When creativity goes missing

IMG_7177Forgive me for being quiet lately.

My creative process packed a rucksack and went whistling away down December’s open road.

It hasn’t yet come wandering back. And now I’m on a mission to find it.

This is easier said than done. With three small girls at home with me during the day, the needs are endless. Someone is hungry. There are booster trays to wash, and sink traps clogged with tiny trees of broccoli. There are miniature fights to break up. Frowns to tickle out. Books to be read.

Every day, creative ideas form and cluster like soap bubbles. And then I look at the clock. And my to-do list. And back to the clock.

Someone <skips a nap><cuts a molar><scribbles on the computer screen with permanent marker>. The soap bubble idea pops.

Everything falls in a swirl down the drain.

***

One of the authors I studied in grad school was a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ($5 if you can pronounce that) who says, “Creative persons differ from one another in a variety of ways, but in one respect they are unanimous: They all love what they do.”

I fell into a slump after Christmas. The house felt claustrophobic and close – newly gifted items didn’t fit into my already less-than-perfect organization scheme. Suitcases from coming and going needed to be unpacked. Everything needed attention.

Finally, I gave in and spent two weeks using my free time (a precious commodity) doing things I didn’t necessarily love. I organized. I laundered. I folded. I scrubbed. I purged. I went to bed strangely stressed, and woke up tired even after eight hours of solid sleep.

I had no idea something was wrong until the night I put the girls to bed, kissed my husband, and went to worship team practice at my church. For the next hour and half, I banged out chords on that big black grand piano. I sang. Slowly, I fell out myself and into Grace.

Leaving the building that night, I felt lighter. It occurred to me that singing was the only thing I’d done in two weeks that was for sheer enjoyment.

Not because I had to. Not because I needed to. Because I wanted to.

Just then, I saw my creative process waving in the distance.

Deep breath. Right.

***

The last couple of weeks have been a study in balance, and slowly but surely, I can see my creativity levels start to build.

I’m baking bread. I’m making up stories for the girls. I’m going to the gym with a regularity that surprises even me. Today I’m sitting down at the computer, wading through the rhythm of putting words the page.

They aren’t perfect. They don’t have to be. I’m happily lost in my craft, and that’s the point. When I’m doing the things I love, I’m a better, kinder, more expansive version of myself.

Friend, if you’ve somehow found yourself in a similar creative slump, please take a deep breath. Ignore the overflowing laundry basket, put in a pizza, and schedule a block of time to get out and do something you love.

Let it overtake you. Change you. Give you new ideas. Your creativity is the truest expression of who you are. Don’t let it get away.

#MyWritingProcess and why it works (for me)

When I first was asked to take part in the #MyWritingProcess blog hop, I laughed. Unlike other writers, I don’t have much of a formal process. I sit at a desk. I write. I get up and separate children and toys. I drink more coffee. I change a diaper. I write some more.

That’s not very inspiring. It’s definitely not a cabin in the woods, or a quiet coffee shop. But maybe that’s the thing. Writing for me isn’t about the perfect setting and the best computer and the quiet and the trendy music playing in the background. Writing is about clearing a space in the mess of normal living for something that’s important.

quoteStephanie from Uptownerupnorth knows all too well what that means. She and her husband and baby are on a 4th generation family farm – a real, functioning, machinery-filled farm – in Northern Minnesota. Farms take time. Farms take everything. But in the middle of all that, they give you the most amazing things to notice, and through her blog posts, I see Stephanie taking advantage of that. Stephanie, thanks for inviting me to take part in the hop, and for the words you too are making time to put down.

So. What am I working on?

I think this is supposed to be a “my next big project” sort of question, but who am I kidding. I have twins and a toddler. I’m working on making sure we have enough diapers to cover tiny butts and enough apples in the fridge to satisfy my daughter’s new three a day habit.

In the odd times I find myself at the computer, I hammer out a blog post, scramble to keep up with emails, and scour Craigslist for things like “medium-sized outdoor dogs that don’t eat chickens.”

Someday I’ll save enough cash to go back and finish my MFA in Creative Writing. In the meantime, I go back and edit my poems, save them in yellow electronic folders marked “done” or “in progress” or “what the.” Once in a while, I do this scary thing called submitting.

And every so often, when the warm little bodies of my girls are heavy and horizontal for the night, I find my way to the keyboard. I’m slowly circling around ideas of food and memory and fellowship, and of this strange word called hospitality. I don’t know where it’s going, and that’s ok. Sometimes it’s better that way.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Is this a trick question? My work is simply my own – my musings, my questions. If you wanted to put me in a bucket, I’d tell you I try to write in Midwestern plain speak. That I need my descriptions to be like mirrors. That I have a voice just as you have a voice. That we all deserve to hear one another in whatever medium we choose to speak through.

Why do I write what I do?

There is no escaping the routine of my daily life, but through writing, I make myself take the time to see my routines as rituals, and this makes me want to live differently.

I write about faith because Jesus is constantly shaping me. I write about grace because being shaped hurts. I write about parenting because it is the event that has changed me the most. I write about food because I love to eat. I write about the ideas and words that tail me through my days, hanging out in my rear-view mirror.

I write because I live in a world that deserves examination. Sometimes that’s in poetry, sometimes it’s in a blog post, sometimes it’s creative non-fiction. Sometimes it’s an email, a caption, a hash tag. But all of these things make me pay attention, and that’s what I need.

How does your writing process work?

People are posting great pictures of scrawly notebook pages and favorite places to write, but for me, it’s about efficiency. I don’t have a lot of time to write, so when I do get a moment, it’s serious business. Here are my unofficial rules:

  • Get something to drink. Anything. (Ok not anything. I never drink milk while I write.) Usually it’s either coffee or water. Call me a purist. Or call me cheap. That’s just usually what I have on hand.
  • Sit up straight. I have to pay attention to my words. I don’t write well if I’m slouched over, sprawled on the couch, or even leaning back in my chair. I always sit on the edge of my seat, like some sort of over-eager school girl.
  • Skip any music that has words. I need my mental playing field not to have any opponents. And yes, I did play sixth grade volleyball. How did you know? (My sports metaphors rock.)
  • Know when to break. You can only push so hard on an idea that’s not fully developed. If I’m not getting somewhere with a thought, I leave it and come back.
  • Come back. Preferably with another beverage. Make yourself come back even if you don’t want to. What happens can be amazing. Or it can stink, and then you just save it away as fodder for another idea later on. Either way, come back. Always come back.

The next three writers in the blog hop are crazy different, and crazy talented. Allow me to introduce them, and to encourage you to go visit them next Tuesday for their own thoughts on writing and process.

Kasey Jackson is a fellow twin mama I met in a Facebook group focused on twins born in 2013. Somehow when I was whining about diapers and mopping, she finished a book. I know. Overachiever. She’s also hilarious. There may or may not be a series of Instagram videos entitled “Kasey vs.” that make me snort laugh whenever they show up in my feed. Her blog is focused mainly on her book, Blue, so you should definitely head over and see what it’s about. You can even download a free preview of the first chapter, which means you’ve got something to read on the bus ride/couch/coffee shop chair tonight.

Anna Palmquist is one of the magical people in my life I wish I got to hang out with more. Luckily, she’s a part of my writing group, and sometimes, when she busts out an idea so full of wisdom and humor and reality, I’m floored I get to say I know her. Anna recently started grad school and is focusing on writing Young Adult Fiction, which is totally hip. She also recently started blogging at Writing Young Adult Fiction , which is exactly as is sounds. For those of you that love process and prose and the YA world, this is your new landing pad.

Courtney Fitzgerald possesses a wisdom that comes hard-earned. She writes poignantly real prose in her blog Our Small Moments and her work appears in the collection I Just Want to Be Alone (I Just Want to Pee Alone). She’s a fantastic photographer and busy mama of two, and may or may not have time to take part in the hop but either way, go read her stories, marvel at her pictures and be reminded about the importance of living in appreciation for the ones you love. Oh, and one more brag. She’s family. 🙂

Take Care, Make Care Part 3 – Jackie’s thoughts

You know how there are some people in your life that you really, truly ADMIRE? My friend and writing group compatriot Jackie (www.jackieleasommers.com) is one of those people. Each month when our group meets, Jackie emails us beautiful word documents full of ideas and people and story. She has made writing a practice, and turned her practice into art. She’s also learned a lot about the necessity of self-care in her creative process, and I’m really happy to share her ideas on the subject with you today.

Take CareI love to write. That love is one of the biggest pieces of my identity, and I feel so deep-seated in the will of God when I write that I experience an overwhelming peace in addition to the excitement I have over the joy of creation. I’ve been writing nearly my whole life, chasing the dream of publication, enlisting the help of Rachel and the other members of our writing critique group, shelling out hard-earned dollars to attend workshops and conferences and to elicit the help of professionals, and it all paid off when my debut novel Truest sold in a pre-empt in November 2013.

It’s a dream come true, really: a two-book contract with HarperCollins, one of the world’s largest publishing companies. I was speechless when my agent called to tell me the good news, delighted when my new editor at Katherine Tegen Books gushed about my characters. I was thrilled to share my news with friends, family, co-workers, blog readers. My life was sunbeams and rainbows and kittens.

For a few days.

Reality set in quickly. First, I dove into writing the second book, finding the experience unrecognizably different from the writing of Truest. I started floundering, terrified that I was a one-trick pony who would never write another decent paragraph. The self-doubt poured into my life so quickly that I was drowning before I had barely recognized what was happening. I had four almost panic attacks in three months, and the fear of the future and the fear of failure were deep. Then came the first round of revisions to Truest, the first set a harrowing six weeks of intense brainstorming and rewriting that would utterly exhaust me as if I’d run a marathon without training for it first. All of this was changing something profound about my identity: I wasn’t enjoying writing anymore.

When I recognized that, it understandably concerned me. I knew I had to find some solid ground again so that I could turn my anxiety-ridden pursuits back into a treasured vocation.

Here was my self-care prescription:

  • Psychiatrist. I made an immediate appointment with my psychiatrist. I explained the stress and panic I’d been feeling and asked for something to combat those chemical reactions in my body.
  • Reminders. I read and re-read my First Draft Manifesto, to remind myself that writing is hard.
  • Oils. I started using essential oils. In particular, I began using (and grew to love) Valor, a blend of essential oils that is like natural “courage in a bottle.”
  • Mentoring. I scheduled a coffee date with my undergraduate writing mentor and let her fill my head and heart with wisdom about the writing life. I also wrote crazed emails to my writing group, and let their replies work like a balm to my heart.
  • Therapy. I met with a therapist, and though I only went once, he made the brutal observation that I had to cut something out of my life, so I removed my email address (temporarily) from my website. This made a bigger difference than you might guess.
  • Encouragement and prayer. I created a private, invisible “Jackie’s Team” group on Facebook, and populated it with people who would pray for me and the books I was writing.
  • Rest. I allowed myself many, many naps—and even made a point to schedule them into my hectic writing schedule.
  • Prioritization. I limited my social time to a very small, intimate group of friends and was very up-front with others that I wouldn’t be able to hang out for the time being.
  • FutureMe.org.On this site, you can send emails to your future self, and it’s a calming way that I could effectively reach out to a future where I was not as stressed as I currently was.

Thus I was kept afloat. Or, better put, I am still being kept afloat. I just recently finished my first round of edits to Truest, and I actually feel good about them. I am about to dive back into my first draft of book two, and I’m excited about it. I feel like I have joy and perspective and faith again.

I used to think it was weak to need special self-care; now I realize that it is smart. By addressing areas where I could help myself, I was able to more quickly get back to enjoying my vocation, reveling in the blessedness of what I am called to do.

jackieJackie Lea Sommers lives and loves and writes in Minneapolis and can be found online at www.jackieleasommers.com and @jackieleawrites.