If you have watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, you know that her solution to the problems we all have with creativity is to acknowledge the things we love to do as a kind of space within which we work, a “home” to which we must return. That sounds good (especially the way she says it), but she doesn’t give us much help in figuring out how to get back home if we happen to be lost. In her defense, she’s only got seven minutes to speak; TED talks are limited. There’s usually a Q & A session afterwards, and many questions get answered more fully there, but that doesn’t help us.
What might help us, though, are some practical suggestions for returning to the path we were on.
Sometimes, the way back is simple: when you finish your daily stint at the keyboard or with the writing tablet, break in the middle of a sentence, so that you can pick right back up tomorrow where you left off. This tactic is helpful whether you write in little twenty-minute bursts throughout the day (as many productive writers do) or whether you devote several hours a day to the task. Stop in the middle. It’s easier to begin a new session that way.
For most of us, however, the problems of dried-up creativity are more complex. Jack Stillinger, one of my professors at Illinois, studied and wrote under the supervision of Walter Jackson Bate at Yale. Bate wrote two wonderful biographies in his career: one of John Keats in 1963 and one of Samuel Johnson in 1977. The latter biography is regarded by many critics and scholars as one of the greatest books of the twentieth century. In both books, Bate writes “little section by little section,” a chunk at a time, and that is the way Stillinger advised us to write our dissertations. Look at your work and see if you can section it off, or break off a little piece of it that has an issue you know you can solve, and see if that repair work doesn’t provide you with a way back into the project as a whole.
But suppose you’re looking at the whole of your draft and the damn thing’s just a mess. You don’t see anything that you like, and you can’t see a way to treat it in sections. What do you do? I get away from the working draft file and go instead to my “Notes for the Novel” file. That separate file is where I began to sketch the backstory of my characters–where they came from, what education or experience they have, what happened to them before they entered the present story. I read over some of that background stuff, enter a page break, and start writing again at the point that intrigues me. I am writing the novel, but I am not fitting it into my actual working text, yet. I can do that later by cutting and pasting. This procedure makes both files messy, of course, but both files can be cleaned up easily at my convenience.
Speaking of cleaning up, if the writing’s just not coming to you at the moment, go back and revise an earlier part of the chapter you’re working on. Trust me: you’ll be doing two jobs at once. Your hands will be working on the revisions, and your mind will be working on the real problem you want to solve. The act of actually, physically writing will calm you to the extent that you can relax. When you do, your unconscious mind will begin to work toward a solution to whatever issue you have. That mental work counts as writing, even if you put no words on paper or on the screen As I’ve mentioned in a prior post, James Thurber wrote in his head all the time: at dinner parties, at the barber shop, at his car when changing a tire. We can all do work that way, if we need to. Most of this post was written in my head this morning as I was shaving. The mind always works on the problem we really want to solve. The trick is to let it.
Most of us regard our writing as our work, the thing that we’re best at it. And so it is. But Elizabeth Gilbert envisions the entire creative process not as labor, but as a place wherein we are the most alive, a place we love to return to, again and again. That’s her way of saying that the work should be fun, even when it’s difficult. Now, I myself don’t think we should make light of our genuine difficulties; we should solve them. But there are times when having fun with the day’s writing is the only way we can work. If a character in a scene is just not behaving the way she should, go with it: take a few minutes and write the character in a way completely opposite the way you’ve conceived her. If she’s a placid soul, write a scene in which she tells her pushy boyfriend to shut the fuck up; if she’s a firebrand, write a scene in which her boyfriend suddenly, unexpectedly breaks up with her, and she’s so hurt by the news she stands there stunned. Go ahead and write the scene, even if you don’t think you can use it. The paragraphs you write are valid work in themselves, and they may allow you to return to the work you want to do or need to do.
What Gilbert means by “going home again” is that we should recognize that, for good or ill, better or worse, writing is what we do. It is our talent. It is the gift we were given. It is the gift (perhaps the best or only one) we can give the world. In her own gentle way, Gilbert is telling us to stick to the task no matter what. Stephen King and Toni Morrison have both said the same thing more flatly and less gently: “I don’t wait for inspiration,” he says; “I don’t need certain slants of light in order to write,” she says.
Maybe so, but all of us have faced the great problem of how to get back into our work when it’s not going well. Some writers say that they simply stare at the screen for the three or four hours of their daily stint. I don’t believe them. I think, rather, that they are sitting there, writing in their heads, until they discover a sentence or an idea that they can commit to. I also believe that most writers do anything but stare at the screen. They use instead one or more of these suggestions as a pathway to resurgent creativity, a road back to that place where they are busy, productive, and happy.