It lives! We’ve eased into a monthly schedule for the “One Question” series. It takes me that long to come up with a question. Then I rest for three weeks, exhausted. Today comes with an embarrassment of riches, thanks for thoughtful replies from Laurie Keller, Nikki Grimes, Jordan Sonnenblick, Liza Gardner Walsh, and Steve Sheinkin.
Today’s area of inquiry is difficult for me to summarize. I basically asked about fallow periods, that quiet time between inspirations, and how our artists dealt with that “between ideas” phase. Did they do anything special to cultivate creativity?
In other words, how does one invite ideas into an empty room?
UGGGH!!! Okay, that being said, it’s a tricky thing sometimes, getting those creative juices flowing. I’m inspired by absurd, silly (but clever!) things so when I’m starting a new project or am stuck in writers’ mud, there are favorite movies or songs or books I go to that will sometimes help me out. But the really elusive thing for me, it seems, is finding the right “voice” to get things rolling.
When I get an idea I’m excited about (which usually pops in my head or unexpectedly crosses my path; I don’t often use the ideas I write down and save), I’ll sometimes write for weeks or months and not get anything I like. It drives me BONKERS! But then, out of the blue, I’ll hear or see some ridiculous, zany, completely STOOPID thing that catches me so off-guard, it somehow turns everything around. I love when that happens! I had hoped after all these years of writing that I could summon that “voice” to show up just when I need it. But it’s all right. I’ve found that there are plenty of Gummi Bears and peanut M&M’s in this world to get me through the long, rough patches.
I rarely experience truly fallow periods in my writing life, these days. I generally move from one contracted project to the next, working on multiple manuscripts over the course of a year. However, I do hit a creative wall, now and again, either because I’m burnt out from the previous project, as I was following completion of my forthcoming memoir, Ordinary Hazards, or because, uncharacteristically, I have no follow-up project. In either case, the solution to the problem is always the same for me: I read.
Reading always stirs my creative embers. I have to be selective about what genre I reach for, though. If I wish to work on a collection of poetry next, I had better not dive into a luscious anthology of personal essays, for example. If I do, in short order, I’ll find myself drafting personal essays. If, on the other hand, my intention is to work on a piece of prose, non-fiction or otherwise, I’d better beware novels in verse or volumes of poetry or that’s precisely what I’ll end up writing. I’d blame this literary misdirection on my muse, if I could, but it’s my own fault. Whatever genre I feed on is invariably the genre that comes out of me. It happens every time! I suppose that’s the risk of writing across genres, as I am inclined to do. Ah, well. Nobody’s perfect!
I am an all-or-nothing writer. I have published eleven middle-grade and YA novels since 2005, which sounds like the track record of someone who plugs away consistently. In reality, though, I spend three-quarters of my time trying to think of something to write, and then when the idea finally hits, I crank out a book with blazing speed. The longest it has ever taken me to write a first draft is four months, and I once wrote two complete novels and a short story in just eighteen feverish weeks. (Then I got bronchitis and the flu in quick succession. Don’t try this writing schedule at home.)
As you might imagine, I have put a whole lot of thought and effort into the battle against writer’s block — or, more specifically, initial-idea block. I have never come up with a foolproof, one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some strategies that seem to make getting an idea more likely. Anything that engages either my artistic faculties or the language center of my brain, but in a different way, is particularly useful. As an example, this summer, I started taking Spanish refresher courses at night, reading the Harry Potter books in Spanish, and watching Spanish movies during my daily exercise routine. Somehow, this freed up my thinking in a whole new way, and I started getting picture book ideas for the first time ever. I also got a great idea for a memoir aimed toward adults. This triggered a creative outburst, and I wrote the memoir, followed by two picture book manuscripts. Right now, I am co-writing a play with an old friend from high school. I don’t know which, if any, of these projects will sell. However, I do know that spending a couple of hours a day immersed in another language got me out of a rut, and for that, I am grateful.
Next year: Russian! Thanks for reading, comrades.
Liza Gardner Walsh
I am currently in one of those fallow periods post deadline and past the chaotic aftermath. I’m dancing around a few projects but I’m also on the hunt. Luckily, I have a day job that provides me with endless daily inspiration. As a school librarian, I’m surrounded by books and children. I also have the good fortune to have recess duty everyday because I happen to believe that the best place to invite creativity is during recess.
So as I find myself on this current “writing recess,” I am noticing everything. I’m trying to follow the Mary Oliver method of living a life, “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” This recess also allows me to stretch and to play. Challenges like Story Storm and a self-directed one hundred days of writing poetry prime the well. I also snuck away to a kidlit retreat in Vermont that oozed inspiration.
But perhaps the most fail-safe method of cultivating inspiration is walking my 10 month old puppy. We walk all over our small town. She doesn’t miss a thing. She makes me slow down, notice, and process all those ideas that percolate on the playground.
So my inspiration recipe is this; pay attention, play, challenge yourself, escape if you can, and walk. I think when all this combines, things start to happen. The light turns on again.
To me, the time in between ideas is all about trial and error, trying out different potential stories, just mentally at first, when I’m walking, cooking, shaving, whatever. I’ll take an idea and just play with it, just start somewhere and see how far I can take it. If it seems promising, I’ll write out really rough sketches of how the plot might be structured. With nonfiction, I obviously can’t make stuff up, but I find there’s still a lot of creativity, a lot of questions to be answered before I know if a book will work. So I’ll a pick a possible opening scene and watch it. And then I try to get from there to a logical next scene, and to another one, and so on. I’ve thrown out some of my best ideas for opening sequences (or my editor has forced me to) just because they didn’t lead smoothly into the heart of the story. It’s a good system for me, if not an efficient one, and I’d say the only drawback is that I’ll find myself “watching” my scenes when I’m supposed to be listening to people who are talking to me.
JP: I’M SORRY, STEVE, DID YOU SAY SOMETHING?