Are you in a slump? Can you simply not find the time or motivation to push your creative work forward? Today I want to talk about how to reframe things when you are in a slump, and clear actions to help pull yourself out of it.
Oftentimes, a slump is an indication that you have a big vision, but don’t feel you have reached the goal yet.
What I tend to find in talking with successful authors is this: their slump is real. The reasons are real. But instead of telling themselves “the world just won’t let my creative work happen,” they instead turn it inward.
When I spoke with Dani Shapiro she described her experience of writing throughout her career this way:
“Not only doesn’t it get any easier, it actually gets harder.”
“There isn’t one single piece of writing that I have done in the last 20 years that did not begin with my thinking, “Here goes nothing. This time this is not going to work.”
She didn’t use the word “slump,” but instead talked about the inner censor who tries to convince you that you simply aren’t worthy. The point she is making is huge: that often what stops us — what silences our voice and prevents us from sharing it — comes from internal reasons, not external.
“The challenge is inside. It’s the self-sabotage. The projects not shipped, the hugs not given, the art not made. The real boogeyman isn’t the other. The one we’re afraid of is with us all the time.”
Sometimes it can feel as though a “slump” is the only reality that one knows. They feel held back, and can even craft the narrative in their head of, “I’m the underdog who never gets their due.”
I get how all of life can sometimes feel that way. As a writer you may, year after year, see other authors hit bestseller lists with “seeming” ease. You may see dozens and dozens of articles online that profile the success of other authors.
Perhaps that reinforces the narrative of “other people have it easier.” They don’t. Did they get luckier than you? Yep. They also persisted.
This week, Caroline Leavitt shared an essay called, “Overnight Success and Other Fables of the Writing Life.”
Within it, she tracks her publishing career, filled with dashed expectations. How, even after success, she hit roadblocks. I mean, just look at this mid-career moment:
“I finished my ninth novel… and my agent loved it. But my publisher said, “This just isn’t special enough. We don’t get it.”
I asked them, “Would you consider a rewrite? Or another book?”
There was a silence and then they said, “No. We don’t think those will be special, either.”
Can you imagine that moment of hearing this? She described it this way, “I felt ashamed and miserable and frightened.” Go read the rest of her post, it’s an amazing story of the reality of what it looks like to move through one’s writing career, slumps and all.
Use fear to know what matters
Author Becky Galli shared this story with me recently — we were talking about fear and sharing our creative work, and she said this:
“I do take comfort in what my father told me once. He said every time he stood before the congregation to preach he got butterflies in his stomach. He was a minister for over 40 years, and routinely spent 20 hours of preparation of his sermon. The butterflies, he said, showed him that what he was about to do mattered. I think that’s why we have fears. We care.”
I love that — how the things we fear can sometimes be an indicator of the things we care about most. So let’s talk about some practical ways to minimize the slumping and maximize the caring….
Breaking out of the slump
When working with writers and creative professionals — as well as with my own work — I find that the following are some tactics to break out of a slump:
- Name the problem. Say it out loud. Write it down. Scream it if you have to. Sometimes what holds us back is an unnamed problem or fear. We silence it because we don’t want to give it more power than it already has. I would urge you to name it. Remove its power by doing so. But beyond that, it also allows you to realize that this problem has boundaries, and allows you to begin thinking of practical ways to work around it — or move through it. You can’t do that until you name the problem though. Okay, here is where I will get cheesy — remember the ending of Eminem’s movie “Eight Mile?” His character is talking with friends before the final rap battle, and one of them looks at him and says “You worried about what he’ll say?” He then starts listing all of Eminem’s “vulnerabilities.” All the things the other guy in the rap battle can make fun of. To counter this — to remove its power — Eminimen starts his rap with “I know everything this guy has to say against me,” and proceeds to list them in front of the huge audience. He removed their power by naming them. I would encourage you to find a piece of paper and write out the things you feel are holding you back. Burn the paper when you are done if you like.
- Share. Frequently and on deadline. Those who work with me know that I am a proponent of sharing way before you think you are “ready.” I am an advocate of the weekly email newsletter; of sharing photos of your inspiration and process on Instagram; of developing collaborators and an audience well before you think you “need” them. Too much wonderful creative work never sees the light of day — is never shared — because the creator felt it “wasn’t ready.” That too can cause a slump. Share. Now. Frequently. And on deadline.
- Create a practice of celebrating small milestones.
Someone I worked with described slumps this way: “we don’t feel our success when we are in a slump.”
Develop the habit of recognizing the small successes you have each week. My friend Cali Williams Yost studied the habits of successful people and found that something that distinguishes these people is seeking a sense of fulfillment. If they have a to-do list of 10 items for the week, and they accomplish 1/2 of them, they don’t end the week feeling bad. Instead, they celebrate the 5 things they did accomplish. Acknowledge the small milestones you achieve each week.
- Change your context. Get out of the house. Change your routine. Change how you spend lunch. Make some change that seems “impossible,” even if it is a small action such as leaving your phone at home or unplugging your internet cable.What you may find is that by challenging yourself with a small change, you may confront habits that keep you feeling in a slump.
Caring rational you: “To break this slump, why I don’t I just take a walk during lunch and get some fresh air, instead of sitting at my desk and doing email?”
Irrational you: “The world will explode if I don’t check email at lunch!”
Start listening to the caring rational you.
Seek the wisdom of others
I want to end this post with probably the best way I have found to beat a slump: perspective. To seek out the wisdom of others who have overcome incredible challenges.
Earlier this year, Betsy Brockett joined my team. I hired her for her awesome graphic design chops, but her backstory was immensely compelling. You see, Betsy is 31 years old, and a cancer survivor/thriver. She has chronicled her experiences in detail here.
It was just the other day that she herself wrote about the topic of slumps on her blog. She says:
“Beating myself up for not being productive, creative, happy, and successful, 100% of the time (all on my own terms, of course), is a counterproductive avenue to explore. So, I try to be kinder to myself, knowing that relief only comes through the acceptance that these low times are impossible to ward off.”
“Not everything needs to be tied up in a neat bow of positivity,
especially not the things that absolutely suck.
Let’s acknowledge the suck, the fear, and the pain.”
I find that her perspective has made it easier to navigate the complexity of slumps.
What gets you through a slump?