Creativity is a fragile thing. It can be hampered by all kinds of things, like the pressure to produce and criticism. Tack on the need to earn money using your creativity, and the creative spirit can (and often will) take a hike–a long one. I’ve been a full-time writer for more than 20 years now, and I’ve seen my own creativity sputter and die several times over the years. Life events, like the death of a loved one or a move to a new location can put out the creative spark as surely as seeing a bad review of a book or receiving a lengthy revision letter from an editor.
Anyone who works in the creative arts knows how fragile their creativity is. The question today is, how do you breathe life back into a dying ember? How do you fan the flame and get your creative spirit breathing again–even (dare I suggest it?) thriving?
It is possible, believe me. After my younger daughter’s attempted suicide back in early 2005, I thought I’d never write again. If I somehow managed to scratch out words on a page, I was utterly convinced I’d never enjoy it again. Financial pressures have added to the problem over the years. It’s not easy being a single mom and relying on an uncertain income to keep a roof over your heads and food on the table.
So what re the best says I know of to breathe life back into your desire to be creative Here are 5 items from my personal list:
#1 – Sleep
For several years when I first started writing, sleep was the first thing I cut from my daily routine. I didn’t hit the wall until I’d written and published several books, (maybe 8 or 9) but when I hit it, I hit suddenly, and I hit hard. While I was panicking over the belief that I might never have another good idea or write another book, I read an article by a terribly prolific author whose work I admired..
In the interview, she was asked how she managed to write so much, and I’ll never forget her answer. She said that she slept a lot. That, in fact, she guarded her sleep jealously. She called herself a sleep “slut” if I remember right, and went on for another paragraph or two about how important getting plenty of sleep was to her creatively. I’ve forgotten everything else she said, but in her words I recognized a deep, powerful truth—one I’ve never forgotten.
Since then, I have found that not only can’t I write when I’m tired, but I also can’t look at my own work objectively or find solutions to the problems I run into. I need to be well-rested to do my job well. From a place of sleep-deprivation, every problem looks huge, characters look stupid, and problem plot twists seem insurmountable.
#2 – Fill the Well
Creativity is cyclical. You cannot and will not be creative all the time. You can’t create from an empty well. You must find ways to refill the source of your creativity, whether it’s time spent reading every day, walks in nature, bubble baths, yoga, browsing inspiring pictures on the internet, or any one of a million other choices, you can’t create from nothing.
Realize also that you may never be able to jump from the end of one project into the beginning of another without allowing yourself some down time to refuel. Maybe you need only a day or two. Maybe you need two weeks or more. The trick is learning what works best for you and then sticking to that.
If you typically refuel in two weeks, don’t let yourself squander another three or four playing around. If you typically need a full month, don’t put stress on yourself by trying to force yourself to work at someone else’s schedule.
But be careful not to fall victim to the avoidance behavior of stretching that recuperative period out longer than it needs to be. Very few published authors can make a living on one book a year. Unless you’re writing runaway best-sellers, selling one book every two years will barely keep you in cat food.
#3 – Remove Comparisons
Comparisons are some of the most deadly things to any artist. Whether we place ourselves at the low end of the comparison: (She writes so much better than I do, I’ll never be able to write that well, or She’s so much more prolific than I am, I’ll be eating her dust forever) or at the upper end of the comparison: (I just don’t understand why they don’t get it; They’d be able to understand my work if only they read science fiction, or I could write one day a week and still produce more pages than they do.)
Whenever we indulge in comparisons, we run the risk of becoming either dejected or complacent, and both are harmful to creativity. Creativity requires a judgment-free zone to really thrive. Make the choice to give it one.
#4 – Add or Remove Voices in Your Head
When I first started writing, I talked long and often about my projects—and I needed to at the time. I’d never finished a book before, and I didn’t trust myself, so I needed constant reassurance that I was on the right track. But somewhere along the way, I started noticing that I lost something each time I talked about a project—even with my editors. (Or maybe especially with some editors.)
Too many voices in our heads can sometimes run us straight into brick walls that take a while to get around. Our inner critic is bad enough without adding contest judges, critique partners, well-meaning friends, editors, agents, husbands and children into the mix.
If brainstorming with other people gives you a lift at this stage of your career or of your life and it keeps you moving in the right direction, then brainstorm away. If, however, you find that brainstorming kills something in the project for you, don’t do it even if everyone else on the planet swears by it. Or do it differently than you’re currently doing it.
#5 – Let Go of Expectations
None of us can control the outcome of the work we do. The only thing we can control is whether or not we actually do the work. For that reason, “reaching the USA Today bestseller list” isn’t a goal for me. It’s certainly a dream, but a goal is something I can control through dedication and hard work. How anyone else will react to my books isn’t something I can control, no matter how dedicated I am or how hard I work.
Whether you write great fiction, good fiction, competent fiction, or merely so-so fiction, you have complete control over whether or not you write it. You have complete control over how much effort you put into learning and perfecting your craft.
You may not be able to control the reactions editors and agents will have to your work, but you do have control over whether or not you write a scene or two or seven or ten this week, and next week, and the next. Spending one hour every day writing is a goal because it’s something I can control. Writing 4 hours every day is an achievable goal. Writing 10 pages every day is an achievable goal. Writing the best story I’m capable of writing is an achievable goal.
Setting your sites on a dream instead of a goal might create a block it’s hard to get past because it creates a false sense of failure.
Do whatever soul-searching is necessary to find joy in the process—in writing a great sentence, finishing an entire scene that works, painting the setting so well someone else feels as if they’re there, or can feel the cold, or can smell the smoke from the fire. Practice finding joy in the music of your words. The more you can do that, the higher your creativity will soar.