What are you doing differently? Reigniting the creative fire

After a kind of crazy summer I found myself completely unmotivated to write–my drive had just disappeared. No ambition, no burning desire to create, no stories pecking at my head demanding my attention. I think it might be overstating things to call it depression, since it seemed to be restricted to my creative life, but it was miserable and frustrating in its own way, and it lasted for months.

In the past year I’ve started getting comfortable in my reading and writing. I’ve found some techniques that work for me in creating a story, I’ve found some authors and publications that I am confident I will enjoy consistently. I had become comfortable with my evenings, which were mostly free to write, but which I spent browsing the internet instead. Comfort, unfortunately, had led to complacency, and complacency is sure to lead to creative death. So I finally got it together enough to take stock of the situation. I thought about times in the past when I had felt motivated, and what I was doing in my life at those times. It was time for a change.

The first thing I did is pick up a commitment. I invest more in my own success when I’m also invested in someone else’s. Doing this kicked off an instant spark in the cold ashes of my creative life. (It also filled my inbox with unanswered email, but that’s a different problem.)

Next I accepted an invitation from a friend to participate in some timed writing exercises based off of prompts, which we would then share with other people right then and there. This was terrifying. But it was also completely different from how I have ever created–I don’t generally go looking for stories, which is probably why I write so few of them in any given year. Writing from prompts for ten or fifteen minutes was such a new and exciting experience for me, and some of what it turned out I think can be worked into real stories. One of the things that I noticed is that my authorial voice comes out immediately in these situations in a way that it doesn’t always when I’m initially constructing a story I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

The other thing that came out of that is that I’m getting used to reading my work to other people. This is important, because I hate reading my own work. I love reading your work, and will happily do your readings for you, but doing my own makes me sick to my stomach and makes my hands shake. And here I’m talking about published work, that’s already been edited and vetted and is as good as I’m going to be able to make it. So to share first draft material that I just wrote two minutes ago was a solid shove outside my comfort zone. The first time I couldn’t even bring myself to read, I just pasted what I’d written into a chat window. The second time I just went with the sick feeling and got through it. Now I’m starting to get okay with people seeing my ugly little word babies, all wrinkled and pointy-headed and squalling. I’m even starting to think they’re kind of cute.

Then I decided I would try to write at a length I’m not comfortable with. I spent a lot of time and effort learning to use the 1200-1500 word range effectively, with enough success that now I’m comfortable writing at that length and usually feel pretty good about the results. So now I’m trying out a novelette. I have to actively stop myself from cutting scenes, because I have all of this room. Maintaining a consistent voice for that long is going to be a challenge. But it’s coming along, and I’m enjoying the process again.

The last thing that I did to change things up was to start reading outside my norm. I’ve been reading short genre fiction almost exclusively for the past few years, and not nearly as much of it as I would have liked. I recently resolved to start reading some novels, and not ones by authors I’m familiar and comfortable with. So I read Cloud Atlas, and Perfume, and The Road–which I’ll admit aren’t huge stretches, since they’re still basically genre, but the styles were unique and challenging, and that’s what I wanted. That kicked off a new period of voracious reading. I haven’t got through three novels in as many weeks in a long, long time.

So it’s working. And while I needed to do these things to break myself out of a period of creative entropy, I think it’s important to keep reassessing, keep learning, keep challenging ourselves before we reach that point. I’ll need to keep looking for ways to keep things fresh, and keep the spark alive.

What are you doing differently?

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  • http://alwayscoffee.wordpress.com Ali Trotta

    Over the summer, I had a hard time writing, too. The longer I was away from it, the harder it was to sit down and write something solid. I tinkered, here and there, with revisions and such. But I’d stalled.

    So, I took what I had of a short story — and I sent to a friend with a note that basically said, “I’m stuck. Help.” She did. Then we talked through some ideas for rewriting a current project. From that, I felt inspired again. She and I have started critiquing for each other on a regular basis. That has helped immensely. At first, I was afraid, because of the “ugly, little baby words” (I love that phrasing). But sharing them, even in their less than pretty phase, has really been great.

    I also picked up a few graphic novels — and books of poetry. Poetry really helps me think about phrasing.

    This was a lovely post. Thanks for sharing!

  • Keith West

    Great post. I’ve always been something of a panster, writing by the seat of my pants, with no real idea of what happens after the scene following the one I was writing. I’ve usually had a general idea where I wanted the story to end up, and I always had an opening. The parts in between were what was fuzzy.

    Lately, I’ve started to plot the whole thing out, in my head if not always on paper. I’m seeing how this will keep me from having too many false starts or going down blind alleys.

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  • Mary Garber

    Thanks for this post. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell when a writing lull is “refilling the well,” and when it’s “too comfortable *not* writing.” getting back that spark and drive can be hard. I’m glad you managed it, and I loved your ‘discomfort’ techniques.

  • Sam X

    Varying your reading is an easy and useful way to change things up. I’d recommend picking up some nonfiction books, in addition to the novels–nothing like learning about something new to get ideas flowing. I try to balance all my fiction reading with nonfiction as well.