It’s pretty common knowledge that writers (or any other type of artist) need a kick in the pants every so often, and usually that kick needs to come from themselves. Artists are great at getting themselves into creative ruts and flailing helplessly when they realize there’s no easy way out. And it can be so tempting to stay in that rut, because while there, you have no artistic responsibilities and can just hang out.
But if you stay in the rut for too long, you realize it’s boring as hell. Not being expected to do anything can make you feel useless. If you’re an artist who invests a lot of their identity in said art, it can also lead to a slight existential crisis à la, “Why am I even on this planet if I’m not doing [x]?”
This year, I’ve spent a lot more time in creative ruts than I usually do. I’m no stranger to these ruts, of course, and I don’t think any artist is. But the ruts of 2015 proved a lot harder to get out of, and, thanks to a number of circumstances, my willpower was no match for how steep they were.
Why am I even calling these ruts? Why am I not calling it writer’s block? Because I don’t think writer’s block exists, or at least, it doesn’t exist in the way most people seem to understand it. When I hear people complain about writer’s block, it often comes in the form of, “I can’t think of anything to write about. I’m sitting there and nothing is coming out.”
Oh, something could come out, all right. All you have to do is think of words and type them onto the page, or scribble them into your notebook or napkin or stone tablet or whatever you use. Your problem is that nothing good is coming out.
Well, duh. That’s, like, 75% of writing a first draft. Like I’ve said before, writing involves wading through a lot of shit before you can get to the good stuff. It’s about not judging yourself and trusting that you will be able to look at it with fresh eyes later, to clean up the language and cut out entire sections that aren’t working. It’s about not being afraid of your own failure because nobody gets it right the first time.
To me, writer’s block is less about your creative abilities no longer working and more about some paralyzing fear holding you back from writing at all. It is incredibly hard to push through this, and sometimes, you have a lot working against you. A major event could disrupt your life, whether it’s a positive or negative one; you could be battling mental illness; your living conditions might make it more difficult or outright impossible for you to work on your art. But there’s a fine line between giving yourself a break because of an obstacle and not pushing yourself to work when you know enough pushing would get you where you need to be.
Clearly, I am still struggling to find this line.
As many of you know, I’m writing a YA fantasy series meant to be four books long. I’ve written books one, two, and three, but shortly after finishing the third, I took a step back. I didn’t want to start book four until I was fairly satisfied with the first three. Book one was polished thanks to a significant rewrite I undertook with it after becoming more familiar with the publishing industry. I was happy with book three, since it was my most recent work and written by a much more mature author than the other two.
But book two was a total mess. So, last year, I promised myself I would revise the thing before drafting the final book in the series.
I’d been avoiding revising book two for a while, and only recently did I start thinking about why that was. Drafting it had been a messy process. I’d stumbled through the first ten chapters with no idea how to organize it, the last section was plagued with overblown tangents, the main plot got lost in a tangle of subplots. But I also wrote that book during the most difficult emotional period of my life. As a result, the book includes some of my best writing, but also made me not want to look at it.
Re-reading the first several chapters, I had no patience for the miserable kid who’d written the original draft (the me of several years ago). I called her stupid and annoying, cursed her for the monstrosity she’d left me with, and laughed at all her amateur mistakes. Revising her prose proved exhausting, which made it easy to slip into a rut. At some point, I tumbled into the rut and stayed there.
To be fair to myself, I’ve been up against a lot this year. My last semester of college took a toll on me. I was dealing with a school newspaper fiasco that left me disillusioned with my university and with universities in general. My significant other was studying abroad, and the separation was, to put it mildly, hard. I was teaching a class and my mental health was suffering worse than it ever had during college. Throughout that last semester, I revised book two in small bursts, but not in any sustainable way.
Then I graduated and went to Europe for two months, as my Instagram account can attest to. It was understandable that I didn’t revise during this period, since 1) I had no time and 2) I had nowhere to go. Most of my time in Europe was either spent at my significant other’s flat in London, which housed like seven other people and not very many rooms, or in an AirBnB, which…is someone else’s house. I wasn’t about to demand a room I could revise in for two hours every night. Through all of this, I promised myself I would start revising as soon as I got home.
Guess what didn’t happen.
We arrived home super jet lagged and not wanting to do anything but laze around the house. I could barely find the energy to move. It’s fine, I told myself. The family trip to Alaska is soon. You’ll start revising there. Then we got there for our two-week vacation and I found myself repeating the same process every day. I’d announce that I was “planning to edit” later, occupy myself with other, less demanding tasks, and become more and more anxious as the day’s hours dwindled. The closer I got to midnight, the more excuses built up. I’ll do it in an hour. Okay, half hour. Actually, I can’t tonight. I need to spend more time with my siblings. Or I’ll just finish this quest in this video game. Tonight isn’t a good night because–
These weren’t valid excuses anymore. I was stuck in the rut. I’d been there for so much longer than I was used to and couldn’t figure out how to get myself out of it. Worse than that, I started to tear myself apart for continually succumbing to whatever was stopping me. I criticized myself every day for it. It didn’t exactly do wonders for my self-esteem.
Then one day during our trip, we visited a rocky beach. I was climbing out to one of the larger rocks that was more difficult to reach, since it was further out in the water than the others. I made it there without a scratch, despite the slippery stones I had to step on and the incoming tide. Boy was I proud of myself for being a badass and succeeding in an outdoorsy activity that made me nervous. I was still celebrating on my way back to the beach when I slipped on the barnacle-encrusted rock. I landed right on my butt and earned a cut on my palm, which would later bruise.
It was a shallow cut that barely broke the skin. It wasn’t even that big, and there wasn’t much blood. But what did I do? I, a 22-year-old woman who has always had a low pain tolerance, started crying.
I didn’t cry in front of anyone who wasn’t understanding (just my significant other, who is very pro-feel-what-you-feel), but still, I felt humiliated. I’m not very patient with myself when it comes to having an emotional reaction I don’t consider reasonable. If I’d had it my way, I would have jumped back up all Mercutio-like and said, “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch!” But I cried, which definitely did not match the badass-outdoorsy-warrior mood I’d been indulging in a moment before. I felt ashamed.
This, of all things, made me remember why I was writing my YA fantasy in the first place.
My YA fantasy’s main character has been thrust into a combat situation that doesn’t match her personality at all. She, like me, is prone to crying for every reason under the sun, whether it be physical pain, interpersonal, frustration, anger, etc. Her best friend is a much more conventional warrior, and tears from her are pretty rare.
But there’s a reason my main character has the spotlight instead of her friend. I want to show her fighting for her life through tears. I want her emotional outbursts to fuel her rather than indicate weakness. Through these books, I want to show people that emotion can lend us enormous strength though it may seem to hinder us. I am working against our culture’s criticisms of “excessive” emotion and how it encourages people to suppress it. I especially want teenagers of all genders to read these books and feel validated when they cry. I want them to see crying as a source of power the way I couldn’t as a teenager.
There is no way I’m gonna be able to do that unless I sit down and revise book two, damn it.
And you know what? When I got back to it, I thanked my younger self. Even though she didn’t really know what she was doing, she’d fought through the muck to get words down during the hardest time of her life. Sure, it’s a lot to revise. But without her, I wouldn’t have anything to revise at all. She stayed out of her rut long enough to write this craptastic first draft. I am so proud of her.
So it took an assful of barnacles to get me out of my rut this time. Well, it didn’t get me out on its own. It just threw down a rope. It still took me a few days to haul myself out of there and get down to business. Now, finally, I am revising again, and I feel much more comfortable with myself. I feel I’m doing good, important work that I hope will someday benefit other people.
Writer’s block may be tough to deal with, but thinking about it in terms of fear instead of a short supply of creativity gives me a lot more control over how I handle it. I’m always better when I’m working on my craft, and I’m happy to be back on board.
If you have any methods for getting yourselves out of artistic ruts, let me know in the comments. I could sure use more ideas.
*Avatar by Charlavail