On New Blood, Next Books, & Tending the Well (and Self)

Turning in a book is like graduating, or making a purchase you have saved and scraped for, or (this writer imagines) achieving long-schemed revenge: victory followed by a fog of purposelessness. You go from hell-bent, immersed, and productive to…not in the time it takes to send an email. Then, slowly or with evil speed, the real demon rises:

What now?

The next book is a logical answer. But what if you aren’t one of those writers blessed with constant ideas as you go? What if to start a novel you, like me, need that one enchanting, concrete detail of something that sings to you so deeply you cannot help but write a story around it – and don’t have it yet?

You start looking. Digging. Mining for that glint of a diamond. But if the gems are half-cooked? If all you find is coal? You can carve and hack and try and try and try to cobble pieces together, reverse engineer something, and still come back empty-handed.

What now?

In writing, this is where you’d turn to showers or a walk or some activity, place your thoughts can go to simmer. But calling up the heart of a novel is thornier magic than summoning names or a plot fix, and doesn’t come from nothing. A potion is only as good as its ingredients, and if something’s stale or lacking, all the stirring in the world won’t make it act right. So how do you enrich the pot – or, as I am trying to work on – keep a fresh stock roiling in the background?

You add to it.

You pour new life into the well.

The creative well: that’s what I hear it aptly called. The confluence of our inputs, from the wealth of our own lives and experiences to those we curate: favorite shows and reading and music, what we do, live, consume. Writing this, I wonder if that’s not just the subconscious: that dreambed of parts and possibilities we all carry, ever soaking and swirling.

So why is it so damned hard to harness sometimes?

In my limited, but growing experience, I’ve found ideas need at least two things to manifest:

  1. influences – parts of stories, art, research, experience, pop culture, events, etc. that excite us – and
  2. leisure. The time, and a space where your mind is relaxed and not looking for ideas – but has the luxury to wander, consider and connect. Sometimes right into them.

So if I’m feeling creatively stagnant, I’ve learned, and aerating the cauldron isn’t working (hello fodder folders, short works, journals of meandering freewrites), it’s time to mix things up. That might mean reading more, a new show or music, going out of my way to do or see something that interests me. Like cooking, there are endless ways to make a dish, and sometimes it’s more about intuiting needs than the recipe. What am I missing? What do I crave more of? What would I like to try, or haven’t I tried before?

Recently, I turned in a draft and felt something greater lacking. I was hungry – and not just for a new podcast or genre. Incidentally, I kept seeing people talk about hobbies and the importance of pursuing something regularly, for fun, not related to your vocation. Play. And maybe that’s where the magic happens: when we free ourselves of constraints and expectation and do something just for us. At a minimum, I figured, a new activity would be refreshing – and maybe operating at a different wavelength would rake the well.

So I turned to art, my longest-neglected hobby. And currently I’m beginning something I have dreamed of for several years: making art on a tablet, and taking art-related classes on Skillshare. (See new banner!) Is it turning up new story leads? Not measurably, not yet. But it is:

  1. feeding the well, as I can listen to audiobooks, music, shows, podcasts, etc. while drawing
  2. a thing that occupies me and isn’t writing, which is where I tend to find ideas
  3. soul nourishment
  4. giving back to me. I’m learning something new, plus efforts yield visible fruit at the end of the day. I love that every finished piece is something you get to keep, share, enjoy — perhaps put to purpose (and I have one in mind – keep an eye out in the coming months, or catch glimpses of work over on Instagram & Twitter!)

But can we focus on those last two a minute? Number three in particular?

This post has taken weeks to write, because when I set out to, I think I felt this latent pressure to justify how this new venture I was pouring time and self into was helping my writing. But that’s just it – I think that’s the whole point. People, but perhaps especially creatives, need a non-work hobby that nourishes the soul, period. It shouldn’t have to help writing or whatever your vocation is. In fact, having no bearing on the writing is what makes it self-care, and therefore specifically by virtue of not helping writing IT IS HELPING WRITING, because it helps me function as a human being. It is grounding, meditation, an anchor when I need one. It is wonder and joy.

It is a thing that makes me okay with not yet knowing or throwing myself at my next passion project—

Which is exactly what I think I need to find it.

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Writing as Telepathy

I’ve recently finished reading Stephen King’s aptly-titled memoir, On Writing. As one would expect, Mr. King had some very interesting things to say on the subject.

Namely, that it’s magic.

If I hadn’t already returned the book to the library I’d quote it to you from the King himself, verbatim, but let me see if I can’t push up my sleeves and make a little magic of my own.

OH WAIT, I THINK I JUST DID.

You’re saying, “What? What just happened? Julie, I don’t understand!” Well, let me ask you this: did you not just envision the rolling up of sleeves? Hands clapping together, perhaps, and rubbing in anticipation?

(I certainly feel like a magician. “Is this your image?”)

Let’s try again. I’ll explain better and give a more thorough example this time.

When I was little I always wore something with a tutu for Halloween. One year I was a ballerina, the next a princess, and after that a fairy. The lace-up slippers came and went, as did the (plastic) jewel-studded crown and the wand, but integral to my costume each and every year was my bubblegum pink, mesh, flamboyant tutu.

Now. The tutu you are seeing might have several layers of frills; it might be stiff or fall silken like tulip petals; it could be sewn with pearl-colored sequins, or tied off with a great big bow.

But the fact remains that you are seeing a tutu.

Or if you weren’t, you are now.

This is a tutu that I envisioned in my head. I captured the images conjured in my mind and relayed them with words like “bubblegum pink” and “flamboyant”; with “frills,” “tulip petals,” and “tied off with a bow.” In writing, I emitted a magic signal. In writing, I sent those images to you.

Boom. Telepathy.

But when you think about it, it’s even better than telepathy. Telepathy is short-lived. With writing, hundreds of years from now (okay, let’s pretend for a moment people will still be interested in my blog, or that “blogging” will even exist) someone might read those very words and see the same image I projected; a figment originally dreamed up in my mind.

Magical, isn’t it.

Give it a go, if you’re up for it…send us an image by word!

Writing Challenge, Day 29: Good Idea, Bad Idea

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 29: What do you do while you write? Do you listen to music, watch TV, eat snacks, etc.?

This is a dangerous question. Paraphrased it might read “With what sparkly trivialities do you busy yourself whilst pretending to write?”

I like to think I can multi-task, but hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me may—

Wait, what were we talking about?

Oh yeah. “Doing while writing.” It can be done, but must be done with care—namely, in a way that ensures creativity and productivity rather than detour, distraction, and bouncing about (the room) (the house) (the internet) like a feral kid in a candy store. Does anyone remember the 90s and that Warner Brothers cartoon “Animaniacs”? They had this great little segment called “Good Idea, Bad Idea”. Here’s a refresher:

Now then, I’m going to play myself a jaunty round of Good Idea, Bad Idea as relates to writing conditions.

Good Idea, Bad Idea: While You Write Edition

Good Idea: Putting on an ambient, chill, or instrumental playlist.

Bad Idea: Pumping up the danceable jams with LMFAO, Franz Ferdinand, Foster The People, or anything you’re ashamed to admit you know all the words to: Ke$ha, Glee, Backstreet Boys, High School Musical, the soundtrack to Lion King…

Good Idea: Listening to music with a mood or tone similar to what you need for your piece.

Bad Idea: Listening to your favorite comedians crack jokes about Hot Pockets, toilet books, and Sir Mittington Romney.

Good Idea: Preparing a snack before writing.

Bad Idea: Stumbling onto Punchfork, finding six or seven new recipes to try, saving them to your computer, spending ten minutes debating which one to try first and then moving your laptop to the kitchen so you can bake blackberry-peach cobbler and write.

Good Idea: Getting up to stretch and walk at regular intervals.

Bad Idea: Getting up to do the laundry, tend the garden, meet a friend, see a movie, or hit the pub at regular intervals.

Good Idea: Looking up synonyms and new words.

Bad Idea: Looking up the latest Facebook updates, epic fails, and LOLcatz.