There is no doubt about it. I am in a creativity and productivity rut. Not at work of course. I still churn out scintillating evaluation reports and mind-blowing graphs on a daily basis… although now that I think about it the fact that I consider them so exciting might be part of the problem. But on the writing front, my supposed raison d’être, I have failed to finish a single thing in 2017, except for a short story in the forthcoming Tails of the Apocalypse 2. I’ve barely even blogged.
I have managed to eke out 30,000 words of a “written-to-market” thriller, my attempt to capitalize on the appetite for Girl on the Train type novel, but with each passing chapter I am finding myself more and more indifferent to it. I am no more on the edge of my seat while writing it than I am while preparing my grocery list. Less even. But I don’t know why. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, and I like reading romantic thrillers, so it’s not as if I am forcing myself to write something that I don’t read. But everything about it from the characters to setting, to the whole conceit, bores me. There’s no magic in it. Maybe I only like writing books about time travel or the end of the world. Today, I opened up a story I started several years ago about a train crash and a drug smuggling ring in a small town, and found it to be oddly compelling. But I can barely remember the person who wrote it. The person with drive, blind faith and a never ending source of ideas. Surely a raison d’être cannot be destroyed by too much graph exposure.
Despairing, I went for a walk and listened to an episode of Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons about the intricacies of the creative process. I am not a diehard Eat, Pray, Love fan, but there is a kindness in Gilbert’s voice when she talks to people about living the creative life that is very nourishing to the soul. The podcast is all about getting people unstuck in their creative pursuits. She often talks to people who have had some success in pursuing their creative dream, but who have had a setback or hit a wall of some sort. Gilbert helps them get past their obstacles by assigning them tasks, like competing in a poetry slam or writing for just an hour every day for a month. Although I have yet to listen to many episodes, Gilbert seems to emphasize the value of making art and writing for the sake of being creative and the pure joy of building something.
Good advice…I think… but in the competitive indie world or even the traditional publishing world, that doesn’t tend to be the way we operate.
But when I think about my writing, I did some of my best work, and more importantly, enjoyed it the most, when I knew absolutely NOTHING about the writing world, when I thought that it was easy to make a living as a writer, when I thought that my writing was just as good as that of published writers, when I had no writer friends on Facebook or anywhere else. I say some of my best work, because there is little doubt in my mind that my writing has become more technically sound as a result of my exposure to other writers through a myriad of classes and conferences. It has also become better purely as a result of writing eight and four half novels. But my early work was some of my most joyous work, where I could not wait to get to the page every day, where the story coursed through me in vivid Technicolor, where my characters lived and breathed in my mind (a mind possibly now too full of graphs). Sometimes it seemed like I was just a conduit. When I wrote, it was a simple matter of reaching into the “fire” of creativity and putting that life on the page. It was often easy. At times, it very definitely felt like magic.
While I was very diligent about showing up and getting words on the page, I wasn’t hemmed in by any dictates about what would and would not sell. I didn’t do market research or try to write to a formula. I wasn’t restricted by the right and wrong way to write. I didn’t envy or even monitor the success of others. I didn’t hear about their latest releases on Facebook. I didn’t read their reviews on Goodreads. I didn’t even know who they were. I didn’t try to write “likable” characters. My characters were quirky and sometimes unattractive. They were often weak and sometimes strong. They weren’t perfect and they didn’t always have that much vaunted agency, but they were honest. When I started writing, I was also a lot younger. It has been ten years since I started writing seriously and I have seen graphs (it’s always the graphs, damn it) that suggest that writers peak at age 45. Ten years ago, I had lots of time. Now that I have slipped past that age of peak creativity I do not, and that knowledge weighs on me.
During a writing course that I took with a well-known Canadian author and creative writing professor, as she neared the completion of her second book, she indicated that she felt she only had a few novels in her, and that writing was not something that she saw herself doing for the rest of her life. At the time, her words floored me. Who plans to stop writing? I couldn’t imagine not wanting or needing to write. I couldn’t imagine having a limited number of ideas within me. But over the past year as I have struggled to find the time and passion to get my words on the page, I’ve definitely entertained the possibility.
But that doesn’t seem right for me. In Gilbert’s episode with Brene Brown, a professor who studies courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, Brown says that she has come to the conclusion that creativity is the way she shares her soul with the world and without it, she is not okay. She further says that “unused creativity is not benign” that it metastasizes into resentment, grief, and heartbreak.
So, what do to?
When talking to a poet struggling with sharing her work further, Gilbert asked “who do you write for?” and then said something to the effect of, “if the answer is anyone other than yourself, we need to talk.”
That is an interesting question. Who do I write for? I don’t even know. When I first started writing, I wrote for a small but dedicated group of family and friends who read each chapter as it was produced. I spent almost no time surfing the internet each day, other than to do research for my writing. I wasn’t even on Facebook. The pioneers of the indie world were just getting started and there were very few websites telling you how to make it big in the indie world—and I didn’t read them anyway. Now I feel pummelled by advice and the success of others on all sides, not to mention a continual stream of global bad news, and I’m trying to write to “market” before it’s too late, before the indie gold rush is over, before I am too old, before the end of the world. Clearly that isn’t working.
So maybe it’s time to ignore every indie truism I have learned over the past few years about being a business, setting word targets, building a tribe and writing what will sell and go back to basics. Pretend I’m back at the beginning of this journey. Stay off Facebook and write…for myself.