You know what? Sometimes this sucks. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes trying to get one single measly word on the damn page feels like trying to push an articulated lorry uphill, in the rain, with the handbrake on.
Why? Why is it so hard?
Sometimes the reasons are obvious.
Real life worries screw with the concentration. Occasionally creative work can be an escape from them – but it can be really hard to find the appropriate mindset when financial or health or relationship troubles are clawing and cawing and crapping all over your brain like a flock of particularly unpleasant crows. There are means to cope with this. Writing lists of things you can do to deal with your troubles may reassure your brain that you are doing something. Actually doing one small thing, even if it’s just making one appointment, writing one email or putting a stamp on one envelope may put the Anxiety Bear to sleep for a bit.
Your health can interfere with your ability to work. This is, or should be, really obvious. If you’re in pain, or ill, or simply exhausted, it’s harder to concentrate. This is not a sign of moral weakness. If it’s a long term problem, again, taking a small step towards dealing with it can help – exploring different methods of pain control or new therapies. Finding a new position to work in that’s less strenuous, or only working for very short periods. If it’s a short term problem or a temporary worsening of a chronic condition, sometimes all you can do is just go to bed and look after yourself until you feel better, instead of trying to drive yourself on when you’re in no state to do so – you may just end up starting to hate the work, because you’re trying to push yourself to do it when you feel vile, and that’s a good way for it to stop being a joy and start being a chore. Don’t treat yourself the way a bad boss would – take a break when you need it.
Sometimes, though, the work is the problem. Is this the project I should be working on? Should I be doing something else? Should I be doing this project differently, faster, slower, better?
Maybe. If you’re struggling with the work itself, there’s often a reason – and it is not that you’re rubbish, or hopeless.
Maybe this isn’t the project you should be working on. Maybe you’ve chosen something for reasons that have less to do with your personal creative needs than with external pressures, or you’re still working on a project you started when you were in a different life situation or frame of mind and it no longer speaks to you. If you’re not under contract, then rethink. Are you trying to do something that doesn’t truly interest or excite you? Well, if no-one’s paying you, why?
If someone is paying you, that’s different, of course. If you’re under contract, you’re going to have to finish anyway. In either case, the following might help.
Maybe you need to come at it from a different angle. Maybe it needs to go in a different direction, or have a different viewpoint, or frame, or voice. Sometimes changing one thing – who the protagonist is, or their profession, or gender, changing the point at which you start the story or the setting or the tone – can be what you need. Maybe the protagonist is the cook, not the count. Maybe it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. Maybe it’s set in Moldavia and it should be set in the Midlands.
Sometimes you start again with a different approach and there’s an almost audible ‘click’ and you hear the muse going, ‘Thank you, fi-nally’ as she rolls up her sleeves and gets on with it. (That may just be my muse, mind. She can be bratty.). I’m really not sure how to translate this to other arts than writing – different media? Different colours? Different forms, starting points, background? All I can really suggest is that you change just one thing to start with, and see what happens.
And sometimes, you just need to put your head down and plough on. If you’ve already started the same project six different ways, it’s probably time to pick one version and stick with it. If you’ve started six different projects and haven’t finished any of them, then it’s definitely time to pick one and stick with it. Because those can be signs that the problem isn’t with doing the work but with finishing.
Finishing is scary. Finishing has implications. You may not be thinking about them consciously, but your subconscious may have a whole bunch of them all lined up, quivering and pacing and chewing their nails. Criticism. Judgement. Failure. Hatred. Career Implosion. Expulsion from Civilised Society and Residence in a Cardboard Box…(the downside of an active imagination can be, alas, one that’s as hyperactive as a toddler mainlining triple espressos).
Unless you are extraordinarily offensive or really, intensely, improbably unlucky, it is unlikely in the farthest extreme that one project will doom your career or result in your entire life falling apart around your ears. One project is only one project. Yes, this one might fail, might not be what you hoped, might turn off people you wanted to like it or, ye gods, attract people you would really rather it didn’t.
It’s one project. One project is not the Totality of Your Creative Self, it does not say everything about who you are as a human being or indicate the entire impact of your existence upon the multiverse.
It’s just one step in your creative journey. And it might, just might, be a really good one – a joy, a breakthrough, the one that gets you to the next stage, whatever that is for you.
Deal with what you can of the Life Stuff. Rest if you need to. Try different projects, different approaches. Try to see finishing as a joy, not a threat.
And get that one goddamned word, or brushstroke, or whatever, on the page. The next one is almost always easier.
Great post, Gaie. I will mark it for when I next grind to a halt (so, tomorrow, probably).
I go through this (your problem list and its solutions) on every single project – the entire thing, as I rationalise my way in and out of procrastinating or getting stuck or whatever. I think that, natural exhaustions aside, delays and terrors are attempts to control the uncontrollable – what someone else will think of your project. Since this is impossible my ego tries every trick in the book to stop works immediately until it can figure out when conditions will be more favourable. This can derail things for a long old time until other pressures more terrifying ultimately push the thing forward again.
By the way you don’t suck, ever. Sometimes writing does just feel like trying to sculpt Mount Rushmore with a blunt sewing needle, it just does. It would be weird if you spent every day dashing off effortless prose in exactingly measured scenes. Sometimes you spend all day reshaping six pages of tight and sassy backstory into readable, daring paragraphs only to realise it’s still six pages of infodump and would be better as two scenes of dialogue or three chapters of fiendishly subtle mini-dumps interwoven into a scintillating courtroom drama. Sooo…that seemed too hard to manage so I read your blog instead 🙂
Hi Justina – I’m so sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier, for some reason I am failing to receive notifications of comments at the moment (I have designated my other half to find out why as he understands the arcane mysteries of this damn website far better than I do). I love the Mount Rushmore image – especially since I once drove a darning needle all the way through my thumb! (Sheer idiocy on my part). I’m pleased you like the blog – although I do now feel slightly guilty that I have provided an excuse for avoidance! I hope the scene – or scenes – got sorted to your satisfaction.
Excellent advice. But finishing – is anything ever really finished? OK, breakfast can be finished, but maybe not books.