photo by Alice Popkorn

photo by Alice Popkorn

Ah, writers. We cling to our rituals and discipline as firmly (and as desperately) as any major league pitcher on a winning streak, and often with as much deeply held belief that they are the only thing allowing us to get words on the page or to make progress toward our dreams and aspirations.

But the truth is there isn’t one lesson that, when learned, will guarantee success. Rather, the lessons we learn on our creative journey are an intricately braided and overlapping matrix that create a safety net for us to fall back on when the inspiration, the muse, and the words fall silent. Furthermore, that safety net will differ for each and every writer.

For those of us trying to walk a creative path, it’s important we don’t mistake the deep wagon ruts we’ve created as a bona fide guaranteed path to success, or even happiness. Sometimes they are just that—ruts.

So how can we tell the difference?

I’m a big believer in the Universe as the ultimate teacher. I didn’t always feel that way. In my 20’s and 30’s I openly scoffed at such nonsense. It is probably safe to say that I scoffed one too many times so that the Universe itself staged a smackdown (or two) of epic proportions.

This is where stepping back from the immediacy of our own lives can sometimes be a big help. Take a deep psychic breath and just . . . step back, let go for a moment. Release the stranglehold we have on our goals and just sit with them.

In fact, you probably shouldn’t even accept that your initial goals or definitions of success are the right ones. How we define success will likely change—should change—as part of a healthy, vibrant creative path.

So how do we tell the difference between acquiring the necessary disciplinary muscles to achieve our goals from being stuck in a rut or having a stranglehold on our own creativity?

We get quiet and we listen. To ourselves. To our work. To the universe. And we especially listen to our heart. Our minds can trick us with rationalization and intellectual reasoning, but an artist’s truth tends to reside in her heart.

Part of what we’re listening for is what the stuckness feels like. Is it the kind of stuck where there is a sense of determination and accomplishment that comes with acquiring new, albeit difficult, skills? Of stretching ourselves out past our comfort zone? Of little by little chipping away at that block of marble?

Or perhaps the stuckness is more like being in an endless loop? The kind of stuck that fills you with despair or a sense of futility—as if you will never move forward again. Often that sort of stuckness is accompanied by self hate, discouragement, anger, and despair. But some of us are so tied to our sense of discipline that we consider it a weakness to even name those feelings.

But those feelings are really a signpost telling us to slow down for a bit and consider our true direction. And maybe take a left turn instead of continuing to slog down a futile path. If we keep beating our head against the same problem over and over, then our work on that issue isn’t finished yet.

  • If you’re doing everything right over and over and still nothing is happening—no sale, no agent nibble, no raving readers—then maybe it’s time to do something wrong. Break a rule. Or three.  Step outside your own process. The thing about creativity is—it likes to be stirred up a bit.
  • If you’d never dream of writing a book without your outline clutched tightly in your hand, consider leaping into the mist and see what turns up.
  • If you’re a dyed in the wool pantser, try outlining, just for the hell of it.
  • If you keep wishing and wishing and visualizing, but that great big honkin’ dream you are longing for still hasn’t shown up, maybe it’s time to practice letting go of that particular thing. Shift your energy to a new goal—one you can actually control—or perhaps even a non-goal. Instead, focus on the process.
  • If you’ve spent your entire life being quiet and polite and thoughtful, maybe its time to throw back your head and ROAR. At least within the pages of your work.
  • If you’ve spent years cultivating a legion of FB followers and Twitter followers and your career still isn’t where you want it to be, maybe it’s time to concentrate on a different way of growing your career. Close the door for a while. Turn inward instead. Let yourself get bored, let things get quiet enough that you can hear the previously unheard voices in your head. Stretch yourself and your craft in privacy.
  • If you give and give and give and it still feels like it’s never enough, then maybe it’s time to stop giving. Maybe the life lesson there isn’t about giving until you’re empty, but about learning how to draw healthy boundaries.
  • If you walk around the world in a protective shell, experiment with taking that shell off—even if for only a few moments at a time.
  • If you pride yourself on writing fast, try writing slow. Or if you are slow, experiment with fast drafting.
  • If you only ever do three drafts, try doing seven—yes, seven—just to see what new layers and nuance you can bring to the page.
  • If you have your manuscript critiqued and workshopped until you’re dizzy with all those voices and opinions in your head, stop. Pull inward. Listen to your own voice and gut. Listen to how your gut responds to what others want. Listen for that quiet, stubborn, contrary no that lets you know that something’s important to you, non-negotiable.
  • If you’ve been trying to second guess the market, instead try going deep inside to your crunchy, chewy center. Don the psychic equivalent of an asbestos suit, and go dumpster diving in your emotional cesspit. (Yes, you have one. I promise.) Go searching for the things you’re too afraid to talk about, or too ashamed to admit to. Rummage through your embarrassing obsessions and idiosyncratic ways of seeing the world.
  • If you’re consuming hundreds of articles and essays and how-to’s on writing each month, maybe it’s time to put a moratorium on that sheer avalanche of information and go inward and let your mind be still. Sometimes, knowing too much can be just as paralyzing as not knowing enough.

Our best ideas and epiphanies often spring from the swampy places in our soul. Every single moment of growth I’ve ever had has been preceded by a long painful period of discontent and psychic restlessness. We may think we’re dying of boredom or stagnation, but that sense of boredom is a necessary part of the birth of new ideas. And selves. Boredom, long stretches of mental quiet, the freedom and privacy to make mistakes, recover, and then make new ones, is all part of the process.

But sometimes in the hope of avoiding those painful, liminal stretches, we will simply sit ourselves down in the middle of the road and call it the end.

Only it’s not. Learning to regroup and trying new approaches are as much a part of the writing journey as mastering POV or verb tenses.

And while swamps may appear stagnant, they aren’t. Below the surface all sorts of micro-processes are occurring as the rotting which feeds regeneration takes place—whether it is a regeneration of self or process or a new idea. Decomposition is the act of breaking down the old so that it will serve as nourishment to the new.

That’s not to say to say that trying something new will be the Answers to Life’s (and Publishing’s) Mysteries, but creativity likes to be shaken up. Turned upside down. It needs a blast of fresh air every so often. And trust me, I say this as a person who loathes change and transitions—they are incredibly hard for me, but I’ve learned just how important it is to take a radical left turn every once in a while. You might be astounded at what new truths you’ll discover about the world and your own work.

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.