Notecard that reads 'Today has mostly been about frustrations and disappointment :('

Photo by Sarah Barker on Flickr.

I’m no stranger to creative slumps. Every year, I crash at least once, wonder why I write at all, and take a few weeks off. It eventually pases, all is well again, and I get back to work.

But not this year! This year has been terrible. I finished the edit of my most recent project earlier this year. (The edit itself took a year and a half. It was grueling.) Then I started querying. Querying was depressing, so I started outlining my next project. Everything went wrong.

The story I most wanted to work on was missing everything between the beginning and climactic battle–like, you know, a world for the rest of the story to happen in, characters who weren’t the protagonist and antagonist, and a plot. Uhhhhh…

So I tried another story–the sequel to the one I was querying. Nope. I’ve got a theme and a city, but not a plot. That… wasn’t helpful.

Then I went back to a story I wrote during NaNoWriMo. I already had 70,000 words down, so it had to be be easier to fix, right? It was half written! And… no. It was the wrong story, with the wrong villain. How did I even do that? I needed to start over. I probably couldn’t save anything.

And after months of bouncing between these stories, I had nothing to show for it. A stack of notecards, a few outlines on the wall, and… nothing. The year was more than half over and I had nothing to show for it.

So I sat down for my daily hour of writing time, determined to do something. And then that went wrong, too.

I have a bad habit of downplaying any work I do that isn’t “productive” enough.

I have a bad habit. I associate “productivity” with producing words. I’m not the worst about it, admittedly. I think all sorts of things are a good use of my time, even if they aren’t strictly “writing.” I feel good when I:

  • Add words to an outline
  • Create character sheets or worldbuilding documents
  • Edit old content
  • And, of course, just write an actual story.

But I wasn’t doing any of that. None of these stories had plots, remember?

What I really needed to do was brainstorm. And that was the problem. Brainstorming feels unproductive.

When I write or outline something, I can measure my progress: I wrote words. Yay! But if I spend an hour brainstorming, I can’t guarantee I’ll do anything. Maybe I’ll come up with an idea. Maybe I won’t! Maybe I’ll spend hours thinking and not come up with anything usable at all!

And I hate that.

I wrote 200,000 words last year–and now it’s August 2018 and I’ve only written a fraction of that. I need an idea now so I can write something now, and I need to get past the brainstorming and into the actual writing or I won’t produce anything at all this year and–

So I kept settling on any idea–anything at all!–that felt good enough that I could start working on it. Nothing’s perfect, right? I can fix it later, can’t I?

And… no. No. That’s terrible. Why did I do that? Why did I do it more than once? I kept glomming onto bad ideas and, unsurprisingly, deciding they were terrible a few days or weeks later. Then I’d toss them out, feel even more like I was wasting my time, and do it again.

Weeks passed. I was even angrier at myself. None of this was working.

I had to redefine what a “productive use of my time” was.

I needed to stop doing this. But how?

First off, I had to detangle this awful, messy, stupid knot of feelings. I was measuring my worth in a binary way: either I produced an idea, outline, or story and was good, or I spent an hour coming up with nothing and was bad. I was forcing myself to produce ideas on demand and beating myself up when I couldn’t.

I needed to reframe my thoughts. I started by trying to identify what was good about what I was doing:

  • Time spent thinking about a story is useful, even if I don’t come up with a solution to a problem. I should consider a brainstorming session as valuable as a writing session–it’s still time actively spent thinking about a story.
  • Word count is not the only measure of a good or active writer. A day where I spent time working on a story is a productive day. Period.
  • If my current brainstorming style isn’t working, I should try something new. Mixing it up could help.
  • And I really needed to pay less attention to my word counting sheet. I love it dearly, but if I’m brainstorming, I have no meaningful way to record that. It’s just a “zero word” day, which looks terrible. I had to think of another way to feel like I was doing something.

So I gave it a shot.

Little by little, I took some of the pressure of myself.

In my quest to “try other ways of brainstorming,” I started trying techniques I had seen other people use:

  • Journaling my thoughts and feelings about my story
  • Making Pinterest inspiration boards
  • Finding art that reminded me of my world

And because my word counting sheet was making me feel bad, I tried something simpler. I just used a calendar. If I spent any time working on my project, I’d put an X on that day. I was productive that day. No judgement. No word count. Just work = success = good.

It did feel a little silly. These felt like… fluffy things to spend my time on. But it was still better than going “Do I have any ideas? No? Let’s get angry at myself for 30 minutes, then give up and play videogames.”

And for most of a month, I really didn’t do much. I wrote down feelings. I checked off days. I didn’t produce much, but I was sticking to my schedule.

And then things started to get better. I had a few ideas. I started an outline. And I–maybe? Hopefully?–started to find things I wanted to write again.

It’s still to early to see if it really helped, but…

I only just now started making progress, so who knows! Maybe I’m just doing what I did before: making a little progress, glomming on to it, and swearing that this time I’ve broken the curse.

But I do know that throwing down a deadline and forcing myself to make words didn’t help. Demanding that I make ideas, now, within my 60 minutes of writing time didn’t help. It seems kind of obvious to say “Hey, have you tried not being such a jackass to yourself?” but, well, sometimes we miss the obvious solutions.

Honestly, though, if there’s one thing that helped me the most, it was the journaling. I’ll write more about that in my next post, because it was genuinely surprising how much it helped me clear my brain out.

But that’s a post for another day!

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