Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How to Draw from an Empty Bucket

By Laura Mahal

We all have days when we feel like what we write isn’t fit to graffiti a bathroom stall or an abandoned railcar. We enter the dreaded doldrums. Perhaps we have paper-mach├ęd ourselves with poor reviews or innumerable rejections, without the occasional: “Wow. Your writing is exceptional…” to lift us back up.

Beyond the world of writing, sometimes life is raw-boned hard. Nothing comes together easily. Plans fall awry. There are too many funerals, and not enough weddings. We face health challenges or unsought career changes. Life spins too quickly and we can’t catch our breath.

How on earth is a writer to break through when we have well and truly broken down? When retiring the old pen and paper seems a viable option? Or stomping on the laptop is much more than tempting? Creativity requires energy. Energy which can quickly be sapped by the competing demands on our time, emotional bank, and self-esteem.

Here are a few of my favorite strategies. 

Whine to fellow writers. 

Your steadfast compatriots will either (a) show compassion and commiserate for a day or two (b) encourage you, by reminding you of your immense talents or (c) advise you to buck up and carry on. Jacqueline Winspear once said she had no patience for writers’ block. Those women and men who survived the Great War had no choice but to chive on. It is our responsibility to do so, as well.

Read, read, read some more. 

Read your favorite authors, whose words comfort you like a mother’s nursery rhyme. Read books you think are awful. (“I can do better!”) Read books that make your jaw drop. (“I could never write this well.”) Then decode what that author did to wow you. Pull out a couple of strategies and tool around with them for forty-five minutes.

Write something other than what you normally do. 

If YA or literary fiction is your modus operandi, try crafting an essay on a timely topic or social issue. Research recalls my investigative side and allows my hyper-critical self a rest. Poetry is an excellent channel for emotion we might not realize is trapped inside. If you’re a poet, rather than determine your recent pieces are crap, you might want to venture into uncharted territory. Develop a spy novel or begin an epic fantasy.

Consider writing only for your closest friends. 

Your work is likely to be filled with authentic but raw emotion, conveying so much power that you might overwhelm the casual reader. It may take time to ascertain whether these can be honed into something polished at a later point. I’d advise against posting such pieces on social media, a blog, or any place where they essentially become irretrievable.

Don’t judge yourself or your writing. 

If you have a natural editorial-instinct, post a note next to your screen, written in red: “Now’s not the time.” This graciousness to self is more important than you may realize. By channeling the core of a human being in the grips of struggle, you are tapping into something universal. This will inevitably render your writer deeper – your work more well-rounded. The time to curb excess will come when things stabilize.

Keep writing. 

This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Resist any temptation to lay down the pen or lock the keyboard. You are keeping in practice, even if you are reduced to maintenance-mode. Writing is nearly always curative for me. I hope you will find the same to be true for you.

Ask for help. 

Leave your glass castle for a few hours. Phone a friend. Go out to lunch. Recalibrate by observing the world, and your reactions to it. Delve into your emotion to better understand it, or else give it a firm shove and simply have fun for an afternoon.

I'd love to hear your strategies for those times your bucket is empty. 

Write on!


David Sharp said...

Lots of great advice! Thanks for sharing.
I don't have anything to add personally, but I remember Diana Gabaldon talking about starting with a 'kernel' around which she could build a scene. And she could find kernels by looking at pictures of historic artifacts or catalogs or whatever.
Of course, I'm sure you could elaborate on that since I'm pretty sure I saw you at the Diana Gabaldon event, and I didn't get to hear the whole presentation.

April Moore said...

Such sage advice, Laura. I really like the idea of writing for your closest friends--it creates a sacredness to it. You remind us there are so many places and ways to refill the bucket; no excuses!

Appin Otter said...

Thanks, David and April. I am honored to have friends with whom I can reach out during those periods of inevitable struggle that all writers (and human beings) face. As to Diana Gabaldon, yes, she was indeed kind enough to share some of the nuggets of wisdom she has learned along the way. 1.) A single line of dialogue can drum up an "emotional ambiance" that can be used as "grist to a writer's mill." 2.) People's minds do not work the same way, so remember if you are to read a book on writing, that author is explaining how he or she writes. 3.) Pick a point and get started. It is fine to digress. 4.) Involve movement of some kind in every paragraph. "People are primed to pay attention to movement." A reader's eye will go down the page seeking action. 5.) Don't second-guess yourself. You "can't revisit your younger self and make corrections."

Often, we cannot control our environment. As the expression goes, "Life happens." But we can choose strategies to advance our writing and forge ahead. Leaning on an understanding shoulder certainly helps. Even if the aforementioned shoulder is a blog post reader halfway 'round the world! (Or Jamie Fraser? Diana Gabaldon fans can certainly dream:-)

Jim McManus said...

Thanks for the words of wisdom Laura. I keep thinking there is a book swimming around in my brain that is overflowing with mind blowingly useless trivia. One of these days.....

Laura Mahal said...

Jim, I suspect if you were to write down many of the ideas that have been floating around for a while, a theme would emerge that might take you by surprise. The "pecking" inside our heads generally reflects a need for those thoughts to land in the universe, either for your sake, or for someone else's ... Aspects of what you've learned along the way may provide incredible insight to others. If you do put pen to paper, I'd for one be glad to read your first draft! Cheers.

Louise Frager said...

Lots of good thoughts
You have connected with what most writers go through at some time or other

One thing I have found helpful is talking to people to get their stories, search out people from all walks of life, listen, incorporate bits and pieces
there are always so many ideas it would be impossible to deal with them all

I like to sit on the porch late at night, with lights off and a beer at hand and let my mind wander over different scenarios, sometimes a whole idea, sometimes a phrase or word, but all thoughts that have been waiting to speak to me

Laura Mahal said...

How lovely, Louise! I bet your openness draws others to you. (You've wisely realized that sitting on the porch with the lights off keeps the moths away :-) It is interesting how many folks have reached out to share their stories since the post went up yesterday. Perhaps we have been taught to shunt our emotions when we are feeling "down" - to "dig deep" and "buck up" and "drive on." Not that those strategies don't have their place; surely, they do. But occasionally, one may need to fall apart before stitching one's self back together. Perhaps with a reinforced seam. And possibly some decorative fringe :-)

I appreciate your reminder to "listen" - both to those who need an ear, and also to the "thoughts that have been waiting to speak to [you]". Best of luck with your writing. I can tell that heart flows throughout your work!

Katherine Valdez said...

Thanks for the wise advice, Laura! I agree with April. Love the suggestion of writing for your closest friends. - Katherine,

Laura Mahal said...

Thanks, Kat. When I write for friends, there is almost a raw purity to the work. It does give a heartfelt feel to one's writing when we are willing to share a bit of our essence!

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