Ever feel like, no matter what you try, it’s just not happening?
A writer recently asked us: “What strategies do you employ when you just feel like it’s not happening? ‘Just sit down and do it’ works well most of the time, and I usually find (as with physical exercise) when I’m finished I can’t imagine not having done it. However, there are days when the inspiration can’t be found.”
There are a number of things I do that help with this situation when it comes to writing (but also related to getting projects done for work, exercising, eating healthy, having fun, and so on). Since a writer posed the question, I’ll relate my responses to writing mostly, but will also try to tie the ideas in to those other things as well.
I’ll start with a reworked concept that you’ve probably heard before. It’s the K.I.S.S. philosophy (but instead of Keep It Simple, Stupid, as the acronym was commonly bantered about when I was younger, we’re creatively reusing it to mean):
Kindness – in the sense of being affectionate and loving and sympathetic, but also in the sense of mindfully extending compassion. Kindness and Compassion are traits highly regarded when it comes to how you should treat others, but we sometimes forget that it’s equally important to treat ourselves this way.
“Treat yourself the way you would have others treat you.” ~ Susan Masters
Sometimes a gesture as seemingly insignificant as extending compassion to yourself can free up creative energy, as we tend to be hardest on ourselves. We tend to be judgmental with regards to our work – not just when it’s done, but while we’re writing, and sometimes before we even begin (this last phenomenon is a result of our judgment of ourselves – of self-doubt or a lack of confidence in our ability – which can happen, just so you know, to even the most successful of writers).
“Every time I start a novel, I think: “I don’t know how to write a novel. I don’t know how
to make it come alive. I don’t know how to tell a story. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
(New York Times Bestselling author Alice Hoffman who has published over 30 books to date)
The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Consider that it really is an act of kindness and compassion to just begin. To trust in the fact that confidence comes not from thinking about being more confident and not from outside of yourself. Rather, it comes from doing, from engaging yourself in the work and accepting what comes as a teaching. Rather than look at your work and think, “Not good enough,” ask, “What does this have to teach me?” This way you’re always growing. Confidence is a natural byproduct of growth. And it can start with a little self-compassion. A little kindness.
Setting a specific Intention is a very important element to creativity. But in order to be inspired, you need to identify what interests you, what you are drawn to or compelled to write.
I’m a quote person. I like finding pithy comments by wise people and applying them to my life. I came by the following quote from Rudyard Kipling quite by accident while working on this post:
“When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.”
Writers and creatives and students of mythology might recognize the word daemon from it’s mythological context meaning “spirit guides, forces of nature or the gods themselves,” that were benevolent or helpful. In this regard, think of your own daemon not as part of your conscious mind, not as part of the thinking self, as much as it is your felt or intuitive self, your spirit. Your muse, after all, that source of inspiration you sometimes wait for to show itself, is really an extension of you, it’s this part of your creative spirit.
Kipling’s point is often essential to successful writing (or to any sort of creating, goal reaching). The harder we try to think our way into a scene or a line of poetry (or through an obstacle) the more we may write a few words, shake our heads, start over, shake our heads, and end up spending half an hour (or half a day) with nothing much to show for it except raised levels of anxiety.
Move your body (go for a walk, do a few yoga poses), focus on your breathing, and things open up. That’s why, for me, setting Intentions is one of the most important steps. And when I say Intention, I don’t mean, “Well, I intend to write the blasted novel. Hello!” I mean, setting a specific intention. Maybe you started a new chapter yesterday with your protagonist, Simon. So your intention this morning is simple – I want to be willing to go wherever Simon wants to take me, or I want to be open to whatever Simon has to tell me. That intention becomes the idea you float towards. And you wait for whatever comes up. And you obey (i.e. you listen). You’ll be surprised at just how much you find once you do that.
One of the best ways I’ve found for sparking inspiration is by setting an intention. Bringing your attention to the breath and sinking into your body and out of the head is the first step to setting an intention. And now the rational mind is no longer manning the boat.
Effective ways of setting intentions is actually one of the things we work on with the people we coach and mentor. It allows you to then let go of the conscious thought and stop attempting to force your will on the writing, to dictate what comes next (you’ve put the seed in your mind so now allow yourself to float that way). Annie Dillard says that writing happens when (and where) the imagination meets memory, in that dark place called the unconscious mind. Setting an Intention is like entering a deep, dark ocean cave, shining a light on a spot across the way, then pushing off in that direction and allowing yourself to float, wait, obey.
That’s vastly different from merely floating along with no intention, going wherever fate might take you, as setting your intention allows you to have a say in where you’re headed and then it allows you to get out of your own way and see where your unconscious mind wants to take you.
Simplicity (this is the one part from that original K.I.S.S. acronym that I like to hold onto).
We can make things complicated in striving for perfection rather than for a specific outcome. Perfection isn’t specific . . . it’s subjective . . . it’s a judgement. Ironically, it often keeps you from creating something good (in part because it often keeps you from creating). There’s a time and a place for evaluating the awesomeness of your writing. That time and place is best left until after you’ve finished, at the editing table (even then perfection can be paralyzing). However, sometimes we think about all the books already out there, and a part of us sometimes thinks we need to be perfect in order to get there, if that’s the aim, and even if it’s not we sometimes feel a need for perfection (less mental and more emotional). As if only then will what we write have value. Trouble is – seeking perfection while you write sort of puts a stranglehold on creativity. It’s stifling, suffocating, strangling.
Perfection, after all, is concerned with the outcome, the product, the destination. Simplicity implies a path to an outcome. Step by step. And one way to do this is by shifting your focus.
Chances are you know whether or nor you’re a perfectionist. If you’re judging your work before you even write it or as you go. If you do either of these things and you find yourself struggling at times, then maybe you need to try something different. Each day you sit down to write, don’t focus on quality. Focus on quantity. Set yourself a goal of writing so many words for that day (and as with any goal, make sure it’s realistic). If you only get 15 minutes a day to write, then 1,000 words might be unrealistic and could result in every bit as much pressure as seeking perfection.
And remember, this shift in focus does not mean you won’t focus on quality. You most certainly will. After you get the words out. After your story has been told, your poem revealed.
I had the chance to Skype with a good friend (not to mention a talented writer and visual artist) earlier this week and it was the first time we’ve seen each other or chatted in a very long time. We discussed the Extraordinary Time Writer’s Retreat that Cathy, Terry and I will be having in August 2013 in New Harmony, but we also discussed our own writing projects and how both of us, for the first time, tried the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing a novel in one month.
We both found the experience to be empowering. In part because we were open to writing a novel that we weren’t all that committed to since the primary goal was to get out 50,000 words in thirty days (the focus was not on perfection). The focus was, quite simply, on writing whatever came to us related to whatever idea or character we were centering our novel around (related to whatever intention we set each day). With NaNoWriMo, the word count is the thing and Julie and I both found this experience to be very liberating. It also re-ignited a spark in her to return to an older project, as it reminded her of two very important things that we can sometimes lose sight of (especially when we try to be perfect) – she could, in fact, write a complete story all the way through and how much fun it was to be at the page (and how much fun it was to make myriad discoveries along the way).
Focusing on quantity first is simple – this many words each day without judgment. That goal is achieved and your confidence grows. Pretty soon you start to realize, I can do this. I can write.
Think of a sculpture (and Sculpt could be an additional S for our acronym). In particular, think of the sort of sculpture that’s made by starting with raw material and working it down, carving away the superfluous, the flawed, bringing out the beauty, revealing it, polishing it. Sure there are other ways to sculpt, but let’s just use the metaphor of starting with this raw material and working it until you bring out the special something inside. Focusing solely on word count allows you to get that raw material together. (And, if you need some sort of external push to feel motivated, you can use the NaNoWriMo model any month you want, or you can submit to writing contests that have deadlines and word counts – just break the total number of words down to a manageable daily amount and go).
You might just find this to be cathartic. And, if you’re like Julie, you might realize once you allow yourself to just get the story out without controlling it so much that the real story inside all that raw material isn’t the middle grade fantasy you thought it was going to be. Maybe it’s a young adult novel or a crossover historical novel, something you may have never realized if you hadn’t just let the words out. Because when we’re not trying to impose our will on our work, sometimes the characters speak up, sometimes they wave us down and say, “Hey, this is what I really think. This is who I really am. This is where I’m really headed.” If we give them a chance to take shape and if we allow ourselves to listen, we might just find something even more beautiful inside that raw material than we had ever expected.
Show yourself some kindness, set a specific intention each time you sit down as to what direction you want to go in, what you want to be open to as you write, and keep the measuring part simple by judging something like word count. For one thing, word count isn’t a reflection of you and your talent or your worth as a writer. Seeking perfection isn’t just a judgement of the value of the words you use, but of your ability to craft them. First craft the story. Then shape the words into something remarkable.
Once you have the words out you can go back and look at quality, section by section, with the full arc of the story in mind. Simplicity also suggests, as in the following quote by accomplished author Alice Hoffman, that it’s our judgement that often complicates things, that makes writing almost seem impossible some days. Word count, page count, form, these things are rather like the “expelliarmus” charms learned by Harry Potter and his friends, charms that disarm our opponent – the inner-critic. And that can make all the difference in the end.
“. . . the only way out for me was to start writing, and through the process of writing, something appeared. I decided I would write five pages a day and not look at them for three weeks. Part of having writer’s block is feeling it’s worthless or you’re worthless and you can’t do it right. [You have to tell] yourself, “I’m just going to write, and I’m not going to look at it. I’m not going to judge it” (Alice Hoffman).
The final S is the word Slack (but not in the way you might initially think, not the adjective as in negligent, but as in not tight or taut; not the verb as in to shirk or avoid work, but as in to release tension or loosen; and not the noun as in a cessation of movement or flow, but as in something that hangs loose without strain, as in additional relief from pressure).
We mean Slack as in allow for some slack in the line . . . as in slacken. Consider the metaphor of a rope tethering you to a spot and the rope is so tight that you can’t move, not one bit. In order to write, to create, you need to be able to move, not just your body as alluded to earlier, but also your mind, you emotional energy, your spirit. Einstein stated, “Nothing happens until something moves.” When we’re stuck we need to move. As writers we can get so tight, so bound up in this tug-of-war scenario between all or nothing. So, if we can add some slack to the rope, if we can add some play to the line by playing, we often find ourselves free enough to create, to become quite productive.
Here are three simple ways we’ve found to slacken that rope and to, quite literally, add some “play” to the writing life:
- Try a prompt (one that allows you to explore or attempt something new about or with your characters or your story)
- Take a hike outside (nature is therapeutic and can be helpful to a writer is too many ways to list here, but will appear in another post for sure, but consider for starters that it helps you reconnect with your senses)
- Turn on some music and let your body respond to the rhythms any way it wants – this way you’re practicing getting out of your own way
Try our K.I.S.S. method and see if it doesn’t help you spend more time at the page and get more out of the time you spend there. But don’t evaluate the latter until you get all of whatever you’re writing out.
The nice thing about K.I.S.S. is that you don’t have to do all the parts to make it work (though I’d strongly recommend your trying them all). Start with one. Some parts will work better for you and other parts will work better for someone else. You might just rely on one of these things regularly if it speaks to you and allows you to open up and be receptive and write. That’s the goal, after all. Just write.
“Ah yes,” wrote Edward Abbey, “the head is full of books. The hard part is to force them down through the bloodstream and out through the fingers.”
The important thing is that we need to get out of our heads to write . . . it’s got to come through the body, the bloodstream, the fingers . . . and kindness, intention, simplicity, and allowing for some slack in the rope of creating is a way to do that.
Photo credit – Drew Coffman – permission acquired via creative commons agreement.