Questions That Can Drive Writers Crazy

Oct 07, 2015

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about hurrying up and slowing down so you can give the creative process some breathing space. I argued that it can be counter productive to just keep pushing harder. I posed some questions, and here are my (highly subjective) answers:  

1.     Can you hurry the creative process?

In my case, absolutely categorically no. When I’m noodling over a problem or looking for inspiration, sitting at my desk and putting in another hour never helps. Yet sometimes, I’ll be right in the middle of a conversation about something totally unrelated and a solution for a writerly dilemma will pop into my head. Oftentimes, I’ll be admiring the texture of some fabric, or the colors in a piece of art, or the hairline cracks in a swath of parched earth—and I’ll have an idea about a character trait, or setting or plot. The mind works in mysterious ways. In Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.” So I remind myself all the time to relax, talk, observe, touch. To think about something else.

2.     When you launch a book, is it possible to blow through everything on your marketing to-do list?

Actually, yes, it is. But doing so may come at a steep price, and you’re not necessarily helping book sales. Ouch. Painful but true.

In marketing, it helps to work hard and be tenacious, but it’s even better to work smart. If you put the time in up front to think deeply about your goals, strengths and weaknesses, what gives you pleasure and energy, and what risks you are willing to take, you'll see better results. Your outreach efforts will be more authentic and sustainable. Equally, spending some time assessing the results of your efforts is worth it: Why blog three times a week if your readership isn’t steadily growing?

3.     If you’re suffering from creative block, should you fill a journal with daily ramblings, just to have gotten some words on the page?

I’m torn about this one. Years ago, I found Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way to be immensely helpful. She suggests writing three morning pages (longhand, stream-of-consciousness) every single day, which she calls “the bedrock tool of a creative recovery.” But here’s the problem: I find the process draining rather than invigorating. This from someone who wrote 15 journals detailing my teenage years, including 17 pages describing my first kiss. 

What works far better for me when I’m creatively dried up is to read some fiction before launching into work. My instinct is to get to my to-do list immediately, but if I can quell that impulse and spend half an hour reading something wonderful, I’m totally energized. I work more effectively and have more fun doing it.

4.     Do word count goals help or hinder you, psychologically?

I was suffering a nasty case of writers block when I was lucky enough to be awarded a two-week writers retreat on Cape Cod. After three days I began to panic: I couldn’t write anything worthwhile, and I was disgusted with myself. It happened to be November and, in total desperation, I stumbled on NaNoMo, the torture fest during which you try to write a novel in a month. I signed up.

After just a day, I discovered something important: Bullying myself doesn’t work. Guaranteed, if I tell myself I’m going to write a minimum of x words a day, I will write x minus x.

5.     Is setting yourself deadlines the best way to finally get that challenging piece of work completed?

I always work with a timeline in mind. When I write nonfiction, I keep to a strict calendar and find that having a deadline and clear goals helps me stay productive.

Even when writing fiction, I have goals for when I’ll complete each stage of the process. Now, to be honest, those goals always shift. Invariably, the work takes longer than I hoped. But I’ve come to understand that this is part of the process and I don’t beat myself up about it. I just shift my "deadline."

6.     Do the same rules apply to fiction and nonfiction?

When I’m in real flow, the feeling of creating meaning through words is the same for me whether I’m working on fiction or nonfiction. But when I’m struggling, the process for getting unstuck is entirely different. With nonfiction, I’ll put something aside and work on another part of the book. With fiction, I can’t do that. I wallow and contemplate and suffer. I've learned that, for me, the process is messier—and if I can accept that, then I’m far better off. And, eventually, more productive.

What about you?