Clawing Our Way Back to the Creative Center

photo courtesy of flickr's ahockley
photo courtesy of flickr’s ahockley

I have just come off one of the most amazing months of my entire life. April involved traveling nearly the entire month, including a two week book tour,

teaching workshops and giving a keynote at a regional SCBWI conference, and attending the librarian paradise that is the Texas Library Association’s annual convention. It also involved one of my books being nominated for a RITA award, and another of my books even landed (briefly!) on the NYT list.

I have met hundreds of enthusiastic readers and librarians and booksellers and students and teachers, and my life has been enriched beyond measure by these connections.

The one thing I have not done is write a single word in over six weeks.

I know that some writers write on the road, but I am not hardwired that way. Being an extreme introvert means that as much as I adore meeting and connecting with all those lovely people, I also need recharging time. My brain is not able to produce words when it hits that level of exhaustion every day. Schlepping through airports does not feed my muse. Honestly, the idea of writing while I’m on the road feels like being asked to sing an aria while surfing an avalanche of rocks downhill.

Or maybe it’s simply my ADD kicking in and with so much stimulation on so many fronts (New city! New hotel room! New bookstore! Different high school!) my brain simply can’t get quiet enough.

But I’ve been home now for over a week and am finding it incredibly difficult to turn off the connecting/publishing/sales metrics part of my brain and find my way back into the book.

Not to mention there are hundreds of email awaiting my reply, and statuses to update on Facebook and readers to connect with on Twitter.

And while my work IS about connecting with readers—it’s about connecting through my fiction first. If I don’t write anything, I will have little to connect with them about since most of them don’t follow me simply to hear me share silly anecdotes about daily life.

All this connectivity can end up sucking all the creative oxygen out of my brain and starving my muse.

Or distracting her.

Or focus on external metrics that don’t feed her.

The truth is, when I’m connecting with the real world in big chunks, I find it much, much harder to connect with my work. I need to disconnect with one in order to be present in the other. It’s like I only came equipped with a one way flow valve.

Believe me when I say that I envy those people who can work on their story for twenty minutes, take a short twitter break, then dive back in. But my brain doesn’t seem to be wired that way. It can’t settle into my work, it remains poised, waiting for that next little ping that will let me know that I’ve received a message or email or have been Tweeted at. And yes, of course I know I can silence my phone, get off the internet, and turn on Freedom for my computer. But my brain knows that all those little distractions are merely one off switch away. It’s become addicted to that mental rush of, Oh, maybe that’s another piece of cool news.

I have never suffered real addiction, but I imagine this is an echo of what that greater struggle would be like—this constant pull tugging at my mind.

In fact, I think that might be the downside to all this amazing hoopla—it is oh-so-easy for our writerly egos to get attached to it.

I am also now much more aware of all those people out there who’ve read my work. It is no longer an abstract exercise, but very real. I’ve met these readers, shaken their hand, stared into their eyes, and suddenly writing my books feels far too much like standing in front of a room of hundreds, giving a keynote speech.

There are too many readers in my head. I don’t know if it’s because my own voice so easily absorbs other influences or because I am so hyper aware of wanting to/not being able to please everyone, but I can’t write with all these (imaginary!) people watching me. I need to clear the room. Send them all out on a coffee break, or better yet, close the door for a while.

But that’s also scary, especially in the modern publishing climate where our platforms and social connections are supposed to be the very thing that allow us to successfully publish.

I need to turn those voices off, as well.

The thing is, for the majority of my writerly career I have been focused on metrics. I could talk agents and houses and imprints, remembering which person was interested in what sort of book, as well as what the various advance ranges and royalty percentages were for each publisher. I could discuss print runs and sell-throughs and bestseller lists. And I knew precisely where my books fell on those spectrums.

But a few years ago I found that was diminishing the passion and love I felt for my work. It was robbing me of the one thing on this earth that I love to do more than just about anything else.

So I gave it up. I wasn’t able to go cold turkey, but I slowly weaned myself from the publishing metrics, stopped constantly assessing (and obsessing) over where my career was and tossed all those five year plans in the trash.

The thing is, I learned how to balance it, for the most part. I’ve done it successfully for quite a while. What I didn’t anticipate was how stepping back into that externally focused industry place would reverberate through my brain, even once I was home and ready to return to my work.

To my dismay, I’ve learned that I like starred reviews.

I like hitting the bestseller list (even if only briefly!)

I love hearing readers tweet or blog about how much they love the books.

But it is also like living in the writerly equivalent of Pinnochio’s Pleasure Island, and an easy, seductive attraction when compared to the hard work of rolling up one’s sleeves and buckling down to write the next book.

But now, like some pregnant animal anxious to give birth, I can feel the need for solitude, for voluntary isolation, pressing down on me. So once again, I will need to find a way to claw my way back to my creative center.

It will probably involve even slower email response times, fewer Facebook status updates, and significantly less time chatting with readers on Twitter. I will try to shift all of my connecting activities to the afternoon or evenings—not only when my writing is done, but also after I have given myself great big chunks of full immersion time. Time for my mind to wander down side paths and detours, to stop and woolgather along the way, because that is how creativity—or at least my creativity—works.

It doesn’t help matters at all that the current book is kicking my ass. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just all these new pressures are preventing me from approaching the work in the right way.

I won’t know until I find a way to shut the door.

 

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. Sevgne says

    Congratulations on the nomination! And why shouldn’t you like being on the NY Times bestseller list; it’s such a great feeling to know readers are buying your book (not to mention the prestige). Congratulations, again.

    I hear you about writing and travelling. I don’t know that I’m an extreme introvert but I too can’t write when there’s too much stimulus. In fact I can’t do much of anything when there’s too much stimulus. I recently had to go home to London, and although I was in a perfect place (both location and hotel) to write, the reason for my visit overrode my ability to write. I constantly felt I wanted to write, it was as if ideas were on the tip of my mind, but the words wouldn’t come. It was as if my subconscious was telling me, “There are more important things to think about right now, than your story.” I did non-writing research since part of my story is set in London. But it was only on my return that I found the wherewithal to start writing again.

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  2. says

    I find I write best on the road – airplanes are my venue of choice. If I could afford the airline tickets, I could write whole series flying back and forth across the country and around the world. There is something about that seat belt sign telling me to stay put. And then there are those teeny little seat back pockets that almost nothing will fit into. Perfect! All my favorite distracting reads are safely locked in the overhead compartment or in my baggage.

    Seriously, if I could live on an airplane – I’d be in writerly heaven. In the meantime – does anyone know where I can get a little light up “fasten your seatbelt” sign to threaten me with turbulence should I leave my chair?

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    • says

      I really admire you! I wish I could write on a plane. In theory it seems the perfect place to be productive. But as soon as I walk into an airport, traveler’s fatigue sets in and from then on I’m just dopey until I’ve landed and had a good night’s sleep.

      Can you teach me how?

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    • says

      Wow, that is so funny, Lynn! Completely the opposite of my experience, but clearly it works for you. I think it might be worth looking into one of those little signs, frankly! :-)

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  3. says

    Sound like a busy schedule. I’m not sure I would be able to write much either. I used to not write when traveling, but since starting my own, blog, writing posts and poetry seems to travel with me, and when I’m in the mode, books, too.

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  4. says

    I have the same problem. Can’t seem to engage with the world and write at the same time.

    I spent April participating in Camp NaNoWriMo and my online activity went way down. Barely ever went on Twitter, only wrote one blog post. Put another 50K on the WIP, but fell off of everyone’s radar too.

    Someday I hope to find that balance of which you speak. Probably when the kids are older.

    Thanks for the blog post. I don’t feel so alone now. :o)

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  5. says

    Robin – I just want to thank you for what you share of yourself here, Robin. You always dig deep and reveal so much, in such a generous way. It is such a gift to those of us downhill of you on our journeys.

    I think a lot of us spend our days looking uphill at those of you who’ve climbed so high, and think, “If I could just get *there*, or at least near to there, I’ll be satisfied.” But what this post tells me rings true in my gut. All of the extras–awards, reviews, travel, fan interaction–are just that: extras. As artists, it’s incumbent on us to seek ourselves in our work, and to share the truths that we find in doing so. That is what drives all the rest, and it needs to be an ongoing process, or the rest will wither.

    I’ll admit, the idea of it sounds a bit intimidating (and perhaps exhausting). But it also comforts me. Thank you for the gift of sharing.

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    • says

      You always leave the best comments, Vaughn! I tend to get severe poster’s remorse after I post something revealing, but sharing the ups and downs of the entire journey is exactly what I am aiming for, so thank you for letting me know that it’s working. :-)

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  6. says

    It’s so important to know how your creativity works and what you need to be creative again. It takes us a while to know ourselves and our routines that well, but it’s essential to being in control of our writing life. Thank you for writing so honestly about the situation you’re facing right now.

    I hope you’re able to find your solitude and delve into your next book very soon. :)

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  7. says

    Thanks so much for this post! This part hit home for me – “The truth is, when I’m connecting with the real world in big chunks, I find it much, much harder to connect with my work. I need to disconnect with one in order to be present in the other. It’s like I only came equipped with a one way flow valve.”

    I used to think there was something wrong with me and/or my process. I would read about writers who wrote and blogged and tweeted and did this and that etc while I struggled to stay with, and in, my story world. How would I – could I – succeed as a writer in this new world of busy-busy-busy and do-everything-and-do-it-all-well? But what I know now is that I just need to keep my head down and keep doing what works for me, and keep trying to find MY balance, whatever that is.

    Congratulations on all your successes!

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  8. says

    Robin-

    What a week on WU! My favorite contributors all in a row, with meaty posts. For story addicts, this is heaven.

    I know well the wall that, magically and unseen, erects itself between a rested author and a new story. I’ve talked with many, many authors who’ve been exactly where you are right now.

    How to vault over that wall into the new landscape of the next story? A running start, an enormous leap, a body twist and an Olympic push aren’t necessary. All that may be needed is the right question.

    So when you settle down and have some writing space open before you, here’s one to try: What is the novel you’d like to read right now?

    More: Whom do you most want to write about right now? What do you like the best about that person? What’s the biggest thing that person does, or that happens to him or her? Why is it a special problem for that person, an entirely different experience than for anyone else? What’s the scene or story moment you can’t wait to create? What’s the most fun, or the most frightening (to you), in this world? What experience will bring this character the most joy–and the most pain? What in this story world makes you the most angry?

    Any of that can be a starting point. With that in hand, I suspect that your unconscious story teller will quickly take over. The story that’s already there–in it’s complete and finished form–will begin to pour out.

    I was on a long plane flight recently. I opened a little Moleskine notebook and uncapped a pen. I asked myself three questions:

    What’s the fantasy novel you’d like to read right now?
    What’s the literary romance you’d like to read right now?
    What’s the historical romance you’d like to read right now?

    By the time the plane touched down at O’Hare, I had three short synopses. I could put them up for auction here but I don’t think there’d be any takers. Not because they’re not good story ideas (if I may say so), but because every storyteller reading this post has more than enough stories already. In fact, in that inner well is an infinite supply.

    Ask the right question and watch the wall crumble. Can’t wait to read what you come up with next, Robin.

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    • says

      Ah Don, I love these questions and I wish you could see how dog-eared and well-thumbed all my copies of your books are!

      Once again I am working on an impossible book on an impossible deadline, and your questions were so great at helping me zero in on why I wanted to write THIS particular story in the first place, way back when I conceived it–so thank you!!

      (Although I must also admit to now being super curious about what fantasy novel, literary romance, and historical romance you want to read next! Yes, I’m nosy–it’s part of the whole being a writer thing. )

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  9. says

    Congratulations on so many incredible accomplishments. & a big wish for you to find that quiet space in which to connect to your heartsong & creativity again.

    I feel connected to your words today as I finish off my latest post, which is about nurturing the heart in the midst of connecting creativity to business. While I intellectually know that it is normal to feel the way you do (& the way I currently feel), it is nice to read that it happens to the best….. thank you for your transparency & willingness to express the vulnerable underbelly of your path.

    Xo

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  10. Denise Willson says

    Thank you, Robin. I am constantly in awe of how HUMAN we are.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  11. says

    Robin, I SOOOOOOO identify. I appreciate you voicing our dilemma.

    And Don Maass, always points a light toward the path forward.

    Marjorie Brody
    TWISTED, a psychological suspense

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  12. says

    Robin, I hope you will find the quiet space you need to rejuvenate from all this external stimulation. I get cranky after 3 days of non-writing, so I always carry a notebook with me. Today I went to Mass early and spent 20 min writing/praying … such peace!

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  13. says

    Boy, do I feel this, right now –

    “What I didn’t anticipate was how stepping back into that externally focused industry place would reverberate through my brain, even once I was home and ready to return to my work.”

    Reading your account has been very helpful, thank you ;-)

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  14. Megan Morrison says

    Robin, what a beautiful post. Your observations are so honestly written that I feel like I can relate, even though I haven’t experienced this. I was particularly struck by the idea that meeting the readers makes it all less abstract and leaves you feeling like you’re writing to an audience. I can see how that would be really hard. Congratulations on your wonderful month, and good luck shutting the door.

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  15. says

    This post really resonated for me, Robin. Although I love being able to tap into my community of readers and fellow writers, although it’s invigorating to meet people who have connected with my words, I find it’s the wrong mindset for creating and listening. I’m also feeling the need to hibernate with my manuscript (which, like yours, is being difficult).
    Congratulations on your month, and best of luck finding a more peaceful one ahead!

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  16. says

    Thank you for this post. I’m not yet published, yet I still feel the social network beast that so many people say you must feed exactly the right food, trying to suck me down into competition and busyness that cuts into the very fruit I’m trying to grow. I pray you can claw the beast back, give it time to get hungry and relish its next meal, and use that time for the special project you’re working on. All the best! :)

    Sincerely,
    Azalea Dabill

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  17. says

    For me, incoming social media fractures the focused effort required to generate new work the way bullets shatter glass. And I don’t even have travel in the mix! My solution must be to bring a virgin mind to the page in the morning. It almost kills me not to answer e-mail first thing, because I know by noon there will be so many messages to read/answer, and so many blog posts I’ll want to read, that I’ll feel overwhelmed. But I can’t go there—once my focus shatters, I can never seem to pull it back to my writing (I don’t seem to have that problem when editing for clients later in the day, which uses a different mental process).

    My limited experience getting ready for a debut novel and your greater experience suggests that with each new level of experience, we must make new decisions about how to balance our lives and achieve our continuing goal to write, even as the distractions sparkle more! In any event, congratulations on your success and best of luck buckling down to your work again.

    And Don—great starter questions!

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