blog, writing process

Creative slump? Think inside the box

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pixel1 via pixabay

Sometimes more is not better.

In the developed world choice is king. The more choices, the better the world is working, and the received wisdom is that more is always better. Whole industries are built on finding and then expanding niches.

It’s no wonder that the protagonist of The Hurt Locker stood in the store when he returned from Iran, paralysed by too much choice. We’ve all done this. We rush into the store to find something for dinner, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, unable to choose.

FMI statistics show the average US supermarket carries over 42,000 items. In 2015 Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, carried 90,000 items, including 28 kinds of tomato ketchup. They planned to cut this to 60,000 to make shopping more efficient.

Mind. Blown.

How often do we grab the first thing we see, or give up and get a takeaway meal instead, in a mild state of panic? Those tempting offers and discounts take advantage of our frazzled brains, already worn out by too many choices from the moment we woke up.

In his TED talk Phil Hansen talks candidly about his quest to “Embrace the shake”. Well worth ten minutes of your time. He talks about losing the ability and will to create as he wished, and how he overcame a creative slump that lasted for years. He vividly describes becoming overwhelmed by possibility.

For writers, this equates not only to the empty page, but also to absent parameters. “Write a short story/novel/poem about anything” sounds great, till we sit down to start.

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image: geralt via pixabay

If all paths are open, which one should we take? Perhaps your stomach is already clenching at the very thought. But there is a way forward.

Creativity blossoms where there are restrictions.

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

attributed to Orson Welles

Put some walls in place, and ideas can bounce off them, finding surprising ways to fulfil the brief. It’s not only true for artists, because we all have constraints. Problem solving is a key skill for life.

If there are no constraints, there is no problem to solve.

We happen on a brilliant solution not by waving a hand or throwing money at problems, but by understanding that we must transcend apparently fixed parameters. We use only what we have been given to find another way.

This is a great way to recover creativity. Or to overcome the dread of the empty page. Or to continue when we we doubt our ability to get going.

Here are some suggestions. The first and most important step is to suspend judgement, the endless chatter of this is stupid/no good/worthless. It’s just practice.

The idea is to move forward and get ideas flowing, so that the energy feeds into your current project. First you need to loosen your creative muscles, like an athlete warning up.

  • Look around you, and write 100 words on the first red or blue object you see.
  • Construct a main dish using only the items in your fridge right now.
  • Pick up a book, turn to a random page. Look for the first word that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write a one page story using that word, in ten minutes or less.
  • Paint using only shades of one colour.
  • Use random word generators, or a random first line generator, to get started. No more than ten minutes to create something using your preferred medium; words, images, music.
  • I highly recommend Phil Hansen‘s talk, where he gives great illustrated examples. He tried some surprising things. One might just be the spark you need to get started again.

Limiting our fictional characters can also be a good thing. Give her a seemingly impossible situation, and then she must fight her way out. Put him in a literal or metaphorical cage, and see how he responds. It’s a great way of showing character.

Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility.

Big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.

 

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

Conversations with an artist

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lightstargod via pixabay

Listen here: 

I envy you.

Ill-concealed jealousy, or perhaps a fleeting moment of self- knowledge, a slip of the tongue, a confession unprompted. Still, I understand. You think you know the price.

You make it look so easy.

I assure you it is not. After years and centuries of practice, practice, try again, I have earned grudging acquaintance with the standards I keep. Improvement is my goal.

I don’t understand it.

I hear the scathing tone of your dismissal. Should art be understandable? Only for those to whom it speaks; and to the rest, it is noise. Listen harder.

How do you do it?

I just do it. I persist. I hear the self-doubt and corrosive whispers of fear that burn my heart, and I do it anyway, because the art demands to be heard. The pain of silence, I have learned, is worse than carrying my art stillborn in my chest.

Anyone could do that.

No, anyone could not. Every one’s a critic, but very few a creator. Anyone could do it. Hardly anyone does. I invite you to try.

I’ve always wanted to do that.

Creation does not wait for permission. But if you need permission, go ahead. It’s never too late to begin. The world is waiting to hear your story. It’s as simple, and as terrifying, as that.

You’re hardly the next JK Rowling/Beyoncé/Picasso/whoever.

You’re right, nobody is. But what I am, what I will be, if I can keep going, is the first, glorious me. I don’t seek comparison. You are no-one special, either. But I allow you the possibility that you could be.

It’s just your life story.

It’s just my heart and soul, bled out on the page, the canvas, the stage. What else is there? Where else will I find the raw and honest stuff to build my creation? I fuse drops of my history and things not yet imagined and echoes of other people’s random musings. Something new emerges. It is enough.

I envy you.

You see the glittering jewel. I see exhausting hours mining, selecting, cutting and polishing, rejecting and starting over. I see blood and tears. I remember pain carved in my bones, doubt piercing my heart, fear and loathing waiting to trap me. It looks so easy. But it’s not.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Artist, fireman, traveller; 2017 in books

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congerdesign via pixabay

In 2017 I kept a simple writing diary to track my progress, as described in my earlier post Footprints in the snow . In it I recorded stories written, blogs posted, submissions made, and pieces published. Each entry got a colour coded spot. Published pieces got a gold star, because it’s important to celebrate success.

It was the first year using my Very Easy Tracking System™ and I’d call it a success. I kept it up for the whole year and it was motivating to look back and see what I’d achieved. Together with teeny tiny goals, I managed to write every week as well as posting here. For two months I wrote every day, but a weekly goal fitted better with life.

I recorded the books I read

I am a reader and writer of fiction above all, but not exclusively. So I read some books about creativity, because I like to be meta. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp spoke to consistent practice and careful preparation as the foundations of creativity. Tharp’s life is one of success through dedicated hard work.

Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon illuminated a new way of thinking about creating, exhorting us to do the work we want to see done and to be boring in order to get it done. His ten rules make sense. My favourite? Creativity is subtraction. So make it, then take some away. The work will always be better for thoughtful editing.

Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth was a totally different kind of book. For a lover of language, it is a fascinating meander through the history of words, and the way in which the English language enlarges, stretches, twists and bends to bring us the words and phrases we use today. And it’s funny too.

In fiction I first watched the film and then read The Martian by Andy Weir. Both were enjoyable, and I appreciated the firm grounding in real science, leavened by an engaging protagonist. The stakes are high from the very first page, literally life or death. Humour contrasted with the serious work of survival against the odds by methodical problem solving.

Somehow despite being a confirmed Ray Bradbury fan, I’d never read Fahrenheit 451. The writing style is a little dated, but the ideas remain scarily prescient. Video walls, TV characters that feel more real than actual relatives, the coarsening of societal attitudes and loss of true emotion all ring sadly true, sixty-five years after it was published.

But the book that made me think, that stayed with me long after I finished, was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. A Pulitzer Prize winner made into a film would not be a natural first choice for me, as I find most prize winning novels are dull duty reads that few people actually finish. This story is very simple. A nameless man and his young son walk through American landscapes burned by an unknown disaster to reach the coast.

Their world is carefully evoked; the despair, danger and deadness of a nuclear winter where no sun shines and nothing grows. The question is, when we have lost everything, what keeps us moving? Why should we live, how should we live? Despite the bleakness of the setting, this book has at its centre a message of hope. The writer achieves a lyricism not usually associated with post-apocalyptic settings, avoiding sentimentality with his spare prose.

I read more books of course, and the TBR pile grows daily. But The Road was the number one for me last year.

Give it a try

Track your reading this year, and think about what you take from each book. Jot a few notes about it in your diary or journal. It may be only one idea, but it might be just what you need to move forward on your own creative journey.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Press pause

stop to go forward

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HypnoArt via pixabay

We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.

It’s exhausting.

Some days are not for progress. Especially for creators, some days it just won’t come. You run aground, the wind drops, the tide falls away. It’s not artists’ block, but something deeper. The well has run dry.

What does it mean, this empty feeling when the words won’t come and the eyes don’t see and there are no more songs in your head? Your Muse can’t be heard. Maybe they have fallen silent, maybe they are struggling against louder voices in your head.

At this point, you need to give up, without giving up completely.

Diagnosing the cause comes first, then action. Step away from your project and check in with yourself. Spend some time considering the possible origins. Write it down if that helps. I find pen and paper works better.

  • Body– are you hungry, tired, tense from inactivity, thirsty?

    • try this Go for a walk.
    • Drink some water rather than yet more coffee.
    • Go to bed an hour earlier for a few nights.
    • Stretch your hands and back regularly.
  • Mind – are you overcommitted, frazzled by too many demands, exhausted by conflicts in relationships?

    • try this List all your current commitments, personal and professional, consider delegating when possible.
    • Let go of perfectionism and embrace the idea of good enough. Prioritise and finish the most urgent thing on your list.
    • Start saying no. Between FOMO and the need to be liked, you risk spreading yourself too thin. Be choosy about where your energy goes.
    • Identify the people who are energy vampires, sucking the life out of you. Spend less time with them. Yes, even if they are your mother or close friend.
  • Spirit – are you deeply unhappy, profoundly lost, lacking in motivation for life itself?

  • You might need help from another if your depression and/or anxiety stands between you and what you want and need to do. I wrote here about what to do when you feel you can’t go on.
    • try this You can make a start on refilling your well by creating something different; a cake, a tidy room or garden area, a picture if you write, a poem if you draw.
    • Seek out peace in whatever way makes sense to you. You probably gave it up at some point, whether it be running, prayer, music, looking at the ocean, reading, or yoga. Schedule a half or even a whole hour. Devote the entire time to your own tranquility.
    • Go to a museum or gallery or store and enjoy looking at beautiful things. Then come home and make something small that is not connected to your main project.

Of course a week off in the Caribbean sounds like the perfect answer to the blahs. What it actually represents is time and space to do the things above. Since we mostly can’t take off whenever we need to reset our compass, what’s needed is a pause.

Just don’t stop completely.

You pause, catch your breath, and then you can go on.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

The collector

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Unsplash via pixabay

 

Here, a bright feather of iridescent purple and blue, plucked from the bird of happiness as it flew by. I fashioned a quill, dipped in black ink drawn from a pale, eyeless octopus that, shunning light, knew only deep sunless despair. And with these, I write a song for you.

 

Here, a dark mysterious shell, some glittering grains of sand, pulled from the farthest shores of imagination. I searched after lightning struck and used sea glass to bottle tamed fragments of raging sea. And with these, I carry the storm home for you.

 

Here, a smooth jawbone and a horn, ripped from some ancient creature now extinct. Elbow deep in blood I dug through rotting meat and guts, and boiled the bones white. I strung sharp teeth on sinews and scraped the hide clean. And with these, I make necklaces and furs for you.

 

Here, a fine pattern hinting at past violence and pain. The icy burn of a Judas kiss, a red-hot blade slipped into my heart both left their names behind. Fresh scalpels carved embedded bullets and forgotten shrapnel from my flesh. I cried healing tears till wounds were mere memory, scars written on my skin. And with these, I trace forgiveness for you.

 

Here, a brimming cup of clear water. I stumbled among rocks, scrabbled in the earth with ragged hands, searching for the source. I toiled endlessly, shaping the clay, firing each hard-won vessel in the furnace, though so many lay broken on the midden of experience. And with these, I bring refreshment for you.

 

Here, a monarch butterfly caught in amber. I chased many joys but captured only one, sacrificed to preservation that more might see it close. I dissected and catalogued the pieces, then remade them into a lesser whole.  Deathless yet not alive, its colours are held where a tree wept, hardened by time. And with these, I offer possibility for you.

 

Here, a hoard of objects orbiting my gravity. A lock of hair, a puff of breath, a glistening tear. A heartbeat, a ruby blood drop, a remembered sunrise. A sea-worn stone, an autumn leaf, a stolen kiss. All these I have collected, sewn into a Frankenstein quilt with hopeful stitches. And with this patched creation, I offer my love to you.

 

First published 15th April 2017 in The Creative Cafe on Medium, and winner of the creative challenge

blog, writing process

Everything is material

Using bad stuff to make good stuff

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stevepb via pixabay

 

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway

Into every life some rain must fall. Whether  actual or metaphorical rain, it’s soon joined by tears from someone. Maybe that someone is you. It’s a fact that bad things happen to all of us. Then we must choose how to respond.

The energy of anger and grief

These powerful emotions can wreak havoc when suppressed. Instead, try directing them outwards. When I’m angry, I clean my house. I release the anger, and I get a tidy living space; two birds with one stone. I might dig in the garden if the weather permits. You might prefer to walk, or run, or do some boxing. All are good, allowing the body to let go of the tension, and maybe producing something positive too.

For a writer, all emotions are fuel.

To make our characters three dimensional, to give them life on the page and in the reader’s mind, means giving them real emotions. The characters need motivations and reactions that feel believable. As writers, we decide what to include, what to imply, and what to leave out. And we need empathy, that is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. It is the shared experience that defines empathy.

empathy      I understand your feeling, because I have felt the same
sympathy    This feeling is unpleasant, and I am sorry you have to experience it

Put simply, empathy is personal; you walk a mile in someone’s shoes. While sympathy is impersonal; you acknowledge the stone in the shoe without putting it on.

Write what you know?

We are often told to write what we know. If we took this literally, there would be very little literature beyond first person narrative. Stories need characters, and characters need fleshing out. When I think of a character who is not like me, I must inhabit their skin.

I need to draw on my own experiences, in order to know what my male humanoid in a distant galaxy might do in the middle of a pulse laser battle. I have not been in that situation, but I know what anxiety, fear, pain, and courage feel like.

For myself, I rarely bother with detailed check sheets for my characters, except when it comes to personality traits. I am much less interested in a character’s favourite colour, than in how they react to each situation. When I understand how each character thinks and feels, dialogue and action come naturally. And characters gain a life of their own, doing and saying surprising things. I just have to follow them, typing as fast as I can.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
Robert Frost

Resources for character personality traits

One of the most popular schemes for assigning personality traits is the Alignment system, developed from the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. There are nine alignments, drawn from combinations of good-neutral-evil and lawful-neutral-chaotic. They deal with ethical and moral standpoints such as ‘rules are rules’ as opposed to ‘rules are meant to be broken sometimes’ as opposed to ‘what rules?’

More information is available here and here .

Like all classification systems, it is not perfect, but it’s very helpful in making your characters both internally consistent and more diverse overall. Each cast member needs to be authentic, but different from the others.

If you want to make a relatable villain, she must have some trait or behaviour your readers can share or empathise with. Otherwise all villains are chaotic evil, and that is not enough to sustain interest. (A possible exception might be Heath Ledger’s Joker, but one is enough.)

Another fabulous resource is the writers’ thesaurus series by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Emotion Thesaurus details emotions along with their possible causes and effects on a person. This allows a writer to create finely detailed and observed characters.

Suffering can become art

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Skitterphoto via pixabay

We don’t have to suffer for art; we will suffer whatever happens, because that’s life. As creators, we can use our suffering to build something that will show the world a truth, as we see it.

Write what you feel.
That’s the alchemy whereby pain becomes beauty. That’s art.

 

blog, writing process

All writing is #writing

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Cornfreak via pixabay

I’m working on something new right now, a long form story that might run over 10K words. It’s flowing very well, and I’m writing to a mental outline  (because I’m really bad at writing them down).

What’s the problem, you ask? It isn’t my primary WIP.

I signed up for a course to help me plot that WIP like a pro, and then write it efficiently. Sadly, I am struggling with the step-by-step approach that is absolutely guaranteed to work. Except when it doesn’t.

Because the plotting isn’t working, my WIP has ground to a halt. In contrast to writing the shiny new story, I found myself blocked, struggling to regain that easy sense of creation. Meantime, I have written a few short stories for the writers’ group. But the more I struggle to fit into a particular way of doing things, the more constrained I feel. It’s like wearing blinkers inside a box. I can’t see which way to go, and straight ahead isn’t working.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

We are often advised, if we want to grow in skills and as humans, to challenge ourselves. I am all for this. So as a confirmed pantser, I am trying to learn the art of plotting. Currently, this is not going well. But – I am still writing. During the writing and re-writing of my first novel, taking time away to work on another short project had many benefits.

  • A sense of achievement from finishing shorter pieces
  • A rest from story problems
  • During which I gave my brain a chance to come up with answers
  • Returning to the main WIP refreshed and with new ideas

It’s all material

I found the picture above at random. I chose it for this post not because it’s immediately useful, but because I like clouds and mist, and it suggests a story, . It’s beautiful, and therein lies its utility. Inspiration cannot always be harnessed to a particular vehicle. Like a wayward horse, sometimes creativity needs to have its head and explore the meadow. Afterwards, it is more amenable to direction.

If I think I have writer’s block, it is a sign that I am trying to force myself in the wrong direction. Time to check out another path and keep going, because all writing is #writing.

Keep writing, no matter what you’re writing.