When Nothing Goes Right, Go Left

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.

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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. says

    These aren’t just words, this is A Word for me right now, and not just in writing-life stuckness, but in other stuckness. I didn’t imagine that there might be different kinds of stuckness, different feels to them. I’ve been in stuck #2, but I think I’m in stuck #2, straining the bonds, aware that I’m growing. Thank you for this soul-deep advice to listen, to break ruts, to risk. You are a treasure, Robin.

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  2. says

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post! I’ve been struggling with this very issue lately. Some of my goals are starting to remind me of older, smaller sized clothes, the ones tucked in the back of the closet that I swear I’ll fit into one day, when what I really need to do is just let them go. They – the clothes and the goals – no longer fit the me I am now. It’s not easy to do, though. Not at all.

    I’m going to bookmark this post and refer back to it. Often.

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  3. says

    Robin,
    You nailed it. I’ve been feeling exactly what you described and I decided to write something completely outside my genre. There comes a time when every writer needs to step outside his comfort zone. You have expressed this need so eloquently and with so many helpful tips. Thanks for a great post!

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  4. Carmel says

    Every person reading this post has to be shouting “Amen” at some line or other. I shouted at several. :o)

    Thanks for the encouragement and guidance. This post needs to be read several times to get the full effect.

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    • Carmel says

      p.s. My life lesson this week has been “Listen.” It was nice to see it repeated again here.

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  5. says

    Coming up for air – for the third time. I’m overwhelmed with articles and must-reads. I need to break away and lose myself in my writing again. Timely post. Thank you, Robin.
    There are so many truths in this article that I would like to credit you with on my facebook page; the first being “Our minds can trick us with rationalization and intellectual reasoning, but an artist’s truth tends to reside in her heart.”

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  6. Deb Boone says

    Since I’m a lefty, so I need to shift right- smile. You are right on target, Robin. And many of the things you suggest for getting unstuck are working in my current WIP. I’m normally a pantser who works in a fairly linear fashion. Now I’m working from a detailed outline, and writing scenes in a non-linear style. It allows me to look at each sequence through that “cesspit” you mention. Your post really brings in to focus some things I’ve been unconsciously doing (and internally struggling with) so I’m going to ‘free’ myself and just keep going.
    This list is going to get printed out and posted next to my desk. Thank you, Robin.

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  7. says

    This post is very timely for me. I’ve been struggling with writer’s block for months and none of the usual efforts to get the wheels going have worked. A friend of mine mentioned to try Tarot cards to spark energy and move the creative thoughts forward. Really!? My immediate response was, no way. But this is just what you are saying here today, to try something completely opposite of the norm. Supposedly Stephen King and John Steinbeck have used Tarot cards as a tool to get their stories going. Maybe there is something to asking the inner self to become conscious through the shuffle of the cards. After reading this post, I’m so tempted to “step outside your own process” as you say. Robin, would you consider trying Tarot cards to explore a story?

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  8. says

    The Universe spoke to me just now. Seriously, through you and Laura Marling. When you recommended we take a deep psychic breath, and sit back and let it go for a minute, I did just that. As I sat there, not reading for a moment, a Laura Marling song started playing. Here are the lyrics I heard:
    “You came here to tell me something I already know
    The dark before the dawn is the darkest I can go
    The calm before the storm is what leaves me here to breathe
    So breathe

    Us of constant banging throwing fists against the wall
    Screaming at the Earth for what it’s done to one and all
    I came here to tell you something you already know
    Just breathe

    Breathe”

    Yep, Robin, you and Laura are the Universe. At least for just a moment–exactly when I needed it. The rest of this wonderful piece flowed right into my newly unbound brain. I hadn’t realized how bound up I had become. I want so badly to add tension and microtension to my revision that I’d made myself macrotense. I’d forgotten how wonderful and fun this should be.

    Thanks, Robin–I needed this. (And thanks to you, too, Laura!)

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  9. says

    Robin,

    Every single one of you your posts shoots straight to my heart. The thing that has guided me through my last few books has been a quote my friend J. Anderson Coats shared with me (she attributes it to Elizabeth Bear): Learn to write THIS book.

    I am quick to look for formulas, systems, and patterns to find security and comfort and some sort of direction. But my writing process doesn’t always unfold in a predictable way. It has been liberating to (try!) and let go and realize it’s okay.

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  10. says

    This writing thing is so hard and the path so steep, writers need all the tactics Robin so eloquently lays out to move through all the muck and get something good down on paper. My touchstone is to look to yourself and not to others as hard as that often is. No one should be able to tell you whether something is good or truthful except yourself.

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  11. says

    Glad I found this blog…had a passion for writing when I was a teenager and into my twenties, but lost it for the past 20 years because I got caught up in other things. As I reach 40 years in this world, I’m slowly getting back into it…I’ll be on this blog alot…Thanks

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  12. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    “For those of us who 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.”

    A truth, from my experience. Recently I had to let go of a project I was working on for over a year. It hurt, but I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t ready. It was me, not it. I have taken up another project, and I’m certain one day, I’ll go back and visit my other love, a different person with a different perspective and a skill set more primed to what it needs.

    I have learned that for me, stepping away is a big part of the creation process. I also swim laps daily. It’s amazing how clear it all can become looking out into the blue.

    I love your posts, they are always an inspiration. Thanks.

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  13. Suzanne Link says

    Loved reading this post. I definitely agree, some introspect with a healthy does of re-evaluation is necessary to see the many alternate paths around the perceived obstacle. Obstacles don’t mean we have to stop and lay down. Thanks for reminding us to try a different route, and for doing it so eloquently.

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  14. says

    Excellent advice. It’s so easy to get caught-up in what’s comfortable — even if it’s not actually working! Sometimes we need to shake ourselves up — and in some cases, maybe we’ll end up right back where we started, but at least we’ll have new experiences or perspectives to help us try again.

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  15. says

    It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by all that isn’t working, all the How To’s on the internet, all the success stories and here you are still struggling. The truth is that even if it feels “right” to you when you’re writing, if it’s not working then maybe, just maybe, it’s time to try something that feels scary. I know that it’s when I’ve branched out into what scared me that I had the highest pay offs.

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  16. says

    Thank you for reminding me to breathe. Isn’t it strange how creatures so dependent on this basic function will hold the breathe, especially when it is needed most, like when running a marathon, the marathon of writing a book? I am convinced if I take several long deep breaths before sitting down to write, I will perform better. It is basic physiology really, one the universe knows. The moon wanes and waxes, writers are like the moon, moons in a vast vast universe full of stars. Shine on.

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  17. says

    This is the best advice I’ve gotten in a long time: “Pull inward. Listen to your own voice and gut. Listen to how your gut responds to what others want.” Lately I’ve been driven to immobility with revisions of a first chapter as I’ve listened to everything BUT my own gut and voice. Thank you.

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  18. says

    Great post, Robin,

    Your comment about getting unstuck & simply needing to be “chipping away at that block of marble?” calls to mind a song by singer-songwriter Meg Christian, “Can we be like drops of water / falling on the stone…?”

    Often that block of marble seems impenetrable & untouchable, but in time, we make our dent.

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  19. says

    I loved this post. There were so many great ideas in here that I can’t even pick one! But I’ll be coming back to this time and again for inspiration. Thanks for stating “the obvious” when I couldn’t even see it.

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