Writer’s Log, September 15th: Getting Stuck

We’ve all been there. We’re deep in the throes of a project, happily plugging along when, seemingly out of nowhere, everything grinds to a halt. It’s brutal. Not least because it’s just as likely to happen for no apparent reason whatsoever.

In my closet, there’s a collection of intricately woven, hand-beaded bracelets, each of which takes me several months to create. There are also neglected yarn piles throughout my house, as well as painting supplies, inventive cookie cutters, elaborate baking books, a fully tripped-out tool box I won’t let anyone else touch, half-potted plants, and, more often than not, random collections of other people’s children. To look at my interiors, you might be tempted to think a half-cocked mother hen with serious time management issues lived here. But the reality of what this represents couldn’t be further from the truth.

Other than my own children and family, there’s nothing I’m more devoted to than my writing. And a few decades of such devotion have taught me that there will always be times when the writing appears to dry up. It doesn’t actually dry up – what’s usually happening is some unhelpful collision of overly high expectations and work that just wants to unfold on its own, or a misinterpretation of some pivotal moment that my subconscious is red flagging, or an essential need to put something on the creative back burner without that narrow-minded, self-important rabbit brain of mine breathing down my neck with her insatiable hunger for achievement and word count halitosis.

When I was newer to this process and encountered these road blocks, I’d immediately get my knickers in a twist and call them writer’s block and moan and groan and make myself and everyone around me miserable and want to go lie in the street. A few decades down the road, however, I’ve learned that when my writing doesn’t go according to plan, it’s rarely a sign that it’s on the verge of failure. Quite the opposite, in fact. When my writing surprises me – even if the surprise is an unpleasant one – it’s almost always a sign that the parts of my mind responsible for creativity, invention, insight, artistry, and dismantling the impossible have grown strong enough to arrest that rabbit brain in her tracks. A full, intuitive stop, in other words, while rarely pleasant to experience, is frequently just what the muse ordered.

Knowing this makes it much easier to weather, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still scowl and grumble when I’m sure that my absolute best intentions have been unceremoniously thwarted. Still, I find that it’s a thousand times easier to manage if I step away from the work AND keep the creative juices flowing. Because I now know that it’s not that my work has stalled because I’m dried up and done for – it’s that I’m at a pivotal turning point, and I need to simultaneously relinquish the reins and watch how the horse runs on its own. Not to give up and turn my back on it because it won’t behave, but to step back and broaden my vision of how it might move forward.

Practically speaking, this means redirecting your energies toward anything that allows you to relieve some of the pressure on your work without interrupting the impulse to flood and nourish the creative mind. For me, this usually looks like any variety of creative engagement, as described above. It can also look like a general reengagement in something meaningful – turning your attention to someone or something else outside of you that might benefit from that visceral warmth and play you’ve been squirreling away so jealously for your work. I’m fairly certain that if it invites the qualities of expansiveness, optimism, and humor, you’ve nailed it, whether it’s finger painting with your neighbor’s toddler or finding a non-judgmental way to rediscover your love of color and texture.

The key, I think, is to allow for the redirection instead of fighting it, keeping your mind and heart open even if your ego is feeling a bit bruised. After all, the only time a bruised ego really hurts anyone is when we act on the sulkiness and naval gazing it inspires. And creativity always flourishes when its given the largest playground possible, one with clear views to the world outside even from its highest and emptiest hills.

 

Art: Andrew Wyeth, Her Room

 

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Writer’s Log, August 31, 2018: Moving On

There’s a saying in literature that a work is never done, it’s only abandoned. As reckless and mildly demoralizing as this is, I think it’s often true. There’s always a feeling that we could be doing more, or better. No matter how long or hard we’ve worked, there remains a sneaking suspicion that there are hidden arrangements of words lurking just beyond our reach. And sometimes the only way to stop going after them is to simply go turkey. End it. Full stop.

It gives you a little chill, doesn’t it? I know. It might help to know that you’re not alone. It took me ten years to write one modest book of poetry, and then I went on to become a novelist. You can only imagine how agonizing I find the idea of releasing three hundred or so pages. I’d much rather swim in the deep waters of our lexicon endlessly, entranced by the fact that it might just have depths unseen by human eyes. But one does get tired after a while. And I think it’s perhaps this, more than anything, that’s difficult to swallow. Even if we were able to spend every waking moment of our lives typing at lightning speed, we’d wouldn’t ever get close to stringing together every last marvelous combination of words, much less shape them into readable/digestible packages.

We cannot, in other words, ever reach the end. There is no end, as far as a writer’s work is concerned. One must, instead, pay attention to what the writer has to give a particular work. Some works – such as that modest body of poems – actually respond to being set aside again and again, reworked, tinkered with, shaped. Those poems were started when I first became a mother, and while they captured those first, vivid impressions of pregnancy and early childhood, I really did need some distance to shape them into something whole. Other works can be written in a flurry of creative inspiration, which has never really happened to me, but I’m sure it’s true for some of you greater humans out there. But I have had the experience of entire sections of a novel arriving in my lap after months of weathering the sort of dry spell I was sure would leave be creatively desiccated. The bottom line is that for most writers, there is no such thing as a steady flow throughout our lifetimes, and it becomes our job to recognize when a seed is done blooming, or a field must go fallow. And there’s no science to this. Each case is unique, each ending its own. We’re not, after all, accountants. We don’t clock in and out, sitting at a desk in a cubicle, serving dutifully at the exquisitely tame altar of calculation until retirement. Most of us never, in fact, retire.

But what we get in return is incalculably life-affirming. Our puzzles will never be solved, will never leave us twiddling our thumbs and wondering what’s next. Our words will never truly abandon us, leaving us speechless and empty. Yet while it’s true that language will never be conquered, it’s also true that it never stops offering us the chance to be engaged, to drink deeply of wonder. And we can offer ourselves that chance to step aside when we’ve had too much, to enjoy the delicious period of self-pitying recuperation before we get tired of our own moaning and groaning and leap back into the stream, perhaps even allowing ourselves that sweet, private yalp to escape us as we do. Because while we may feel sometimes that we’ll drown in it, it’s actually the very thing that keeps us afloat.

Art: Pablo Picasso, Mediterranean Landscape

 

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Writer’s Log, August 15th: The Mental Load

I’m usually not a big fan of pithy phrases to describe the human experience, but I make a pointed exception when it comes to the mental load. If you’ve never come across this phrase, it stems from an effort to define that condition so many primary caregivers suffer from; namely, the psychological weight of being constantly preoccupied with the thousand-and-one behind-the-scenes details of keeping a family and household together.

It’s been an enormously useful concept to me as a parent, but I’ve also found it useful to see it at work in my writing. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that we’re susceptible to mental overload in any arena where our passions and ideals far exceed our capacity. And while I generally embrace the idea of shooting for the stars, it can be ever so slightly demoralizing when you realize exactly how many of them there are in the sky. And that they’re all glittering and mysterious and enticing and fascinating, and before you know it you’ve stopped reaching and are lying in the grass, dumbfounded and immobilized.

This has never been truer for me than now, six months into writing my first historical novel. It’s usually pretty challenging to juggle the mental load of a book-length fictional work-in-progress, but now I find myself navigating over five hundred volumes that comprise the existing body of work on my topic. Needless to say, there are days when all I really manage to do is play whack-a-mole with all the seemingly critical information I’ve got to sift through, but when I’m on my game, I remember two important things. One, the mental load is something I’ve had a large hand in creating, which means it’s also something I can significantly reduce; and two, when it comes to doing meaningful work, doing it all has nothing on doing it right.

To my first point: It’s tempting to feel as if the mental load is something being imposed on you. What’s worse, the more strenuous the mental load becomes, the more it feels like it’s something beyond your control. But the truth is that what we pay attention to is largely under our control. We might stop briefly at a light and feel like we can’t help but be consumed by concerns over what’s for dinner and who’s getting the groceries and how much money you’ve been spending and whether or not that mole on your daughter’s foot is really something you need to worry about and whether that stubborn bit of fat between your armpit and bra strap is ever going to go away, but you don’t actually have to. Similarly, we might feel like we’ll never get anywhere in our novel if we don’t first read everything ever written on, say, Asian tea ceremonies over the past 5,000 years before even thinking of letting our characters share a cuppa, but we don’t actually have to.

Which leads me to my second point. When it comes to doing meaningful creative work, it’s never about checking all the boxes. If it were, anyone with any kind of personal connection to their work would go lie in the street, because the more you care about something, the more you see ways you can devote your attention to it. This is true in parenting and writing and in life. The truth is, though, that one, good family dinner a week – even if it’s only twenty minutes long – is so much better that a week’s worth of menus if it means you’re able to really laugh and listen while you’re there. And knowing when to set the encyclopedic volumes or maps or voices aside to devote your attention to one thoughtful, authentically written moment is a thousand times more productive than however many more reams of paper you might have used up to flush out your notes.

Sure, things will get left aside. Important things, sometimes, in work and in life. But not getting hurt or disappointed and never hurting or disappointing anyone are unrealistic goals. Instead, set your sights on what’s manageable, which is knowing that at any given moment, you can return to the core of why you do what you do, and embrace even the smallest of victories you find there.

 

Art: Roy De ForestAutobiography of a Sunflower Merchant, 1962-1963

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Writer’s Log, August 2: Decompression  

In general, those of us who set out to write novels tend to be ever so slightly Type A. Maybe you think I’m making a gross overgeneralization here, but keep in mind that our idea of fun is create entire worlds in our heads and mold them into complex stories that require 80,000 words or more to be told.

So maybe it’s no wonder, then, that don’t always handle stubborn obstacles well. I certainly know there’s little I find more frustrating than dealing with a work-in-progress that just refuses to budge. And in the past, I tended to respond to such frustrations with all guns blazing, bearing down on whatever was bugging me with all the force of my high standards, extreme work ethic, and the sort of disappointment that balloons as progress stalls.

This made a certain kind of sense. When I did less creative work, I could simply force my way through obstacles, mental or otherwise, and while my bullheaded ferocity might have made me ever so slightly unpleasant to be around, muscling through seemed to get things done. The problem was that after years of such literal and metaphoric grunt work, I was spent, disconnected, edgy, and unhappy.

Finding my way to creative work was part of the answer, but the bigger picture shift had to do with how I approached work in general. Instead of trying to conquer all challenges, I needed to learn how to flourish while in the midst of challenge, not as a result of overcoming it. This makes a certain amount of logical sense for anyone trying to get to the next level, no matter what their field – after all, most of us spend more time working than enjoying the fruits of our labors – but for writers, there’s this lingering sense that we either have it or we don’t, and when it isn’t coming easily, we can easily become haunted by the sense that it might never come at all.

It’s no wonder that we get all tangled up in our own leashes. But I have found a few ways out, and one of them is through physics. While it might not be the most obvious choice for creative inspiration, there’s nothing like the cool certainty of the natural world to calm an overheated mind – and remind it that there are forces at work out there far greater than anything it can generate on its own. One of my favorites among them is decompression. You see how it works all the time in nature – the way a thing cannot grow if it is squelched, or energy cannot travel if it is too condensed, or things collapse if too much pressure is placed upon them. The need for decompression can be just as essential in creative work, but we tend to forget this. Our sophomoric tendencies lead us to believe that the worse a problem becomes, the more effort we need to bring to it. But frequently, the solution often lies in the wisdom of knowing when to take a step back.

This is different than stepping away. Stepping away from something suggests turning your back on it, or giving up. Stepping back, on the other hand, means giving it the space to do what it needs to do. It’s the art of giving hands-off attention, much like ego-free observing, or good listening. And rather than thinking of it as pouring less energy into the work, you can rightfully think of allowing the work the kind of expansiveness it needs to flow.

Operationally, this stepping back might mean rereading what is flowing instead of what isn’t, and considering the differences. It might mean deleting a scene you’ve been struggling to eke out and asking yourself where the work is without it. It might look like beginning in the middle when the actual beginning eludes you, or throwing a character into a scenario you’ll never use just to learn more about him. What would Gatsby do at Costco? Or Lear at Target? Sacrilegious, I know, but great art has never been made by people who tread too carefully. And there’s a lesson in that, too. When we allow our desire to get things right to outweigh our desire to create, we sentence ourselves to an infinitely neater and smaller universe. The creative universe, on the other hand, is the one that allows for unfathomable expansion. Sure, we might never get a grip on its parameters, but we’ll never outgrow it, either.

 

Art: Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone

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Writer’s Log, July 16: Le Setback

It’s a crime that so many of us persist in evaluating our creative success along linear lines. I struggle regularly to remind myself that progress is not restricted to moving in one direction, but even though I’m pretty good at remembering that, I still feel ever so vaguely demoralized when I discover I need to return to a place in my work I thought I’d left behind for good. This is better than how I used to be, but like most humans on earth, finding the time to write is always a challenge, so I’m constantly striving to rid my practice of unnecessary energy sucks. And much as knowing that writing isn’t linear has helped, it’s not quite enough to keep my sails from flagging when I find myself face to face with a block I’ve both generated and need to dismantle. So lately I’ve been wondering: Is it possible to learn to welcome setbacks? And not in that trying too hard, Pollyannaish, head-in-the-sand fashion that makes it feel like you’re one step away from joining a nudist colony or cult?

Last year, I accidentally gained twenty pounds. When I was younger, this would have been devastating, but now I kind of think I like that in a person. I grew up underfeeding myself on many levels, and the fact that I spent twelve months grossly overestimating the amount of food I need is a sort of accomplishment. Sure, I’d much rather continue to eat peanut butter recreationally than go on Weight Watchers, but there’s that small but sure sense of what this extra flesh represents that makes losing it not seem all that bad. Yet while I see the parallels between how I see this setback and how I might see my writing setbacks, the transfer of attitude is not a simple one. For one, I don’t really care anymore what the scale says, but it’s also true that falling behind in my writing is so discouraging in large part because I’m always anxious to leap ahead.

The irony, of course, is that the non-linearity goes both ways. Sometimes I’ll find myself punching out nearly whole chapters in quick succession with little warning that they’re on their way. And it’s unlikely that I’ll get to enjoy that aspect of the writing experience without also incorporating its opposite – those weeks when I can’t seem to pull together a single sentence I like, or, say, when I realize that the first 7/8 of my new novel needs to be entirely restructured.

As I write this, I wonder if part of my own trouble lies in a failure to completely trust this process. Engaging wholeheartedly in a linear process seems so logical and intellectual, while committing to a non-linear one feels like a shaky leap of faith I might regret later. But there must be a profound sensibility to non-linearity, too, given how often it appears – and flourishes – when allowed to run its course in creative work. So maybe the trick isn’t so much to learn to welcome these setbacks, but to see them as a fundamental part of a larger system, to understand that it’s the meaning I attribute to the process that often gets in my way, not the process itself.

 

Art: Wassily Kandinsky

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