Back in the Saddle
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
If you’ve been following the Pep Talk, you know I’m big on writers cutting themselves some slack. Burnout kills creativity and breeds writer’s block. So while I’ve always been a fan of the idea that we need to keep working in order to evolve, grow, and succeed, I’m incredibly cognizant of the ever-present reality most writers hit a wall every now and then, and that it’s okay to admit and even embrace that.
Now, a bit of an admission. The past two years or so, I’ve been struggling to rebound from my own slowdown. This decade has been intense for me, particularly on the creative front. I went from earning my MFA in a very hard and fast environment, to publishing short stories at a fairly decent rate, to suffering some unfortunate circumstances in my personal life, to not writing a single word for several years.
Really, this has been the worst burnout phase of my life. I’m in my mid-thirties now, so it stands to reason that ten years of working, practicing, and publishing finally caught up with me. Furthermore, we can’t stop living very human lives under very human circumstances. If I hadn’t experienced such a shake-up on a personal level, I might have been able to keep working. But things being what they were…
So this Pep Talk is not about showing yourself some love when you’re slowing down. It’s about being eager and ready when you’re speeding back up. I recently started a new writing project, a novel, and I’m pleased to report I’m about 9,000 words in. If that doesn’t sound like much of an achievement to you, it’s probably because you’re a hard-nosed writer who puts in your time, come rain or shine. And before my productivity started to drop off, I was right there with you. But the truth is we all need a break sometimes. All of us. Actually, very often life forces us to take breaks, and we can bemoan, resist, and condemn them, but it doesn’t change the fact that a career in the publishing industry is—in its most ideal form—a long-term project. As such, detours are something of an obligation.
For several years on end, my average yearly wordcount was around 120,000. And that was after a few years of maybe 75,000 to 100,000 words. Really, I was ramping up to something big. I’m a short story guy with some long-form publications in the indie realm. Not precisely a best-seller, but not a newbie either. And as I said, grad school was intense. I think a lot of people who go after an MFA have a similar experience, right on down to needing time off after graduation. The sad and torrid fact of the matter is I haven’t attempted a book-length project since I completed my thesis novel four years ago. That’s a huge dry spell for me, so I’ll take that nice 9,000-word head start, thank you very much.
If being kind to yourself in the face of writer’s block is about realizing you’re not a story machine (no matter how much you want to be), booting up your systems after some downtime requires acknowledging any fears or insecurities that might come up. It’s scary getting back in the saddle, or at least it can be. It’s also pretty exciting, isn’t it? Maybe, like me, you started wondering if you’d ever be productive again. Am I finally done with this whole writing thing? Where are my abilities?! Why don’t I feel like telling stories!? WHY, GOD, WHY!?
Got a flair for the dramatic? Well step right up, ‘cause this next one could be a doozy: in almost any case, we need to be able to accept the fact we might be rusty. Now I took a break of a few years, but I’ve known authors who went ten, fifteen, or twenty, and who were startled to encounter really crummy writing on their part. I know, it’s disappointing. Turns out none of us is a miracle worker. So a little piece of advice, maybe start slow, a short story or two. Heck, start writing blog posts or flash fiction or maybe even try your hand at a new genre, like creative nonfiction or poetry. That’s actually a good place to start. Writing truth is, in my experience, almost always easier than writing fiction. The point is you need a jumping on point, something you can sink your teeth into that doesn’t require you to … well, break your damn teeth.
And respect yourself enough to know when it’s time to work and when it’s not. Again, I really do appreciate the workhorse model of writing. That’s how the beast feeds itself. It’s the lifeblood of what we do. I just think it’s a bit self-deluded and unkind to think you can go on like that forever. Maybe some of us can, but for the majority, it does no good to crash and burn. Don’t knock yourself for it, man. And don’t let colleagues or friends and family make you feel bad or lazy or lost.
When it’s time to get back to work, it’s time. You’ll know you’re ready because—hey, here’s a nice big no-brainer for you—you’ll actually feel like it. Don’t push yourself too hard too soon. It’s a pretty organic process when it comes down to it. You can’t get blood from a stone, though I’m sure if you hit yourself in the head enough times with said stone blood would ensue. Never imagine yourself to be something you aren’t, a literary god, born of good fortune and the primal mud from which warriors emerge, Achilles of the word processor, Odysseus of plot structure and acute character psychology. Nah, you’re just a humble guy or gal who likes to crank out some good writing every now and then. Maybe you thought this day would never come. How do you feel now that it has?
I believe that life is almost always a matter of two steps forward, one step back. It’s how we progress as human beings. So two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward: hey look, the math checks out. You’re one step ahead of where you were last time. It’s like a Jacob’s ladder, right? You zig left, zag right, but you’re always climbing higher. Don’t feel like writing today? Consider, if you will, investing in some fun. Watch a few old movies that always manage to inspire you. Read a good book. Listen to some music, or try your hand at painting, sculpting, songwriting, video production, anything that engages your creativity and that doesn’t have all that unbearable weight built up behind it.
This is a fun job. Remember that. It’s fun. We get to tell stories and entertain people with our words. If you’ve been at this a while, and you’ve done silly things before, like attempting to quit but finding it quite impossible, then consider the possibility you’re meant for this life. You shouldn’t shirk being meant for something. Any way you slice a lifelong love affair, it’s fate, my friends. It’s kismet. Maybe you aren’t a literary god, but rest assured, the real gods up on Mount Word-lympus have plans for you that go back eons. One last time, do however much you actually feel you can do, and get excited about the prospects. If, lord forbid, you someday end up in a terrible driving, skying, skydiving, or rogue spelunking accident, you’re going to want a surgeon who can put you back together with slow and steady hands. Do yourself a favor and be that surgeon for your writing.
Until next time, everybody. The straightest line between two points is … wait, you guys are using straight lines?! So that’s why my writing is so crooked.
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One of the biggest complaints that I hear from writers is that they struggle with writer’s block. We’ve all experienced the phenomena from time to time, where the words just won’t come, or the ideas on what to write about just don’t flow through and the brain seems to be a total blank. There are many articles with helpful suggestions on how to get over writer’s block and get the words flowing once more, from free association, freestyle writing of whatever comes to mind, to exercise and experiencing nature.
My current problem, however, is the opposite of writer’s block. I don’t know what you would call it; maybe writer’s overflow. I have more ideas on what to write coming out of my brain than there are hours in the day to write them all. Perhaps if I could just sit down and do nothing but write, there would be a chance of getting them all out, (but even then, some would probably be lost as I worked to get others just the way I wanted them), but the fact is, I don’t know anyone who can do nothing but write. We all have lives and things that need to be tended to in those lives, and besides, even if we claim that writing is our life, I imagine that if it was all we ever did, we would get tired of it. It is possible to get too much of even the best of things in life.
The answer, of course, is to prioritize. Get the important things out of the way first and then fall back on the activities, such as writing, that are what we truly wish to be doing, but how do you keep all those great ideas from flowing out and being lost, when there is no paper available at the moment for them to flow to? Oh, I have heard suggestions on how to tackle this problem, though they are not as frequent as the writer’s block solution. Many say carry a pad of paper and pen with you everywhere you go, so you can write those ideas down as soon as they strike you, but I see problems with this strategy. First, is it really practical to carry pen and paper everywhere you go? Personally, I carry so much other necessary junk with me: cell phone; keys; wallet; and those blasted cancer sticks that my body insists upon even though my mind says that I should leave them home, that carrying pen and paper would be just two more items for me to have to remember and try not to misplace. Second, if you are walking along and an idea strikes you, do you just stop in mid-stride and write it down right there on the street? What if you happen to be crossing the street? Do you just stop traffic and hope not to be run down because you have an idea that just won’t wait. I think that if we drop everything, every time that we get an idea, we wouldn’t ever get anything else done. And third, have you ever jotted those ideas down while they were fresh, only to return to that same piece of paper later to find that the idea has gone cold, or what you wrote to remind you of what you were thinking at the time now makes you think, “Huh?” It happens. I have tried this method in the past. It’s like jotting down a phone number so you won’t forget it, but forgetting to attach a name. When you look at it later, you have no idea who’s phone number it is or why it was important enough that you felt you needed to remember it.
Maybe the answer is that the ideas that are lost weren’t that good anyway. I have to admit that there have been occasions when I raced home to write down an idea that struck me, only to discover when I begin to develop it, that it is really going nowhere. Over the recent past, I have had several setbacks in my life, that have made things seem to be not so good right now, but all my friends with good intentions keep telling me that everything happens for a reason, even if I can’t see what that reason is at the moment. So, maybe the idea overflow that gets lost in shuffle of my busy life, acts as a filter that filters out all the ideas that really aren’t that great to make room for the ones that are.
I would really like for this to be an interactive blog, so don’t be shy. Leave a comment. What do you think? Do you have writer’s block or writer’s overflow? How do you deal with it?