Today’s guest post is from my long-time writer-friend Kathleen Kayembe. She writes fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction of all flavors. Her writing, her stories, have the ability to leave me breathless. She has some words of wisdom that I hope will help you, wherever you are in your process.
Hey, guest poster Kathleen Kayembe here, filling in for the marvelous M.J. King while she takes some time to settle into the newest phase of her (writing) life.
Assuming you’re not saying, “But why can’t you be M.J. King for us? We love her—she’s amazing!” (I mean, it’s what I would say), you might be asking, “Kathleen, what’s that you said about phases?” (Mostly, you’re asking the latter because that question is convenient for my post.)
Well, sometimes a phase a writer’s going through in her life mean the writing doesn’t come, doesn’t flow easily or at all—and that’s normal. So your writing dried up? Relax, it’s just a phase.
There are 5 things I’ve encountered that stop the writing flow.
1) You’re out of practice.
Writing is a muscle, and when it’s not stretched, exercised, used regularly, it begins to atrophy. The muscle’s still there—and it will always be there—but you need to work out to get it back into good writing shape. It’ll probably take at least 3 days to get it limber again, but you’re writers, so you know it’s worth the effort. When the writing’s good, everything seems good. So do some prompts, try warm-up exercises, play around, write something fun that’ll never leave the drawer. You’ll be a lot stronger soon enough.
2) You took a wrong turn in the piece that is Your Current Project.
Writing other things works fine, but the piece you’re Officially working on has stopped moving forward and is being ornery as a mule about it. That may be your subconscious telling you to backtrack and recalibrate. Re-examine your characters and their motivations in the scenes around where everything stopped. Ask questions, come up with alternate ways the scenes could go, and see if that doesn’t get you unstuck.
3) The well has run dry.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron compares times when the words and original images suddenly vanish to a well running dry. At those times we need to “refill the well” of images and experiences we have that fuel our writing. Were the words coming fast and easily, and suddenly they stopped? Go out, live a little, read something that stimulates you; refill the well, re-stock the pond you overfished, and the words will flow again.
4) You’re expecting writing to Do All The Things for you, and stifling your creative urges in the process.
Heather Sellers, in Chapter After Chapter, suggests naming the unconscious expectations we have for our current projects to help us let go of the unreasonable ones. When I was unemployed and received my first royalty check for a novella I’d published, my writing dried up. Unconsciously, I’d told myself I could only write publishable pieces—and there went the fun. Writing was now, officially, a Job—it was worktime, not playtime, and if I took time to write a story it should Have Merit, i.e. be something I could sell to the romance publisher I worked with. Those kinds of expectations can be toxic to creativity. You can save yourself some angst by doing Sellers’ exercise: jot down 10 things you want your current project to get you (ex. my father’s approval, a book deal, 200 followers), and then cross out 5. Your creativity will sidle back when the pressure’s finally off.
5) You’re going through a fallow period.
In the seasons of your writing life, you’re experiencing winter. Your creativity is hibernating in a cave in your subconscious, and all the CPR you’re frantically performing on that sleeping grizzly will do is make you exhausted and feel betrayed when you get clawed open for your efforts. (Psychically. Not physically. Unless your muse is a literal grizzly bear, in which case, I’m silently judging you.) Many places go through a winter-esque period where the ground’s gone fallow and it seems like everything’s dead—but seems is the key here, because life is simmering under the surface, and will emerge when it’s time and the atmosphere it emerges into won’t kill it while it’s vulnerable. Sometimes, when life gets super crazy, creativity goes underground for the same reason. There’s not enough energy to spare for creativity to flourish, so it goes dormant—sometimes for years at a time. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you’ll wonder if you’ll ever be a writer again, someone for whom writing is like breathing and the ideas come at a steady stream, and the monthly word count goes up and up and up. If “a writer is someone who writes”, as the Amherst Writers and Artists philosophy goes, what am I if I’m not writing? Answer: a writer going through a fallow period—a phase when creativity has gone underground. Don’t worry—if you wait long enough, it’ll grow back. In the meantime, live your life, take notes when you can, and just try to be present. Everything you do will fill that well (#3), so when the writing returns, you’ll find you’ve got plenty to say.