For the last two weeks, my four children and I have been stuck at home trying to extricate ourselves from the evil clutches of the dreaded “stomach flu.” One by one we came down with it, and its effects have been long-lasting and producing vast quantities of laundry. We are bored with television and lazing on couches. We are weary of toast.
Thankfully, at this point in my life, I don’t hold down a typical nine-to-five career, which means I don’t have to take sick leave when we’re unwell. But as a writer and editor I still have commitments to keep up with, even if there’s flexibility in terms of timing.
When life gets (literally) messy, I’m exhausted from sleepless nights and struggling to even manage the basics, I still try my best not to give in to the temptation to let everything go. It’s not about pushing through the pain and forcing myself to continue being productive; it’s about acknowledging that I feel worse if I don’t maintain at least some level of interest in my writing.
For accomplishing that, I have a few strategies I’ve used over the years. I call them foolproof because you simply can’t mess them up. There’s no right or wrong. Even if they take you absolutely nowhere, they still help you maintain your creativity—with very little effort.
Jot down keywords.
My husband always says I have more notes—both handwritten and computerized—than anyone he’s ever met. True, but I also never run out of ideas. No matter how bad things are, if you can commit to writing just a few keywords for every creative idea that pops into your head, you’ll know those brilliant ideas will be waiting for you when you feel better. Use a notepad, a note app on your handheld device, or a virtual sticky note on your computer to record keywords for short stories, poems, articles, novels, revision ideas, and so on. For example, if your idea is to write a post like this one, you might write the keywords STRATEGIES CREATIVE SLUMP. Without going into any detail about how you’ll flesh it out, you’ve at least held on to it so you can develop it later.
Engage your ears.
When you’re sick, or depressed, or simply overwhelmed, sometimes the physicality of trying to read a book feels too much like work. When this happens, I listen to audiobooks or short story podcasts. The reading is done for me and I can close my eyes and just listen, which is so relaxing. In the event that even focusing on a storyline is too difficult, I listen to classical music. Engaging my ears never fails to generate further creative ideas (which, of course, I jot down in keywords).
Talk it out.
Chances are good that if you have a cell phone, you can record your voice on it. I also have a dedicated handheld voice recorder I use for taking audio notes. When I’m feeling totally sapped of creativity, I make a point of carrying my voice recorder in my pocket or purse wherever I go. When I get a private moment (maybe downstairs in the laundry room, or in the bedroom with the door shut, or when I’m driving somewhere on my own), I’ll turn on the recorder and just start talking about whatever comes to mind. Similar to freewriting, this strategy may result in a whole lot of gibberish; but I promise the more you do it, the more often you’ll come up with gems to use in your writing.
I’m not much of a poet, but a very simple creative strategy (with little pressure to produce a certain word count) is to write a poem. A poem can be just a few words long or half a page or however long you want it to be. It doesn’t have to rhyme, and since this poetry is for your eyes only, it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else but you. If you’re in the middle of working on a book-length project but feel uninspired and overwhelmed by it, try writing a free-form poem about a particular scene, a relationship between two of your characters, or a central conflict in the story. Essentially, you’re condensing many, many pages into something much smaller and more manageable.
Each day brings new circumstances that threaten to derail our writing efforts, but for me the key is “Something is always better than nothing.” A rough idea is better than no idea. A few words scrawled on a page are better than a blank page. Holding on to those small things can prevent despair and maintain your creative spark for when you’re back in working order.
This will, sadly, be my last post for Writer Unboxed. I’ve loved being a contributor to such an amazing community for the last several years, but these days I’m blogging less and spending more time on my professional writing and editing. Thanks to everyone for the kind words and support you’ve offered along the way. I’ll always be right here alongside you as a faithful reader.
Photo courtesy of Brian Henry Thompson  via Flickr