Category Archives: creativity

Creativity in times of despair

Lindy West summed it up rather astutely in the opening paragraph of her 14 Feb column titled, “The first 25 days of Trump have been a zoetrope of galloping despair” [The Guardian]:

“Today, during my morning routine of opening my laptop, clicking on literally anything, and just screaming and screaming, I made the astonishing discovery that Donald Trump has only been president of the United States for about three weeks. Which is weird, because I could have sworn we had fallen through a tesseract into the airless crush of a two-dimensional void at least seven eternities ago, or what would have constituted seven eternities if such a place had a linear concept of time. Turns out, though, it has only been 25 days, we are still on earth, and every cell in my body has not been excruciatingly flattened into pure math. It just feels like it.”

No, I’m not going to get all political over here. Not today, anyway. But I do want to talk about the effect all this upheaval is having on me, and on almost every writer I know. This feeling of being emotionally crushed or creatively flattened and unable to write.

It’s a problem I’ve been hearing about both publicly and privately on an increasing basis since the inauguration. Several well-known authors have addressed it in blog posts– some of their advice has resonated with me and some has fallen flat. That’s to be expected. We’re all in different places in our lives and careers. But the underlying assertion is that stories are vitally important, and there’s no denying that.

We all know, often first-hand, how stories can make an important difference for people going through overwhelmingly difficult times. We’ve all heard accounts of how the escapism or optimism of fiction has literally saved people from despair.

But what happens when writers are among those who need to be saved? How do we continue to create when we’re the ones overwhelmed and not feeling up to the task?

I realize that right now some of you are thinking, Well aren’t you all just speshul creative snowflakes. Buck up and do your job like the rest of us. And, well, maybe you’ve got a point. Maybe.

Except . . . doing a job where you create something out of nothing but imagination IS different. I know, because I’ve done those other jobs too. Answering the phone, waiting on customers, wielding a shovel or a hammer, typing a legal brief . . . hard work, yes. But a completely different kind of effort.

It’s tough enough to be creative when you’re feeling normal– well, as normal as writers ever are. But when you’re feeling outraged or hopeless? Helpless? Oh, man. It’s almost impossible to maintain the belief that what you’re doing matters. That it even should matter, in the face of more dire things. It’s so damn hard to tamp down the anger and pessimism and cynicism — and yes, the fear — to focus on writing stories that will entertain by somehow being clever or funny or romantic or scary or even just delightfully different. All those things you’re not feeling and don’t think you can fake.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. It can. I’m still doing it, or trying to, albeit more slowly. But it isn’t easy. Not for most writers I know, anyway, and certainly not for me. I’ve had to devise strategies to try to achieve some daily balance, to invent a new normal in my life. I’ve had to make several adjustments to my routine in the past few weeks, so hope and creativity aren’t being continually crushed into oblivion.

Here are some things that have helped, for me:

1. Limit time spent on social media. I’d like to ignore all SM entirely, forever. But I can’t actually do that and still call myself an informed citizen, something that’s important to me. But my curiosity and [so-called] self-restraint are such that I’m quickly down the rabbit hole, reading that in-depth article about sea urchins that I randomly decided was fascinating, and then two hours later realize I’ve also read a political history of the Ukraine (talk about upheaval) and bookmarked five new ways to prepare salmon and have watched perhaps twice that number of cat videos. And, yeah, read a half dozen political articles. *sigh*

So I decided I needed a timer. I really wanted an hourglass, because it just seems like such an interesting thing to have and I know a couple writers who use one . . . except I’d constantly be looking at it to see whether the sand had run out, or ignoring it entirely since they’re silent, and that’s not exactly productive. So I got this thing (quarter for scale, but it’s about 2 inches each side):

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I love it. It’s so simple to use, it’s genius. To activate, you turn it so the amount of time is on top and it beeps (loudly, unlike sand) when time is up. To stop it, turn it so the zero is on top. The one I got has settings for 5/15/30/60 minutes. There’s a little digital screen on the bottom doing a countdown, but I never look at it.

The key is to remember to use it. I set it before I venture over to twitter or facebook or my blog feed and I STOP WHEN TIME IS UP. Knowing I have limited time makes me read faster (or skim) and stops me from wandering off. Mostly.

Also, because sometimes just getting started is the tough part, I’ve used the timer a couple times to convince myself to write for “just 15 minutes.” After which I turn it off and keep writing, obviously.

2. Re-arrange the workday. This is related to limiting time spent online. I used to check email and news and blog feeds and social media first thing, then write in the evening and into the wee hours. This was no longer working for me, even with using a timer. The outrage was accumulating to new levels every day and messing with my head and my creativity. And probably my blood pressure. So I flipped my schedule.

There are still a couple things I check at the start of the day, in case someone needs me urgently or there’s a more than twenty percent chance of mushroom clouds, but the vast majority of that is now relegated to the end of the day, after I’m done writing.

I haven’t completely adjusted to this new schedule — it is NOT easy — but on the days I manage it, it’s really sort of amazing how peaceful life can be. Sure, crap still happens and I miss hearing about it right away. But that’s okay. *twitch* Really. Not like I’m the one in charge of stopping it or fixing it or anything. Unfortunately.

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3. News curation. Probably most of you have already seen this site, “What the fuck just happened today?” There are days I just want a quick summary of the mayhem, and this is a good resource for that. I appreciate that there are links to news sources if I’m feeling all masochistic and want more detail. Again, setting the timer is invaluable.

4. Pacemaker Planner. No, not the medical device for your heart. This is a tool for planning and tracking your writing. It also has settings for exercise and finances, for you non-writers. I’m finding it helpful in setting a goal and focusing on it. Accountability at a glance. It’s easy to see whether I’m falling behind and need to step up the pace, or if perhaps my projections were unrealistic and need adjustment. Plus, the graphs are just cool.

I created a sample to see how it works, and below are a couple screenshots. I set a goal of 25K words between 21 Jan and 10 Feb, with a provision that I wasn’t going to write at all when my daughter was here the weekend of 4-6 Feb (there are a lot of options; adjustments are easy to make). The blue line shows consistent distribution of words-per-day to meet the goal. The green line represents words written each day (these are made-up numbers).

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Here’s the same info, but using the option of the blue line changing so you know how many words you need to write daily to meet the deadline, given what you’ve written.

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Here are a couple more screenshots showing a different sort of timeline, one that will look familiar to NaNo participants. Again, the first one uses the option of keeping the original target blue line and the other one changes it with input.

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The basic plan is free to use, but I signed up for a paid subscription. There are a few additional features with the paid version, but that’s not why I got it. I just think it’s important to pay creative people, even if — no, especially if — they’re generous enough to put their work out there for free.

They’re currently running a special promo for an annual subscription (link to blog post with discount code), good through March 31. If for some reason that link doesn’t work, I got a code when I signed up, which they encourage people to share, so let me know in the comments or via email and I’ll give it to you.

NOTE: I am not in any way affiliated with any people or products mentioned in this post. I don’t get a commission or even a pat on the back for sending potential customers to these sites.

5. Maintain focus on physical health. Yeah, all those boring but necessary things like balanced nutrition and staying hydrated and moving body parts other than my fingers on a somewhat regular basis. Going outside to breathe some fresh air, feel the sunshine on my face. Getting enough sleep, taking naps if needed.

It seems too obvious to even mention this stuff, but I often need the reminder. Just because I want to curl up into a little ball and hide under the covers doesn’t mean it’s a sensible long-term plan. And a long-term perspective is important.

6. Have faith in history. Or humanity. Or something. As catastrophic as current events seem, these are not historically the worst times we’ve ever known. Nor will they be the last of the worst times we’ll ever know, sadly.

Oppression relies on widespread deception and social isolation and fear of the unknown, all of which have become almost impossible to achieve, let alone maintain, in the internet age. Never mind the eventual futility of employing those tactics in a country that cut its teeth on rebellion and principles of freedom and equality. Our collective memory is not impaired.

We haven’t been told we are not allowed to write or create. Yet. But imagine we have been, if that helps, and imagine how that would spur motivation. History is rife with examples of people who found a way to create in spite of chaos and tyranny. There’s strength in the knowledge that bringing beauty or laughter or diversion into the world is as much an antidote as an act of defiance. And there’s hope in realizing that sometimes we just need to outlast the bastards. To take care of ourselves so we’re able to do the hard work of fixing things once they’re gone. To hold tightly to the certainty that they will indeed, one day, be gone.

Speaking of which, my timer just went off. Good thing, as I’m bordering on the political when I said I wouldn’t. Time to get up and move.

Quickly, to wrap up, those are a few strategies I’ve found helpful in trying to maintain sanity and creativity in uncertain times. If you’re struggling similarly, whether you’re a writer or not, maybe some of them will work for you as well. If you have other tried-and-true suggestions, I’d be more than happy to hear about them in the comments.

 

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Ten years ago . . .

In September of 2006, I signed up for a Google ID and somehow also ended up with a blog of my own. I had no intention of writing a blog and this was the entirety of my first post:

“Not sure how I ended up with a blog, I didn’t ask for one. Blogger must think I have something to say here.
Blogger is mistaken.
Go read something else.”

And I meant it. I was not going to start blogging. I didn’t have time for that. I was convinced I had nothing to say, never mind knew anyone who would read it.

Pffft. As if that was going to stop me. A mere two weeks later, I wrote another post that began:

“All this white space has been bothering me, you know. It’s just sitting over here waiting for words. So I’m thinking maybe this blog is good for something after all.”

I would not have believed anyone who told me then I’d still be blogging ten years later. And enjoying it.

But I’ve been writing over here, on a somewhat regular basis, ever since. I switched to WordPress after three years with Google (best decision ever) and the stats say I’ve published 307, now 308 posts. Seems like way more than that. Then again, at an average of 1,000 words per post (yes, I do go on, and on, and on) that’s well over 300,000 words.

I’ve made friends, good friends, by way of this blog. And also by commenting on other blogs. Some of those friends have wandered off, as people do. Disinterest, busyness, death. The latter are the tough losses. The people who live on only in your memories. And your heart.

Margaret. Louis. Bryan.

Gone too soon.

But some of the people who have simply wandered off and no longer read my blog, or who do so only rarely, have remained good friends. A handful of them came to visit me, and each other, last week. We had lunch for five hours and it seemed too short. A few came bearing gifts, including this gorgeous orchid, which I have not yet (it’s only been a week) managed to kill.

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The instructions say to give it three ice cubes, once a week. You’d think I’d be able to manage something that specific. Far more helpful than the advice “don’t overwater.” I’m cautiously optimistic.

After ten years of writing blog posts, I feel as if I should be able to impart some similarly specific advice or wisdom. Other than the obvious, “Don’t try to post every damn day, it will destroy your will to live.”

What makes for a successful blog? Hell, I don’t know. I stopped caring about the “success” of this blog so long ago, it’s not even a distant memory. That’s not why I do it.

My thoughts keep returning to Brené Brown and her TED talks about the power of vulnerability, and understanding shame, and how those things are important, even necessary, for creativity. For establishing connection.

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And I think, if there’s any measure of success to communicating on the internet — via blogs or twitter or facebook, or even through fiction — it’s that. The connections you make with other people.

Speak your truth. Even if people ignore or disagree with you, maybe especially if they do. Be vulnerable. Find your connections.

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And if the world gives you a blank space, fill it. Be courageous. Create the thing that only you can create. However long it takes.

 

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It always matters to someone. Always.

I just heard that today, April 27, is Tell a Story Day. So, in honour of that, here’s a little story-within-a-story.

Some of you reading this blog are writers and know how it feels to tell a story. For those of you who are not writers, this is a pretty accurate representation:

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It’s difficult to know, when you’re in the process of writing, whether a story is any good. It’s actually pretty easy to believe that no one will want to read it, or that people who do read it will wonder what you were even thinking when you decided you could do that. And sometimes, all that self-doubt becomes overwhelming and you begin to suspect you’ve lost the ability to tell a story at all. If you ever had it.

When I started writing this A to Z Challenge story, I said I was doing it to kick-start myself out of a creative slump. And that’s true. But the full truth is that I’d managed to convince myself I couldn’t write fiction. That any ability I had to tell a story had disappeared. It’s a scary feeling.

So I decided to write something this month that “didn’t matter.” Something completely outrageous and ridiculous and out of the ordinary, something I’d never done before. So, if I failed, I could shrug and say, “Oh well, it was ridiculous anyway.” My expectations for it to even make sense were very low.

I didn’t expect it to be so much fun. And I certainly didn’t expect all the lovely comments or the “likes” or the new blog followers I’ve gathered along the way. Every single one has been a delightful gift.

So, while I still have your attention, I wanted to say thank you. I’ve had a blast rediscovering my ability to tell a story, and it has been a privilege to have you all along for the ride on this unlikely adventure.

Several people have encouraged me to publish this story (someplace other than my blog) once it’s done. And probably I will. I can’t imagine this story is the kind of thing an agent or publisher would be interested in taking on, so most likely I’ll go the self-pub route again. [Did you know I have other books? They’re listed here.]

That will only happen after I complete the edit/re-write process, during which the story will no doubt get longer. Maybe even more ridiculous. Who knows.

If any of you are interested in hearing that news — and I totally understand if you’re not — I’ll announce it first via my mailing list. You should sign up! My intention is to only send out notices when new fiction is available, so you won’t be signing up for spammy ramblings of what I ate for breakfast or how the cat is doing. I limit that kind of stuff to my blog.

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Okay, so that’s it for my small contribution on Tell a Story Day. Now on to the bigger task of telling a story during the month of April.

I think I’ve almost decided on a word for the letter X and probably should start writing that post. I wonder what’s going to happen next . . .

 

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The A to Z Challenge, or I’ve Lost My Mind

[Note: I’m making this a sticky post for April, so new visitors will know what’s going on. Scroll down to the next post for the most recent entry. Edit to add: If you don’t feel like scrolling, here’s the link to the first part of the story (there will be 26 parts, eventually): A is for Avalanche]

I’ve been in a creative rut lately. No, not that kind of rut. More of a slump. I’m sure there are many complex reasons for this and probably I should go talk to a psychologist and spend months, perhaps years, getting in touch with my deepest . . . whatever.

But what fun is that?

A2Z-BADGE 2016-smaller_zpslstazvibInstead, I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. My creativity has always been fueled by laughter and silliness, and I’ve become much too serious and focused on the need for “perfection” in my writing. Like that’s ever going to happen. So I’ve entered the A to Z Challenge for April 2016. You can click that link for details, but the idea is to post a blog entry every day in April, excluding Sundays, each featuring a word beginning with a (consecutive) letter of the alphabet.

I considered just picking random words and writing a short thing about each one, but that didn’t seem particularly interesting or challenging. Or sufficiently terrifying. So I’ve decided to tell a story. I have no idea what this story is about or who’s in it or even where it’s set. I don’t know the genre or anything about the plot. It’s likely the length, and coherency, of the posts will vary wildly. I’m totally winging it.

Oh dear god, what the hell am I even thinking. But that’s sort of the point– to stop thinking so damn much.

I anticipate this will be a rousing success. Or it will be a complete and utter disaster and I’ll have to delete my entire blog — yes, all of it — and go into hiding. Or maybe it’ll just be a lot of fun and highly entertaining.

Don’t expect this story to make sense and we all should be fine. Probably.

If you’d like to help “guide” the story along, feel free to suggest a word or two in advance. I suspect I’m going to need all the help I can get. We start tomorrow with A.

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It’s hard to “bleed on the page” when you’re actually bleeding

I don’t think physical pain has ever made me cry. Emotional pain, yes. And sure, when I was a little kid and fell off my bike, probably I cried. But I’ve had a lot of physical pain in my life since then and I can’t recall that it has ever made me cry. I’m not claiming to be tough. Total wimp, here. Pain just doesn’t provoke that response in me.

Which is sort of funny, if you know me well, because everything makes me cry. Those commercials where the Clydesdales unexpectedly come home from college with their renegade golden retriever puppy friends in tow and wake up their mom when they brew beer for their under-age siblings on Christmas morning and it’s snowing outside? Yep, total waterworks. My kids often joke that I’ll even cry over a bad weather forecast. I’m not quite that bad, but it’s close.

Well, it’s been several weeks, almost a month now since the knee replacement surgery, and I’ve had some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. Yes, the narcotic pain meds helped, a lot, but it’s been pretty bad.

Not once did it make me cry, or even want to cry. Instead, my reaction has been to shut down and withdraw, in every way possible. To build impenetrable walls. Dealing with this pain has required every molecule of my concentration and focus. The kind of focus where you don’t want anyone to even talk to you, lest it break the concentration needed to endure.

Giving myself a shot in the stomach (anti-coagulant) one a day for 14 days didn't help.

Giving myself a shot in the stomach (anti-coagulant) once a day for 14 days didn’t help.

But it’s not tears I’ve been holding back. It’s temper. Anger. An irrational welling of primal rage. Like a wounded animal with no capacity for reason, wanting to lash out at everyone and everything around me, never mind that they had no part in causing the pain, never mind that I signed up for this pain. But I’m not a snarling feral beast, so I’ve reined in even that strongest of emotions.

I suppose that sounds overly dramatic. Yeah, well, it has felt pretty dramatic around here at times.

The White Ninja, wondering whether she'll ever be allowed to sit in my lap again.

The White Ninja wondering whether she’ll ever be allowed to climb on my lap again.

There’s a saying attributed to military types that I’ve always disliked, because it’s utter fucking bullshit. Probably you know the one I mean: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” As if pain somehow makes a person stronger. No, the hell it does not.

But for the first time, I sort of understand where this saying comes from. Pain, extreme pain, makes you shut down your emotions. And it makes sense to me that military types equate emotion with weakness. So I can see how, from their perspective, getting rid of emotion is getting rid of weakness.

For a writer, though, emotions are strength. Facing emotion, exploring it, poking at and manipulating it, is a necessity. It requires extraordinary mental fortitude.

In his book, STEIN ON WRITING, Sol Stein says this about the difference between fiction and non-fiction:

“Let us state the difference in the simplest way.
Nonfiction conveys information.
Fiction evokes emotion.”

To me, this is a fundamental truth. People read and enjoy and, most importantly, remember great fiction because of how it makes them feel.

Sure, we can quibble over the black and white of this premise, that fiction can also impart information and do all sorts of things other than just evoke emotion. I won’t argue that point, because of course it does. But the primary purpose of storytelling is to evoke emotion. Different genres, different emotions; all the same purpose.

As a writer, I feel those emotions first. When I write a scene that I hope will make a reader feel sad or angry or afraid, I’m going to be crying or fuming or trembling while I write it. This is the reason certain parts of a book are so difficult to write. I’m putting my characters through an emotional wringer, but I’m right there with them.

I imagine there are writers who are more experienced or more talented than I am who can accomplish this in their work without feeling those emotions. Without feeling vulnerable. I wish it worked that way for me. It doesn’t.

So it’s a bit of a problem, as a writer, when you’re in pain and your emotions are locked down tighter than– a thing that is tight [this is my brain on drugs, kids]. In a first or even a second draft, this wouldn’t matter quite as much. For me, the early drafts are just putting characters where they’re supposed to be and seeing what happens. It’s very dialog driven. I make vague notes about internal stuff like what they’re thinking and how it probably makes them feel. I add that stuff in later, along with physical description.

I suck at this, especially physical description. “They were in the woods. There were trees. Yeah, lots of trees. And stuff.”

Sigh.

Sadly, the two projects I’m working on are no longer at the draft stage where I can get away with saying, “And then there were emotions. And stuff.” They’re at the stage where I need to be vulnerable. That doesn’t come easily to me, even under the best circumstances. I need to be able to feel what the characters feel in order for it to have any hope of coming across as authentic to the reader. And I haven’t been able to do that. Honestly, I haven’t even tried in the past month. Actually, for longer than that, as I started to shut down emotionally even before surgery. In self-defense. Anticipating pain.

While there are still ups and downs, I’m finally getting to the point in recovery where the pain is no longer the all-consuming, steal-your-breath-away, hold-very-still-and-concentrate ordeal that it was the first few weeks. I’m also making good progress on weaning myself off the narcotic pain meds, which didn’t make me loopy after all. They just make me sleepy (and unable to come up with blog-appropriate similes). I’ve been taking all sorts of impromptu naps.

The really interesting part of recovery and physical therapy has been the insistence that I try things I don’t think I’m ready to try. Within hours after surgery, a pair of drill sergeants deceptively pleasant therapists came into my hospital room and said “we” were going to stand up and maybe walk a bit. I wanted to laugh and say, “Yeah, right. You’re welcome to try, but this ain’t gonna happen.” But I stood up and they shoved a walker in front of me and we by god walked right out of that room and down the hall to the window and back. Of course, I was still drugged to the gills and wouldn’t have felt any pain if they’d curled me up and rolled me down the hall like a bocce ball at the beach, but still. I did it.

They sent me home the day after surgery, which I still find a bit mind-boggling considering what they did to me. Below is a print out of the actual x-ray of my actual knee, two weeks post-surgery, moments after they removed 37 actual metal staples from the incision. That was fun. Apparently, HIPPA rules say I can’t take a picture of an x-ray, even if it’s of my own body part. Hence the print out.

That horizontal

That white horizontal line isn’t anything cool, like maybe a laser beam; it’s a fold in the paper.

Yes, I have pics of the incision at various stages. No, I’m not going to post them.

I was ready to stay in the hospital an entire week, simply because the food was that good. I’m not kidding. It was fantastic and I didn’t even have to clean up the kitchen afterward. But they said I’d made remarkable progress and was ready to go home. They were right.

Lunch:

Lunch: tender grilled chicken, herb roasted potatoes, steamed zucchini slices, fresh fruit (not shown)

The in-home PT has been more of the same. The woman I’ve been working with is tough and insistent, without being mean. There’s no way I could do that job. Not effectively. I’m full of admiration and gratitude. She, too, is amazed by my progress and has pushed me way past what I thought were my limits.

Two instances stand out. The first one was an exercise to strengthen my hamstring muscle. It’s something I simply couldn’t have done, pre-surgery, as damaged as my knees are. I’ve had ample experience with how much that particular movement hurts. The second was walking down a set of stairs, leading with my non-surgical still-messed-up leg and relying on the so-called strength of the one they’d sliced to bits, mere weeks ago. The one that was still hurting and not even close to being fully healed.

I gave the PT a dubious look, but not trying wasn’t even an option. I am nothing if not determined.

Both times, I braced myself physically and emotionally for what I was sure was going to be excruciating pain. Pain that I knew, from years and years of frustrating experience, was going to happen. Both times, no doubt in my mind, this was going to fucking hurt.

It didn’t.

And with that realization, both times, I fought back tears.

I think I’m almost ready to get back to writing.

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