Dare To Do Nothing: Replenishing the Creative Well

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas.

To say I had been having a busy time of it would be an understatement. Suddenly, I was a university student for the first time in 20 years, I was still a full time teacher, and I was working on the first draft of my new historical novel. I was looking forward to summer vacation from both work and school as a time to focus on my novel full time. I think this is why I’ve never been worried about having a day job—even with my day job I still get summers off to write full time. Then a funny thing happened—nothing.

The novel was stalled. Where my last three novels were written fairly quickly in less than a year (that’s quickly for me, mind you), my current novel was stubborn and not coming as easily as I would have liked. I didn’t understand the characters as well as I thought I did. I felt the plot was lacking, though I couldn’t tell you why. I wondered and worried myself crazy, and while I tried to work on the book I realized I was getting nowhere fast. That’s when I came up with the radical idea of putting my writing aside for a while and leaving it alone. Normally, I allow the story some baking time after the first draft, which I had done, but then when I went to write the second draft there wasn’t much more than there had been for the first draft. The second draft is a little better than the first, but it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s definitely not publishable. For my last three novels, once I made it past the “shitty first draft” stage and had a complete second draft I was, except for revising and editing, home free. This one not so much. I was getting so frustrated I was ready to throw in the towel and forget the novel altogether.

I hadn’t suffered from writer’s block in this form since I first began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009. What if I never have another good idea? What if being a doc student has sucked away all my brain power and I simply can’t write fiction until I’m finished with my degree? What if this is it and my creativity is gone, finished, kaput? You know how writers panic when the ideas aren’t flowing. Then I started thinking about how I’ve been writing novels constantly for the last six years without a break. Since 2009, I’ve published seven novels. And the scholarly writing I do for school is creative in its own way since it takes creativity to figure out how to take information from various sources and construct a well-organized, persuasive narrative. Maybe, I thought, just maybe my creativity isn’t kaput as much as just tired.

I’ve suffered, like many of you, from what they call the Do Something Syndrome at Farnam Street blog. Even on my days off I feel like I have to constantly be working at something—whether it’s writing, editing, schoolwork, marketing, social media, whatever. I started reading a lot about stillness and how doing nothing can help to fill your creative well. Here’s a great post from one of my favorite websites, Zen Habits, called The Number 1 Habit of Highly Creative People where the artists talk about stillness and doing nothing as a way to stay creative. There are a number of other articles out there on the same topic. Doing nothing? I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I was willing to try since my creative well definitely needed replenishing. This hiatus was going to be different from the baking time since baking time is where, though I’m not actively writing, I’m still working on the novel because I’m reading, researching, and finding other ways to immerse myself in the story. This time I was going to leave the story completely alone and give myself a rest from even thinking about the novel.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

How have I been spending my days? Well, I haven’t been working on the novel, which is how I thought I would be spending this summer. I haven’t even felt guilty about not working on it—most of the time. Writers are great at laying the guilt trip on themselves, aren’t they? Whenever I see a book I’ve read for research laying around my desk, I remind myself that I’m filling my creative well and look the other way. Instead, I’ve been sitting on my little patio with my cat Ellie as we watch the Las Vegas desert sky turn from pale blue to slate gray as the thunder-filled clouds move in. I’ve gone to the park down the street with its fake lake (the water is real even if the lake is man made) and looked at the ducks, the boats, the pretty houses, and the mountains in the distance. I’ve been exercising and doing yoga after a bout of laziness. I’ve discovered the charms of adult coloring books (they’re just regular coloring books with more intricate details, folks. I know what you were thinking…). I used to love to color when I was a kid, and it turns out I still do. I’ve always considered myself a wannabe artsty-craftsy kind of person. I love watching the how-to-paint-flowers shows they have on PBS, and I even dabbled in painting with acrylics a few years ago. While coloring isn’t exactly an original piece of art, I enjoy the chance to play with colors and I’ve rediscovered the fun of crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors. I’ve been reading a lot, finishing two or three books a week. I’ve been watching some good TV shows, movies, and documentaries (yes, I watch documentaries for fun). Saying that I’ve been doing nothing isn’t quite accurate, but I haven’t been writing fiction, thinking about writing fiction, or, most importantly, worrying about writing ficiton. I’ve just been enjoying my days and filling them however I want to rather than stressing myself out about what I thought I should be doing.

Then, a couple of months into my self-imposed exile from writing fiction, I read a couple of novels that gave me some ideas for my own story. I still have things to figure out, but at least I have a few ideas now where before I had nothing. I refuse to start worrying again about when or how the book will be written. If it takes me two years instead of one to write, then so be it. I’d rather spend two years writing the story I meant to write than publish whatever just to get something out. Everything happens in its own time. I’ve always known that, but I find I need a reminder every now and again.

8 thoughts on “Dare To Do Nothing: Replenishing the Creative Well

  1. After a recent move I seem to be having trouble getting back into the writing and creating habit. I was just thinking an adult coloring book would be just the thing to get the creative juices flowing again.

    • I was surprised how much I love the coloring books. I bought one just for fun and I find it’s a great way to kick back. You should try one–especially if you loved coloring as a kid like I did.

  2. You’ve adopted a really good attitude to the current problem Meredith. If the problem needs a break, give it a break. It’s no use at all to produce a piece of work you’re going to be unhappy with and then rushing it into print just so you can move on.. Taking a complete break from it and letting it gestate on it’s own for a while until you reach a point when you know the ideas are flowing and that real progress is being made to the finished product is right. And you’re right, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Even if you take on another project during the break, the original one will keep until you know within yourself you’re ready to go back to it.
    I stopped writing 4 years ago when my wife became ill and after she died no ideas came to me to complete what I’d started. It will just have to lie there until and if, the ideas flow again rather than be forced.
    When you’re ready to go back to it you’ll know, and you’ll create another perfect book,
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • You’re so right about not rushing something to print, David. That’s something I’ve had to fight with myself about sometimes (not a pretty picture, fighting with yourself) because there are so many people in the publishing world who say that we should write quickly and publish several books a year. I think I was stressing myself out because I felt like I had to publish something in 2015, and I find that stress and creativity don’t go well together–at least for me. I know some people who create very well under pressure, but I’ve never been one of them. I know the novel will be finished when it’s ready, and I’ve just had to learn to trust that.

      I’m so sorry about your wife. And, yes, the ideas will come again when they’re ready to.

      Massive hugs right back to you!

  3. That’s exactly where I am right now, Meredith. I had written half of my current novel by last Christmas, and then, suddenly, I was out of money. I needed to work hard at my teaching career. I taught Spanish, English, and French all spring, and, this summer, in addition, I’m teaching a course in the modern Spanish novel to a Mexican girl. Fortunately, she’s very kind because, while I speak French fluently (my paternal grandmother was French and my father spoke French), I have never had a conversation that lasted longer than 5 minutes with anyone in Spanish, until this summer. Neither have I read a novel in Spanish in more than several decades. Yet, here I am, discussing the author (Isabel Allende’s) use of the story of Exodus in her novel, Hija de la Fortuna.

    So it’s been a summer of learning a lot of Spanish, playing with my cats, Biscuit, Muffie, Maxie, and Désirée, and watching telenovelas (Mexican soap operas). I sent photos I took of one of the characters writhing at the top of a waterfall, the scene of his latest crime (he murdered his mistress, packed her in a box, and sent her over the waterfall) because his missing arm begins to cause him excruciating pain from guilt. Oh. How did he lose his arm? He was servicing someone else’s wife when her husband arrived with a sword and hacked it off (and, in case you were wondering, this is a 21st century story). The wife reacted by shooting her husband. Meanwhile, this one-armed guy’s wife got so ticked that he had to give up the first mistress, who subsequently died in the arms of her oncologist boyfriend. Of course the first dead mistress’s daughter falls in love with the son of the man whose arm was chopped off by her father, and, of course, this one-armed guy doesn’t like his son’s choice of women, so he rapes the girl to get her to leave town, Actually, the one armed guy’s wife hates the son’s choice, and so she forms an elaborate plot to marry the kid off to his cousin, who gets pregnant by someone else and blames it on the son of the one-armed guy. Oh, before that, the mother tells the boy that he and the girl he loves are brother and sister, and they believe her, until the girl’s uncle, the village priest, falsifies the one-armed guy’s signature so that he can match the one-armed guy’s blood with his niece’s blood. He finds out that the girl is not related to the boy at all. Everything is roses with the lovers again, BUT . . .

    I don’t get ideas from watching these things, but I bicycle while the T.V. is on, so I get my exercise, I improve my Mexican Spanish, and I laugh hysterically. Then I share the photos I take with my favorite Spanish student, who is a lawyer, arguing for “criminales and delincuentes” who have sneaked into the country, and the whole thing takes me so far away from my novel that I’m sure it will be like a breath of fresh air when I get back to it. I’m just glad I outlined the plot for the second half of the book before I had to quit.

    I noticed that while I’ve been taking this hiatus, ideas have been crowding into my brain about a short story I never finished, which is part of a book of short stories. Something tells me that when the money starts to flow again, I’m going to be writing up a storm and really enjoying it!

    The fact is that, one way or another, your mind needs a vacation. I always know when it’s time. Everything gets suddenly very stale – it even has a stale flavor, and I have to get away from it NOW. When I come back to writing, it’s brand new and crisp, like a fall day when the trees look like candy. Then the words flow, and everything is logical and clear, instead of gray and fuzzy.

    I’m not worried that I’ll never write again, because, for me, writing is like breathing. But I do obsess about never getting through all the stuff that gets in the way, like eating? Now why do we have to do that? Well, I know my cats don’t see it the way I do, so I tell them I have to work for cat food. In exchange they tolerate my spending hours talking to people in strange tongues on Skype – as long as I have a hand free to feed baby food to whoever is standing on my old hard drive. Right now, that’s Désirée, and she’s having beef, thank you very much. On the other side is Muffie, and I’ve got a bowl of turkey/duck hidden behind my laptop, for him.

    • We’re so much alike, Leigh. I have three cats (Ellie, Chuck, and Tillie) and they also like to hang out while I’m writing or trying to get something done. I almost couldn’t get that picture from my coloring book because Tillie kept sitting on it wherever I put it.

      I remember when I was in high school my friend’s mother LOVED the telenovelas and my friend used to tell me the crazy stories from the shows. Coronation Street (my main guilty pleasure viewing, a soap opera from England) is tame by comparison!

      I totally agree with you that sometimes your mind needs a vacation. I think that’s exactly what I discovered. Stale is the perfect word to describe how I was looking at my novel, and I think as the staleness starts to fade away (as it is already) it will be brand new and crisp, as you say.

      Thanks as always for your thoughtful comment, Leigh. I always love hearing from you!

  4. As an apposition to your present stance (of avoiding doing the novel quickly just to get something out), I’ve recently purposely done an essay quickly and sent it out, because it was absolutely imperative to finish it so I could get on to my next project. I suspect sometimes certain work stands as an obstacle to future work that’s meant to be done. Perhaps instead of calling the work an obstacle, I should call it a kind of stepping stone.

    My work is much smaller, and in much shorter form. Your work is so much larger and, therefore, to me, more commendable. (Lately I can only do short poems and essays.)

    Anyway, best of luck, good concentration, inspiration and motivation as you move forward, Meredith!

    • Thank you, Carole. I agree…sometimes what looks like an obstacle becomes a way of finding something else. At this point, I’m in wait and see mode. I know this novel will be finished when it’s ready, so I’ve learned not to stress about it (too much). I think poems and essays are wonderful, and I’m writing more than my fair share of essays as schoolwork.

      Thanks for your response, Carole!

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