Being immersed in the creative process–writing a novel, creating a class, knitting a sweater, planting a garden–is my most favorite thing in the world.
Until I hit a block.
And decide that the novel stinks, nobody will want to take the class, the sweater won't fit, the garden won't grow. And then I hate the creative process.
I was reading about this very thing on another blog this morning when it hit me. The tension between the love part and the hate part is what keeps us working at it. If the creative process–say, your writing practice–was all good all the time, you'd get bored. And if it was all bad all the time, you'd get frustrated and quit.
A well-known psychological principle is that of intermittent reinforcement, and that's what we're talking about here. This principle states that reinforcement is doled out in an intermittent manner is far and away the strongest motivator. Why? Because we never know what we're going to get, and we're always hoping for the good outcome–the wonderfully satisfying writing session as opposed to the time when you sit and stare out the window.
But we're also talking about tension, the lifeblood of all stories. It's what keeps readers turning pages, the tension in the story itself and the tension the author has embedded in the story. Without tension, or conflict, there is no story, its a simple as that. Which is why, of course, the news is full of awful stories about horrible things happening.
While it is frustrating to hit the lows of the creative process, if you just remember that its all a cycle and the highs will soon return, I think you can ease yourself through the times you hate everything you create. Remind yourself that the work would not be nearly so compelling if it were all easy, all the time.
And take yourself back to the page once more.
How do you handle the lows of the creative process?
Years ago, I attended a creativity camp in Taos, New Mexico put on by Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way fame. (Yes, it was as cool as it sounds. To say something is life changing is a cliche, but in this case, it truly was. Fromt that point on, I took myself seriously as a creative person. I also met friends with whom I'm still close.)
My Taos Creativity Camp pillow.
Every morning in camp, we listened to Julia talk and did exercises from the Artist's Way and her other books. Then, after lunch, we were free to wander the grounds of the San Geronimo Lodge, wend our way into town, or engage in creative classes, like fabric painting, doll making, drumming and others I've forgotten.
Having always been a textile person, one day I chose to do the fabric painting. The deal was we'd paint a pillow and at the end of the week it would be sewn and stuffed and ready for us to take home. I was filled with excitement about what I was learning on the creative process and I painted my pillow with two phrases that had resonated with me at the camp:
Do the work, don't judge it.
Process is everything, product happens.
I have beleived fervently in these ever since. And I have instituted them in my life with varying degrees of success, sometimes totally into the concepts, others, not so much.
For whatever reason (the position of the planets? the stretching exercises I'm doing? the yogurt I'm eating for breakfast?) I am currently in a huge process mindset phase.
And let me just tell you, it is glorious.
The process mindset is about putting words on the page. Nothing more, nothing less. Put words on the page and don't worry about how good they are, what they sound like, if you should add more here or subtract some there.
And when you approach the work with this mindset, a funny thing happens. You start to put your true self on the page and later, when you read back over the words, you realize that they are kinda good. But it really doesn't even matter, because you know that soon enough you'll be in a revision mindset phase and then you can go over the words and make them really good.
The best way I know to get myself into a process mindset is to tell myself that, it's just writing practice. As I wrote in this post, writing practice is any writing that is not related to your WIP. And that takes the pressure right off, and if your experience is anything like mine, away you will go, writing like crazy. What's really cool is that writing practice can function as either a warm-up–write 300-500 words and then switch over to your WIP, or it can segue right into the WIP, as happens with me more and more.
But the key is the process mindset. If you're loose and easy and tell yourself all that matters is that you get words on the page, it makes all the difference in the world.
What the veggies from my raised beds will soon look like
May is one of my favorite months ever, and here in Portland it is starting out as a glorious month! As new life bursts forth all around us, so, too does our creativity. It is time to welcome the return of good weather in all its glory. Sometimes in order to do this, we need to clear out the dregs of the old in order to make room for all the new.
You'll notice that many of my suggestions have very little to do with writing. That's because sometimes the best thing you can do for your creativity is to engage in an activity that energizes or relaxes you, and then return to the computer. I know I'm guilty of spending way too much time in my office, convincing myself I don't have time for other things. But once I allow myself the freedom to enjoy other activities, I return to my writing refreshed and renewed.
Accordingly, here are some ideas for how to clear out the old and welcome the new:
1. Organize Your Office—This seems always to be an ongoing project for me. And, I find that it's worth it to keep up with the constant flow of papers. I'm happier when my office and desk are clean, period. And contrary to the popular idea of writers as fueled by angst, a happy Charlotte is a productive Charlotte.
2. Sort Through Books—Yes, I know, it is hard to let go of our beloved books. I used to never, ever be able to get rid of a book. But then I realized that I was simply releasing them into the universe for others to enjoy. And then, of course, I have a great excuse to buy more….
3. Buy Something New—I recently took an excursion to Ikea, to look for new office furniture. While there, I bought blue velvet drapes, the most gorgeous things you've ever seen, for my family room. And that led to buying a media center to put the TV in, and suddenly I'm in love with my family room all over again.
4. Try Something New—Earlier this week, I took the day off and with the help of my daughter, nephew, and 17-month-old grandson, planted raised beds full of vegetables on the driveway. I used to garden all the time, but I've been a gardening slacker the last few years so it felt like a whole new lease on life, especially because usually I grow flowers, not vegies.
5. Start a New Project—Never written non-fiction before? Why not try a memoir? Or maybe you've always wanted to write poetry, or complete a screenplay. Go for it! You can dabble and have fun in as little as 15 minutes a day. Or why not try something completely different, like painting, or salsa dancing, or knitting, or hang gliding. No, that last one makes me nervous. But you'll find something, I'm sure.
6. Get a Pedicure—They aren't just for women—c'mon guys, you know you want to try it. Taking time for a little self-care can be wonderfully rejuvenating. And that leg massage feels so good!
7. Buy a New Journal—And then write in it. Write down all the dreams and goals that this season is inspiring, or use it to start that new project in. I've heard people say that journaling doesn't really count as writing, but it most certainly does. Writing in a journal regularly will help you establish an ease with putting words on the page, and it can be the breeding ground for many ideas.
8. Do Something for Yourself—Last Saturday, I got my hair cut. Yeah, I know, normal people do this all the time. Usually, I do, too. But for the last few months I've been dithering over whether to keep my hair long or cut it short again. Finally, I made an appointment and put myself in my hairdresser's hands. (We chose a middle ground.) I've been amazed at wonderful it feels.
9. Take a Walk—It is so simple and so energizing on a fabulous spring day. The sun on your face, the flowers in bloom….ahhh. Here in Portland, it seems nearly everyone has a garden to admire!
10. Invite People Over—Share your joy in the season with others. Entertaining doesn't have to be fancy. Ask someone over for Happy Hour, or dessert, thus saving the stress of cooking dinner. Or order a pizza! The point is to enjoy the company of others. My nephew was a recent house guest for a few days and it was so much fun having him around–you get the chance to see life through other people's eyes.
If these ideas don't appeal to you, invent your own! Just find a way to celebrate this glorious season. Because, being present and celebrating where we find ourselves is the absolute best way to be grateful for the lives we've been given. And being grateful for the lives we've been given is absolutely inspiring to the creative process.
How do you celebrate spring? How do you energize your creativity?
Photo by levi_sz (my attempts to share a photo of my raised beds failed when my phone refused to send it).
To paraphrase the immortal words of Sally Field: I like it, I really like it.
What is it that I like so much?
Being an author. Let me explain with a couple of stories.
Story #1. Years ago, I began working with a coach. I told her that my deepest desire was to publish a novel. My coach mentioned that she'd worked with another client who had published a book and decided she didn't like it. Didn't like the hoopla that went with it and decided to not write any more books. I took this under advisement, willing to be open to the fact that I might not like being published.
Story #2. Also years ago (I've been at this game a long time), I read an interview with a best-selling author, whose name now escapes me. She said something to the effect that she really liked–and missed–the "scrappy little life" she enjoyed before she got published. Once again, I was willing to be open to the fact that this might happen to me, too. That I might prefer my life before I was published.
I adore being published. I love reading reviews of my work, and I love hearing through tweets and emails that readers have enjoyed my book. Unlike that client my coach told me about, I'm loving this stuff. I loved my virtual release party and my in-person party. I loved signing books. I've got a reading coming up and I anticipate loving that.
Let's be clear: I still have a "scrappy little life," one that I love. But publishing a novel has just made it a better scrappy life. Because, here's the deal: writing is an act of communication and when nobody reads the words we write, part of the loop is missing. Which is why, I believe, we worry so much about publishing. Why some writers put the cart before the horse and worry about publishing before they've finished writing.
Because we yearn to communicate.
And let me tell you, it is worth it. So for those of you in the middle of writing a novel, despairing you may never get to the end: keep going, it's worth it. For those of you sending out query after query, and piling up the rejections: keep sending them out, it's worth it. For those of you who've had blips in your publishing process (I've heard of two recently): keep going, it's worth it.
For anyone struggling to get their creative work out in the world: take heart, it will all be worth it.
Where are you in the creative process? Starting out? Finishing a project? Marketing? Leave a comment, I'd love to hear about it.
This could be me today, minus the sunshine and the hairy legs.
Because I am a lazin' fool. It is two days after Christmas and I am lazing about. Or you could call it lolling if you prefer.
My two new kitties don't care what you, or I, call it. They have raised the art of lazing to an art form, and especially like to practice it in front of the fire.
I have new books to read, including Under the Dome by Stephen King, which is, oh, almost 1,000 pages long and thus should assure me lots of lazin' time. For Christmas, I also got art supplies and crafting books, which should assure me time away from the computer, which I sorely need.
I resist both time away from the computer and lazin' time and I suspect I just figured out the reason why. It is because I enjoy it so much I'm afraid I'll never stop. I'll just sit here next to the fire, reading away, for all of eternity. And never write another word. Never earn another penny. Never do another useful thing, ever.
That is how my brain starts running when I relax. So you can see why I generally chain myself to my computer. Because otherwise, life as I know it will end. There will be this glorious blaze of sloth and laziness and that will be it.
It is for this reason, also, that I rarely watch TV. Because I am afraid I will enjoy it too much and I will become one with the chair and never, ever get up again. I'll be able to recite details of every single episode of Law and Order and I will be one of the few people who understands anything about Lost. So thus it is better simply not to turn the TV on in the first place, because if I did, I'd have to write a blog about TV instead of writing one about writing.
But for some reason, after Christmas, I allow myself to be slothful and lazy. Maybe it is because the run-up to the big day is always such a last-minute rush for me (again, because I've generally chained myself to the computer) and the Christmas itself is a mad dash of cooking breakfast, opening presents, cleaning up, and then cooking dinner. And after all of that, I actually have to admit I am tired instead of pretending that I'm not.
Or perhaps it is because Christmas gives me the bounty of choice–all those wonderful presents to peruse and play with! Shiny new books and toys! I'd be doing the givers a disservice if I didn't take a couple days to enjoy my presents, right?
Then, too, it could be because it is cold and wintry out (though no snow yet, boo) and we are still experiencing the shortest days of the year, even though they are already getting longer. It is winter, the days are dark and cold, the blood runs slower and it is time to relax.
And so I'm doing my best to be lazy and slothful for as long as I possibly can. I plan to return to my writing in a couple days, refreshed and renewed and full of new enthusiasm for things to write in the new year. Because even the most prolific of writers needs a fallow time in which to rejuvenate and regenerate. It is an integral part of the creative cycle, and by not allowing ourselves time to laze about, we do our muses a disservice.
So join me in being slothful and lazy this week. You'll be glad you did. And if you should feel energetic enough to write something, what is your favorite way to be slothful?