coalesces, time, opportunity and the arc of the arc, (if you will) of the story. The arc of the arc of a story has only to do with the writer. The writer will come face to face with a problem, whatever it is, some people might associate with writer’s block. For me, I can hark back to machine tool building when there are always big problems that as a designer I had to face. The arc the machine’s manufacture,… Read more »

    Fred Ermlich

    Good to know that I’m not alone. I’m a pretty primal person — I was born that way. I’m mentioning that because my writing fugues aren’t completely different from my normal state. Like right now I’m in-between. It’s 3am and when I lay down to write a few minutes ago the fugue caught me, but I caught it too. I was propped up on an elbow, freeze framed in an awkward position while navigating the open tabs on my laptop. At least I caught myself, and now am propped up by pillows with a cup of water and an ashtray… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Glad to have you, Fred. I always love it when someone finds us through a years-old post I barely remember writing. (Though maybe I wrote it in a fugue state?)

    These fugues don’t happen to me much these days. But when they do, they’re even sweeter.

    Maybe tonight I’ll grab a cup of water and an ashtray and see what happens.

    Thanks for stopping by. Don’t be a stranger.

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