Tag Archives: Creativity

How I Overcame Writer’s Block (And Why It Killed This Blog)

31 Dec

This blog died this summer. Or maybe it just went into a coma and slumbered away the summer and fall with a languid grace usually reserved only for feisty old film stars. Whichever.

There was a very good reason for the death (or temporary coma) of this blog though, at least on my end. I began writing again. I can’t speak for Pat (I’m terrible at his lack of accent and the moustache twitching throws me off anyway), but I hadn’t written anything except a short story or two for over a year before last summer. After my novel came out in April of 2012, I pretty much shut down as an author. As I’ve mentioned here before, the publication experience was not a positive one and when you add disappointment on top of rejection on top of decades of skewed expectations, things tend to go sideways in the creativity department. So I didn’t write. I tried. I went to a counselor, I read self-help creativity books, I journaled, I even stated out loud that I wasn’t going to be a writer anymore, hoping reverse psychology was a real thing. Nothing worked.

Then a bunch of totally not-writing-related things happened, and now, I’m maybe a week or two from the end of another novel. This is how it went down:

1: I got a dog. This may seem completely irrelevant to writing, but as any dog owner knows, canines are super cute creatures of extremely demanding habit. My little Zoe, once she calmed down and became a true part of our household, was just the structure I needed to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. Her need to be fed at the same time every day pushed me to get moving instead of lying around, feeling sorry for myself. Also, on the days when I worked at home, her habit of curling up next to my leg as I wrote made my efforts real somehow, gave them weight. Her warm fuzziness against me, snorting and occasionally kicking me as she chased squirrels in her dreams, let me feel not so alone in my herculean task of putting one word ahead of another. It gave me the (mostly) silent, non-judgmental support I needed.

2: I changed the way I eat. Again, seems unrelated. But by attacking my health issues through research and diet change, I rediscovered my own capacity for self care. When I figured out that a lot of my ailments were all tied to one huge thing and that I most likely had the power to effect it in a positive way, it gave me the strength to face the other areas of my life where I felt powerless as well, like my writing. Suddenly, I no longer felt my success was at the mercy of publishers or other writers or even the market. Suddenly, I was in control again and just like with my diet, I knew what worked for me, despite doubters all around. They had their process. I had mine.

3: My boyfriend had a bad accident. Now, don’t get me wrong. When he fell, it was devastating in soooo many ways. Even now, six months later and with him doing much better, the consequences of that afternoon are still messing with our lives, from the pain and weakness he still has to the financial blowback we are dealing with. But him being home all summer had one huge plus, even though I originally worried it would be the last straw for me: it forced me out of the house. If I wanted any alone time at all, I had to go my office and work. Aside from grocery shopping, going to my office on the days I could was the only excuse I had (in my own mind) for leaving him alone, and as an introvert, I desperately needed some space. So I went. And because I was there, I started writing. There’s no TV and barely any internet at my office, so I had nothing else to do but write.

4: I gave up on everything I knew. This is the only thing I did on this list that is directly related to my creativity, but I’m including it because it was the last little push I needed to get writing again. Soon after I began going to my office again, I started a novel. Then I ran out of steam. I started another and ran out of steam again. Nothing I loved to write in the past felt real or viable or fun. Finally, out of desperation, I decided to try a genre I’d never written in before. I researched it, reading books and blogs, and looking up outlining techniques. I started another novel, this time in that genre. I figured if I failed, it was OK, because it wasn’t really my genre anyway, right? That’s the novel I’m almost done with now. I gave myself a time frame to finish it and I’m only running a week or so behind, which I blame on miscalculating the intensity of the holiday season. But I will finish it soon, because it’s fun to write. For the first time in a long while, I get lost in my writing while working on this book. I connect to myself again, creatively. It feels like coming home.

So that’s how I overcame the most persistent case of writer’s block I’ve ever had, and subsequently, abandoned this blog for many, many months. Now that I’m writing confidently again, I plan on tracking my progress here, so hopefully Misinvention will be a conscious entity once more.

If you’re a blocked writer, I don’t know if any of the above will work for you (and I really don’t recommend an accident for your partner). But I hope by sharing my tale, I can at least show you that it is possible to get through a frustrating period and sometimes, life helps you in unexpected ways. Leave me a comment if you have other suggestions!

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A Map of my Writing World

30 Jun

outlining

 

To outline or not to outline? Oh my god, that is the question. I wonder sometimes if Shakespeare outlined. Maybe somewhere, lost in the annals of time, there’s a crumpled up parchment with “Scene One: Hamlet marries Ophelia. Scene Two: The King is jailed for murder. Scene Three: ?” scrawled on it. If he did outline his famous plays, my admiration for The Bard just kicked up another notch. As much as I’m obsessed with outlining, I can’t actually do it. Or, as I tell myself every time I get stuck in a manuscript and troll the web for new outlining techniques, I just can’t do it YET.

I’ve researched many, many ways to map out a story before I write it. Some of my favorites are The Snowflake Method, the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet, and Helene Boudreau’s Plotting…OCD Style . I even took the best of these and made my own spreadsheet, which I call my Novel Roadmap. I had enormous fun making it.

I have yet to complete a novel using it.

I used to think the problem is that I can’t write something I’ve already put out there. It’s the same reason I don’t tell anybody my story ideas until I’m finished writing them: if I tell the story, I’m done with it and it will never be written. So maybe I can’t complete an outlined story because I’ve already told it to the universe in the form of the outline and now, my mind is already moving on.

Actually, reading that back, the above paragraph seems incredibly grandiose. Not that I want to start blabbing them to everybody before hand, but are my ideas really so precious and fragile that I can’t even examine them in a document in the privacy of my own computer? Hrmph.

OK, maybe it’s just that I write intuitively. While my organized side loves the idea of breaking down a story into small chunks and using the same structure for everything, my creative side wants to puke at the thought. My creative side wants to run wild and free, never once thinking about what it’s doing, but somehow getting a great novel out through my hard-earned subconscious knowledge of pacing, character arcs, etc.

Huh. That’s highly suspect, right there. It basically assumes I have an innate familiarity with the form that other writers don’t have…yeah, no. Hrmph again.

All right. Maybe I’m just one of those writers who compose a first draft in a flurry of creativity and then fix everything later. I don’t outline before because I outline after. Write now, edit later!

God, if that were only true. The reality is, I’m horrible at rewriting. If a manuscript goes off the rails, I just walk away and try again with the next one. So that makes a hrmph triple play.

The only semi-valid excuse I can come up with is this: usually, when I use an outline, I end up not following it anyway. I start off with a great plan and lose my way halfway through when the story takes a turn, and then I get stuck.

But maybe that’s my problem right there. Maybe if I followed them more closely, I wouldn’t get stuck and I would finish them.

Hrmph x4.

I’m starting to think I’m just lazy…

Coffee Shops and Chaos

19 Jun

Solitary Words’ is a pretty good post. And Alexandra talks in an honest, candid manner about the need for solitude in her work – to preserve the sanctity of her creative process. Well, here’s my contrast to that. I can’t work in private. I need noise, distractions, and some kind of stimulation. The real world is messy. It’s loud, uncomfortable, as awkward as a teenage boy at a school dance, and it is unpredictable. It’s also incredibly real – that’s why they call it the ‘Real’ world. The more time I spend in it, the more it drips into my mind, into my work. And the more at ease you are in the ‘wilds’ that are outside of your inner sanctum, the stronger your work will become.

You live here

You live here

John Scalzi said that you’re not fooling anyone when you head to the coffee shop with your laptop. He’s right, as usual. And it is a wonderful book, about the life of a writer. Seriously top notch work. You should check it out. My own experience in coffee shops has been mixed, but usually it’s not the best place to work. But beggars can’t be choosers. You do the best with what you have. I’ll write anywhere, if I have to. Now, Jonathan Franzen took the isolated writer thing to an extreme. He wrote The Corrections while blindfolded and wearing earplugs. Supposedly, he wrote the whole damn book that way. And hey, if that works for you, I wish you the best. But you should stay home for that. People might look at you weird if you tried that at Starbucks.

And really, who cares what other people think? The only person you have to fool is yourself. And if you’re anything like me, you are an easy mark. Are you a writer? Then you already dabble in the fantastic for a living. And by ‘living’ I mean that you want to make a living doing it – which is another level of fantasy. The simple act of sitting down to write a story in the first place is an act of self-deception of the highest order. We suspend all the doubts and the so-called ‘realistic’ ways of looking at the world for the sake of our work. Because we must, or we would go insane.

Maybe it’s a byproduct of having kids – or coming from a large and dysfunctional family – but for me, writing in chaotic environs is sometimes the only way I can get things done. Don’t get me wrong. My default setting is for Private Time. Keep it down, get the hell out of my face, and turn down that crazy rock ‘n roll music. Or, at least, put on some music that will fade into the background. You know what I’m talking about, it’s pretty much the way we’ve been trained/told to get our shit done. Whether it’s homework, or cover letters, or love songs – we’ve sort of done this to ourselves.

Write something funny. Read it aloud to yourself. Doesn’t quite work? Read it to someone else. They don’t dig it? Have them read it to themselves. Ah, now it works, doesn’t it? Try the inverse too. Write down the funniest, raunchiest joke you’ve ever heard – something that would make a bartender blush. Try to catch the nuance, the unspoken gestures, and the timing. Capture the magic of the invisible, ephemeral, spoken word. Then read it. Is it alive? Does it dance across your neurons and provoke your senses the way it did when it’s spoken? Probably not.

Reading books and staying locked up in a library only prepares you for so much. You have to get out of the monastery and get dirty. I know, this part is what introverts get told all the time. But I’m going on a different track here. Don’t go *talk* to people. Hang out with people. Listen and watch and observe. Become better at imagining turmoil and weirdness than you are at picturing peace and boredom. At least, that’s what I strive for.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I wrote this while sitting in a busy diner downtown, on a Tuesday night. The coffee was excellent, the service was snappy, and background chatter was alive.)

Contagious Inspiration or Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

2 May

This post on inspiration was inspired by Patrick’s Things That Work posts about inspiration. Yes, it’s all very meta. 

I was compelled to write my first short story by a throwaway line in an ancient The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis rerun I was watching in the middle of the night when I was around 17. I’d written lots of stuff before that, but never finished anything. The story was awful, really more of an angsty idea than a full story, but I’ll never forget it. I’ll also never forget that image of the beatnik guy in black and white talking about how teenagers only exist as the property of adults (Getting an idea of how bad the story was? Yeah, it was worse).

Gilligan before he was Gilligan.

Gilligan before he was Gilligan.

I get a lot of ideas while watching TV. Something about that mind numbing distraction lets my brain bubble without interference. If I’m feeling overwhelmed and can’t suss out an idea I’m in the middle of, I usually watch a Murder She Wrote episode or a Lifetime movie. Somehow, despite the light content or maybe because of it, I always manage to tease out my own tangle by the end of the show.

I also get inspiration from buildings. In particular, decrepit falling down old buildings that haven’t seen habitation for decades. For some reason, these bring out stories in me like nobody’s business. It can be a barn or an abandoned house or a condemned office building. All of them fire off my creative brain and send it careening into different worlds. Not sure why. I’m not that into architecture, otherwise.

I also slide into sideways thinking when I’m surrounded by other creative people talking about creative things. A bunch of friends randomly discussing ideas is usually enough to send me home with a few story concepts. It’s like creativity is a virus and when finally I recover from the strain I’ve had for a while, I need a good dose of a mutated one from a dear friend to re-infect myself with or I become hopelessly healthy and never write again.

And sometimes, I just need a nap. A good long nap full of half-remembered dream snippets and almost-awake thoughts. A few hours will do, usually. Just enough to reset my vision to the other side of the mirror again.

My Own Worst Enemy

11 Apr

The worst thing about being an editor is (surprise!) reviewing your own work. As Alexandra delved into in her Psyche Fiction piece, if you try to write while you’re in the wrong frame of mind, you will screw yourself up. A lot of writers that I know have the same problem: their Editor is louder and has more control than their Muse. I am sadly, no exception.

I have often characterized my muses as hard drinking, morally delinquent, unforgiving and cruel mistresses. This is profoundly unfair of me, I know. It’s okay to have a love/hate relationship with your creative process. Hell, it’s better than no relationship, right? But if I step back and really look at my creative head-space, it’s much more playful and innocent than all that. My muses just want me to play – to let go of my worries, stop being so uptight, and just fucking CREATE. They assure me it’s a simple thing. Ha.

photo by David_B

photo by David_B

I try not to take myself too seriously. It helps that I’ve gone down that road before. Yes, I have written lots of poetry and angst-filled love letters. Of course, I have set out to pen the very finest prose the world has ever seen. In other words, I really tried to show the world the colors of my rainbow. Once you’ve done that – and come back down to Earth for a bit – it’s easier to laugh at yourself. We all must breathe the rarefied air of the highest self sometimes. But if you can’t poke fun at your own over-inflated ego, you’ve got real problems.

That’s really what it comes down to, for me. The proof is in the pudding. “Did you get any work done today?” I’d rather write five thousand words, only to throw out 4/5ths of it, than only write a thousand to begin with. And it all starts with shutting up that goddamn editor. The editor stops me from writing in my journal, keeps me from trying out new perspectives and narrative techniques, and experimenting with style. The editor is all business and no fun. And you had better not screw up on the easy stuff, ‘cuz the editor will never let you forget that time you published “form” when it was supposed to be “from” – ‘cuz the editor is a world-class JERK.

But just like a bad habit, the editor serves an important role. You can’t just “fire” the damn fool – you’re going to need a jerk when it comes time to get serious. My own creative process is a bit confusing these days, but the editor stays in his freaking office most of the time. I trick him, with busy work and simple distractions. Anything I have to do, just to let my muses out to play.

Maybe it’s a holdover from when I studied early childhood education. We learn through play. And we’re a lot like our primate cousins in that regard. Games with rigid rules help us sometimes, but unstructured play is when we expand our minds. Whether it’s writing haiku, or playing surrealist games, or coming up with the silliest flash fiction we can come up with, it’s all good. It rewards us – immediately – which is pretty damned important in this line of work. Rewards are few and far between. You have to count your successes and fudge the results from time to time.

So that’s my takeaway from this week: Let your brain out to play. Have some fun for a change.