Here’s the thing: I didn’t want to write this post. I had the idea to write about getting over a creative slump, based on a search someone found me through, and I thought, yeah, that’s a good one, let’s run with it.
I started making a list of all the different things you could try.
But they were shallow. And I started getting stuck.
What do I know about getting over a creative slump? my brain said.
They TERRORIZE me. They make me feel worthless, and like everything I’ve done with my life thus far is wrong.
Oh, all that time you spent on being a writer? Yeah, nobody cares.
And this blog? Yeah, nobody cares. No one even reads it. What’s the point? Why you going to spend the little bit of energy you have on doing this anymore? Why not just give it up and let’s go watch TV or take a nap? Or better yet, if you want to justify your existence, do some actual PAID work, woman.
I am convinced I shouldn’t have creative slumps anymore. “I’m a professional! I have to treat this like my job! I can’t keep going days and days at a time without writing any damn thing! I have to get over whatever the hell it is that’s getting in the way and just do it!”
And then I don’t. For another day. And another day. And another day.
It’s so easy to give in to that feeling of not caring today. Of wanting to take it easy. Of not having this burden …
Why have you begun to think of it as a burden? You don’t have to do it. Nobody is making you.
There’s a cartoon I love by the Awkward Yeti called Heart and Brain. Brain’s always trying to keep working while Heart wants to frolic in the fields with butterflies, eat ice cream, and wear underwear on his head.
But for me with creating, I think it’s the opposite. It’s Heart who wants to get to work, and Brain who gets in the way.
Climb Out of the Creative Slump – By Getting in Touch with Heart
When I’m in a creative slump, the number one thing I have to do is get back in touch with Heart.
I have to say, now, now, Brain. I know you want to Get to Work and Make Something Happen. But this kind of work is not about that. This kind of work is Heart’s work, and you have to be a little quiet, and let him speak to you.
You have to breathe deep and let the tension out of your muscles. You have to think about what it was like when this was new.
You have to remember.
When I was a kid, I promised myself that when I grew up, I would never lose touch with what it felt like to be a kid. But I’m old enough now that it’s not so easy all the time. I have days where I forget.
Those are the worst days of the creative slump.
Those are the worst days of any.
I need, on those days, to get in touch with the little girl inside of me. She’s used to hiding; she’s comfortable hiding, and it takes a lot of energy for her to peek out, energy she doesn’t often have, so she stays hidden, most of the time.
Sometimes, like right now, like writing this blog post, I get in touch with what it feels like to be her.
She is unforgivably earnest. She is hopeful without end. She believes in magic, not that of fairies, but the kind made by human beings. She thinks stories move the world.
I remember what it used to be like, when I was eight, or twelve, or even sixteen, and I sat down to write a short story or work on a novel … and how that used to feel.
It was different then. I didn’t have any “have to.” I had only “want to,” and I had an overwhelming sense of wonder-filled bigness and greatness and in-loveness with the world. I felt, “Really? I get to do this? To make up any story I want? Well. This … this is a story I want to see. Here, let me tell it to you…” and then I was off and there was no stopping me, and not another thing in the world could make me care about anything else.
The short story I wrote for one of my high school English classes was more than twice the length it was supposed to be. That was how long that story needed, for me to tell it right, the way I needed to tell it. So that was how I wrote it. And that was that. There was nothing else to care about.
I read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing in college, and I used his method of listing nouns from your life to write a few short stories that made liberal use of his style of playing with language. Those were fun. One of them is still one of my favorite short stories I’ve written, even though it reeks of Bradbury’s influence.
I learned. I experimented. I played. I remember it feeling good. I remember feeling powerful, and happy, and most of all, like nothing else mattered, as long as I could do that.
Perhaps I am romanticizing it, to some extent, but here’s another thing: When I start thinking about it like this, I realize something.
I didn’t get into this to be a writer.
I don’t care about being a writer.
I don’t want to write for money. Yes, I want to get paid money for the writing I do. But those are different; can you see the difference?
It’s not that I want to be a starving artist and pay no attention to what people like. It’s not that I look down on writing that sells well or that I don’t enjoy genre writing or writing that’s popular.
Quite the opposite, in fact; I don’t read anything that doesn’t either entertain or inspire me. A great majority of what does is children’s fiction and/or genre fiction: steampunk, fantasy, and mystery. I don’t read any of those miserable postmodern writers. Give me a plot, heroes, and a happy ending every day.
But it’s been easy for me, when thinking of wanting to make at least a partial living off of writing fiction, to think that I need to be a writer. Meaning that somehow I should be finding the intersection between what I can write and what will sell and going there.
Except … what I can write and what keeps me writing are not the same thing. And now I’m thinking, I didn’t get into this to be a writer, anyhow.
Stop the Creative Slump By Returning to the Why
I got into it to tell stories.
I got into it because I wanted to tell stories that I wanted to walk into, stories with curious objects, courageous heroes, and strange new worlds to explore. Stories with heart. Stories that would inspire me and keep me going and make me all the more interested in exploring the world that actually exists.
I got into it to make worlds for myself.
I got into it for that old feeling, the one that has kept me going since childhood, the one I have begun to lose touch with as I age, like so many unfortunate adults before me—
The thing about wonder is that, for me, it requires a certain bigger, higher level of story. A story that thrives on action for action’s sake isn’t going to do it for me. A story full of tropes we’ve all seen a million times isn’t likely to, either, unless it finds a way to throw in a few tropes from another genre and add a mordant wit, as well (try Jonathan Howard’s Cabal series for that; not that I could write like him if I wanted to, the damn genius). A story that could come behind one of the covers that looks like all the other covers of the same genre isn’t going to move me—not to read it, and not to write it.
I mean, I love pulpy fiction—I’ve been devouring the Gideon Smith series by David Barnett. But it has a clockwork girl (spunky misfit #1), an aviatrix airship pirate (spunky misfit #2), a brass dragon, and Bram Stoker. What’s not to love? Could I write something like that? Could I sell it as an indie?
I don’t know the answer to that.
What I know is, to write it, I would have to find the heart of it. I would have to make it look like me. I would have to sigh and relax and get in touch with my own wonder. I would have to figure out how to twine the two of them together, so that story and wonder were inextricably linked. Because that’s what I do, as a writer. That’s why I got into this. And without that, I don’t wanna.
And suddenly, upon writing this post, I find that I’ve pulled myself out of a creative slump. I find myself eager to find a new story or return to one that’s already in progress, one that fills me with that same old wonder, that will allow me to relax back into it. I find myself ready to make a new plan.
So I encourage you, if you’re struggling, whether you came here looking for help or you’re a long-time reader trying to climb your way out of your most recent creative slump, to find your way back to your own heart. To relax… and to gently encourage a return to that feeling that drew you to create in the first place. To stop trying so hard to be a writer or a painter or a dancer or a musician, and to simply, gently, take a look around for your own old wonder.
I know it’s in there somewhere.
I know you’ll find it.
When you do, fly away with it, into the night, and be sure to follow the second star on the right… then it’s just straight on till morning.