Monday, December 11, 2023

Keeping the Idea Fires Burning by Mary Kole

Creativity can be fickle, coming and going (and not always when and how we want it to). This can trip up many a well-meaning writer, especially when we expected our creativity to serve us with an upcoming deadline, a new idea, or a project that we can’t seem to regain our passion for but that we should finish.

While I can validate this experience, as a creative, and I know that many writers feel at the mercy of their “muse,” you might be surprised to hear that I don’t believe in personifying creativity itself (as a “fickle mistress” or any of the other garbage you’ll hear bandied about), and I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea of writer’s block. 

The Real Issues Behind Dimming Enthusiasm

There are, as I see it, a few issues that really contribute to a writer’s sense of “stuckness.” I’ll unpack them here:

Desire to quit. Not knowing whether or not you want to continue writing in the first place is obviously a big obstacle to continuing to write. If you don’t honestly think that you have it in you to keep going, that feeling is worth listening to. Of course, human nature being what it is, sometimes we are tempted to quit when the going gets tough. You need to really interrogate yourself and your motives to see if you’re being reactionary or defensive because of some of the below factors, or if you really want to quit writing. You should also know that no decision is binding. You can always come back—nobody is stopping you from leaving, and nobody is stopping you from returning. (If you really do believe that someone external is stopping you from either writing or going back to your writing habit, then you need to do some deeper introspection about why you’d let another person, no matter how close to you, separate you from your life’s creative hobby or calling.) You can also try a different type of writing in the meantime, as you regain or grieve and let go of your current incarnation as a writer. If you’ve been beating your head against the brick wall of a novel for ten years, maybe you could work on some short stories or poems. Even journal entries. Writing is not a black/white endeavor, nor is being a writer. The act of creation is a continuum.

Recent rejection. Sometimes the desire to quit your writing will be stoked by recent rejection, or a disappointment later in your career, like your supportive agent leaving the business. The bad news is that this stuff happens to writers and authors of all ranks and experience levels, sometimes without any notice. A lot of people don’t talk about this because they worry that any whiff of professional “failure” or misfortune reflects poorly on them. This is simply not true—setbacks happen to everyone, even bestselling writers who seem to be living the dream. I’ll never forget working behind the scenes on Judy Blume’s Masterclass course creation and hearing that she was thrown into uncertainty when her first adult novel wasn’t as well received as some of her earlier work. This woman is a living legend and has won lifetime achievement awards several times over. If rejection (or the perception of rejection) can rattle her, then there’s no hope for the rest of us. We can instead work to put rejection into perspective. It’s just a data point. Sometimes the data point is “Person X is not the right fit for my project.” Sometimes the data point is “I should go back and work on my plot a bit more, because this decline echoes something I was wondering myself.” Rejections are not in your control. Even the most lovely projects get rejected sometimes. The business really is subjective. But you can control how you respond and how you circle back to your work and either stick to your guns or make changes based on that rejection.

Negative or conflicting feedback. Sometimes you’re not stuck due to outright rejection, but challenging feedback or contradictory notes. I see writers all the time who come to me at a complete loss because their critique partner said one thing, and an agent at a conference had exactly the opposite assessment. (Hey, I’ve even participated in this dynamic by giving some feedback, only for the writer to say, “Ugh, that’s what I thought but my teacher said to do it another way,” etc. Or sometimes I agree with a critique that they deeply disagree with. It can be a mess to parse through differing opinions, especially if you’ve gotten a lot of cooks in your kitchen on a project that’s been in the works for a while.) First, you need to check yourself. Again, are you ready to process and filter the feedback, or are you feeling reactionary or defensive? If you’re coming from a grounded place, take a look at all of the responses you’ve gotten, including the contradictory ones. Anchor yourself to the nugget, mission statement, or true north star of why you decided to write that particular project. As long as your main premise is sound, you can then pick through feedback you’ve received and evaluate whether it upholds or changes your vision. Of course, your vision might not be sound, and that’s when you might hear about it in the form of rejection or a slowdown in the work—which you might perceive as writer’s block. But if you’re confident in the foundation of your story, trust your gut and writing intuition, and respond to the feedback that upholds your intention.

Positive feedback. Huh? Why would a good review of the work make someone stop in their tracks? Well, this is an issue of you disagreeing with the positive notes, whether consciously or subconsciously. If you consciously disagree, then you know there’s more to be done with the project. Maybe you haven’t invested in getting critique from a qualified reader, and part of you doesn’t trust the praise. Maybe you’re very used to being hard on yourself and can’t hear and internalize anything nice (whether you got here on your own or your upbringing wasn’t creatively supportive doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’ve ended up unable to nurture yourself in your current endeavors). Subconsciously, you might actually think the project is great, but you can’t admit it, are afraid of success, and aren’t eager to take the next step.

New idea syndrome. This one also requires some self-awareness on your part. It’s perfectly reasonable to be pulled into another project, even if you’re cruising along on you first WIP. Sometimes, you are struck with another idea and want to pursue it. Sometimes this new idea is worthwhile, and you are right to jump into it. In fact, this is a great way to revitalize your writing energy across the board. (Some writers can’t juggle multiple projects and that’s fine, too. This is one thing you will have to learn about yourself as you go along, and it can also change as your work and life balance changes organically.) Sometimes, however, Shiny Object Syndrome, where you pounce on any new idea that comes your way, can be a procrastination tactic. You are stalling out or feeling conflicted about your current project, so you abandon it. Does your new idea really have that much more potential, or are you avoiding doing a hard revision or revisiting a project after a submission round ended in rejection? Do a little self-inquiry and see what rings true to you. There is nothing wrong with taking a creative left turn (or five), but as I mentioned in the discussion of quitting, above, you need to dig a little deeper and figure out if you’re actually interrupting your work for a valid reason, or if you’ve just hit an obstacle. Sometimes persevering and doing the hard revision or the complete overhaul on a manuscript doesn’t feel sexy or exciting, but it’s the endeavor that will teach you more than simply abandoning a problematic draft for something fresh.

The need for downtime. And sometimes, the fact that you’re hitting a brick wall in terms of your writing has nothing to do with any issues of ego or reluctance or avoidance. Sometimes you can just be burned out, either from writing or working or living or all of the above. Guess what? That’s okay, too! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been faced with a rare golden opportunity to work without interruption, only to find that I cannot get myself to the page to write. I simply can’t do it. That’s worth listening to, too. Not every moment needs to yield Maximum Productivity (patent pending, ha!). Sometimes, you need to fart around (as the great Saint Vonnegut advised us to do) or do some hands-off back brain work on your idea. This doesn’t look like much, but your creative energies are always working on problems, even when you’re not doing “butt in chair” time. If your rest period drags on, you might want to force yourself back into some kind of writing habit, but if you find yourself breaking down and craving a break, that is not a bad thing, in and of itself. In fact, it can get you over a period of analysis paralysis or self-loathing and help you come back even stronger if you “fall to temptation” and give into taking a break.

What To Do Next?

Only you know the vision you have for your writing life and for your current project (or projects). If you want to quit for a while, quit. If you want to persevere and keep going, do that. Commit at least a little time every few days to moving forward—even if that means jumping around in your project outline just so you can keep the momentum going.

There is no one right or wrong way to be a writer or to finish a manuscript. Your patterns this year or last year might not even be your patterns a year or two from now. The journey is very much fluid. All you can do is know yourself, know your idea, and do what you can in that particular season to be of service to both your creative energy and your human need for rest and integration, as well as productivity. All of this is part of the creative process, even the moments that don’t necessarily feel all that creative.


Mary Kole's newest book is out: WRITING IRRESISTIBLE PICTURE BOOKS: Insider Insights Into Crafting Compelling Modern Stories for Young Readers Amazon | Goodreads

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I can see positive input being a wall as one would be afraid to fail and freeze up.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've managed to avoid shiny new idea. Although I can work on more than one book at a time.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for saying there's no right way to be a writer. I feel like a deficient one a lot of times because I don't write fast and am not sure I want to get published.

cleemckenzie said...

I think Mary covered all the bases with this post. At some point I've experienced each one of these, and even a couple at the same time.