Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dealing with the Downs

I started ballet again last night, and I was the only returning person who was there. There was one person who'd danced for years and who was returning after a long break, but otherwise it was all beginners, so for once I wasn't the least-skilled person in the class. I was practically a veteran! I kind of liked having to go back to the very basics because when I started, almost everyone had been in the class for a while and I just had to catch up. Now we're starting from square one, and that allows me to really get everything right.

Today's writing topic was another reader request, and it's also a "tree falls on the writer" topic, in that I'm writing about it because it's something I'm dealing with. (That "tree falls on the writer" thing was something a co-worker said when I worked in PR. Like the philosophical question of if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound, she said that when a tree falls on a journalist, it's news. That was when I worked at the medical school, and it seemed like most journalists got their story ideas based on health concerns they or their family members had.)

There comes a time in just about every writer's life when you feel like a talentless hack. It may be because the words just aren't flowing, because your story feels stale, because your idea seems to be the equivalent of fairy gold -- brilliant, shiny and golden in your head, but turning to dry, dusty leaves the moment you try to put it into words. It may be because you're getting rejection after rejection, because your publisher didn't pick up your option book, because you got a lousy review or because you sent a new project you absolutely loved to your agent and she called it trite and boring. I think I've only met one writer who never admitted to having days like that (and he was kind of a jerk who was probably lying).

So, how do you deal with this without resorting to mind/mood-altering substances, wrist-slitting or throwing your computer out the window and giving up writing entirely?

Here are a few things that have worked for me in the past:

1) Give yourself some perspective.
What you've written may not be that bad. It's just not as great as it was in your head, but once you've fixed it, it can be good. You can't edit what hasn't been written, so any work you've done is a step forward. Put it aside for a little while, then look at it again, and you might like it better or see where it can be fixed. Remember that being able to see what isn't working is just as important as being able to write brilliantly, so noticing that something is bad is not necessarily a bad sign. It may also help to read it in context. It may take days to write a scene, so that it feels so epic that it may as well be the entire book, but if you read it in context, you realize that a reader will probably get through it in about two minutes, and it's not that big a deal. What seems to be dragging for you as you write it may fly when you read it.

2) Get some exercise.
Scientific studies have shown that exercise boosts your cognitive abilities and your creativity. It also helps regulate moods. Whether your slump is because you're not working as well as you could or if it's just a matter of perception and being in a bad mood, exercise can help. You don't have to go to the gym. Put on some music and dance around the room or take a walk around the block and you'll probably find yourself working better afterward.

3) Find a support group.
Other writers are good at understanding the woes of a writing life. They know what it means to get a rejection or to have that book just not coming together. It's good to have someone to vent to who doesn't think you're insane.

4) Know when to separate from the support group and find support elsewhere.
On the other hand, when you're really struggling, the last thing you need may be to have to hear about how well the writing is going for someone else or to be asked how your writing is going or when that book is going to come out (even though no publisher seems to want it). That's when you need other people in your life who aren't part of the writing world. It's good to be reminded that there is other life out there in the universe, and while we all try not to be jealous and to be happy for our friends, if you've just had a spate of rejections on a book you've slaved over for ages, it would take a saint not to feel a pang when someone else chirps up about getting a five-book contract based on a conversation without even having to write anything. If your association with a person or group starts to drag you down instead of lifting you up, it's okay to take some time away from them, and true friends will understand that (if they throw a hissy fit and refuse to see your side of things, then you haven't really lost a friend).

5) Do something that's guaranteed to lift your mood.
Watch a favorite movie or TV episode, listen to music that makes you happy, eat chocolate, spend time with a friend who always makes you laugh, etc. You'll bring that good mood back to your work. Be careful about using alcohol for this. A little may help relax you and lower your inhibitions, but alcohol is a depressant, so it may make matters worse. There are certain books and movies that make me suddenly feel brilliant and creative, and I want to run to the computer to capture that.

6) Revisit your successes.
If you've ever been praised for your writing, take another look at that praise. If you've ever written something you're really proud of, re-read it. I keep the writing awards I've won on my desk so I can always see them, and I save my fan mail. When I feel like a talentless hack, I read some of those lovely messages or some of the good reviews.

7) Keep on plugging.
Believe it or not, readers may never be able to tell which parts of a book just about killed you and which ones flowed. Sometimes, the ones that make you feel the worst are the ones that come out best. The pain can be because it's coming from somewhere deep inside that makes it richer and more powerful, rather than because it's no good. And sometimes you just have to get past the rough parts to get to the good parts that will give you ideas for how to fix the rough parts. Also remember that it feels a lot better to have written something, even if it's not ideal, than to have written nothing.

8) Mix things up.
Sometimes, trying something new can give you a fresh approach or perspective. If you normally write on a computer, try writing longhand. If you outline, try free writing. If you normally just plunge in without an outline, try outlining. Try dictating into a tape recorder. Try writing the end first or whatever scene you're most excited about and then work backwards. Try writing at a different time of day or in different surroundings. Like many writers, I'm an office supply fiend, and sometimes the chance to write with a fun new pen (I found a box of purple pens! I thought they were dark blue, but got them home and found that they're purple, and now I feel so creative when I write with them) or in a cute notebook will give me a burst of writing energy.

9) Give it to someone you trust for feedback.
I send what I've written to my mom, who always loves it. That doesn't help me make it better, but it makes me feel good when I'm feeling talentless. I really need to also find someone who can give me honest criticism, but that can be tricky. My last critiquing friend died a few years ago, and I haven't been up to giving someone else that role yet. If you've got someone like that, who can spot the flaws, tells you the truth and pushes you to be better, you're very fortunate.

10) Be honest with yourself.
Sometimes the problem isn't with your writing. It may be with what you're writing and why. Are you forcing yourself to work on a book because you think that's a hot market, even though it's not something you really love? Are you getting frantic and just trying to write as much as possible or as fast as possible so you can get more projects out there and increase your chances of publication? Are you giving yourself unrealistic arbitrary deadlines (like participating in a writing month challenge) so that your main concern is racking up word count, not writing well? Is your story idea fundamentally flawed, so that there's no way you could make it work? All those things can add up to you not doing your best work, which makes you feel bad about yourself. Unless you're contracted, it's okay to decide that you're not working on the project that best suits you and to move on. If you're contracted, then look at the lovely check and get over it.

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