Sunday, December 26, 2010

Rest Breaks for Book Writers--Feeding the Artist

There are some important signs of burn-out that writers need to attend to.  An overactive Inner Critic.  A feeling of the blues about one's work.  A sense of deep depletion, despite enough sleep and exercise.

December rolled around with all of these symptoms, for me.  I'd just finished up a four-month teaching marathon at three different writing schools plus a new online class.  All were amazing, wonderful, and inspiring, but I gave
so much to each group, holding the creative space for them and their books when they couldn't see it.  At the same time, I was finishing the final editing of my forthcoming book on book-writing, Your Book Starts Here, working with wonderful editor and typesetter and publishing house.  Plus some creative opportunities came my way that I just couldn't pass up, including making a video to help book writers storyboard their manuscripts.  One day when the manuscript was finally out of my hands, the students signed off from the class, the video in the hands of the editor, I sat on the couch and stared at the mountains outside my living room window, wondering where I was.

More important, who I was.  I couldn't tell anymore.

Crying jags often accompany this, for me.  Wails of "Who am I?" or "I'll never write again" sometimes come too.  It's normal to dive even deeper as the tension releases and the stress lessens, as both body and emotions come forward with long-ignored needs.  Don't get me wrong:  I eat healthily, I exercise regularly, I sleep reasonable hours, and I have good family and friends support.  I'm living a good life.  But in the realm of manifestation and creativity, which is what my work is all about, I had been stretched to the max these past months.  I didn't know any other gear to drive than Intense.  I didn't know how to get back to the "necessary boredom" that Dorothy Allison talks about, the place where my own creativity bubbles up.

Somehow, though, I'd managed to carve out three weeks in my calendar.  My spouse started a new job about that time, my son was visiting friends for the holidays, so I was alone.

Blissfully, frightfully alone, with nothing to do.  Or, let me rephrase, nothing anyone else was asking me to do.

So what next?  How do I make use of this nothing, and let it heal me, fill me up again?  I hadn't a clue how to begin.

Taking a Creative Retreat for the Inner Artist
I have a wonderful book for these occasions:  The Woman's Retreat Book by Jennifer Louden.  It's packed with ways to disengage and reacquaint yourself with yourself.  I found it on a back shelf, went back to my spot on the couch near the mountain view.  I closed my eyes and opened the book at random.  Of course, it opened to this section "Feeding the Artist."  I read the first line: "If there is one cosmic law I know the consequences of ignoring, it is this one:  you cannot create from an empty well."

Duh.  Why didn't I see this before I had my meltdown?  Well, obviously, when one is empty, it's hard to see that.  Many of us keep running anyway, fueled by adrenaline, and the joy of life gets dimmer and dimmer.  We lose track of where we are, who we are.  We get swept up with other people's lives (and creative needs--if you're a teacher).  It's all good, it's all important.  I love my work.  But there's a moment to say, "Stop!"  Let yourself go back to yourself.

I decided I would ignore both calendar and lists for these three weeks, as much as I could.  Even my visioning lists went into a nice blue folder and into my desk drawer.  I began to putter, to play.

The first day I cooked two soups.  I love to cook, and two soups in one day seemed lovely and extravagant.  Besides, the vegetable drawer was foreign territory and I could use up a dangerous-looking butternut squash (fine with the dangerous part cut off).  I took a walk and went to bed by 9.  The next day I listened to Christmas carols and wrapped a few gifts then read a lovely novel (Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann) and let myself nap.  Day three I got out the card table and started a jigsaw puzzle.  I cleaned out my clothes closet.  I took myself to lunch.

You get the idea.

One of Jennifer Louden's most important directives in this chapter on "Feeding the Artist" is not to create while you're filling the well.  Stop working on your project, stop trying to manifest anything.  Ugh, that was hard.  I hadn't had enough time to work on my novel-in-progress, so these three weeks were planned as full immersion.  But when I took out the manuscript and my editing pen, I froze up.  It all looked terrible--a sure sign of the Inner Critic's negative notions surfacing--and I couldn't bring myself to do anything.  Reading Louden's advice felt like a reprieve.

Funny thing.  As I began to fill up again, new ideas started coming.  I would be watching a movie or marveling at McCann's amazing prose, and I would find myself thinking very lightly about my own creative projects.  Images would come.  An idea of how to solve a sticky plot problem in the novel.  A place to get information I needed.  I didn't pursue these, just took notes.

I'm letting the creative tension build for another week.  It's getting fun.  I look forward to my empty days, I no long dread the thought of moving so slowly.

This Week's Writing Exercise 
1.  Take stock.  Do you need to feed the artist?  Is she or he starving from too much output and not enough input these past busy months?

2.  If the answer is yes, can you carve out time for a rest break?  Even five hours in a day when nothing is needed of you is amazing and precious.


  1. Mary, vous vivez exactement ce que je suis en train de vivre. J'ai traversé un mois de novembre intense avec le NaNoWriMo. Ensuite, j'ai plongé dans l'écriture d'une nouvelle et j'ai avancé la préparation de mes ateliers d'écriture pour 2011. Puis, le 17 décembre dernier, j'ai reçu une lettre de refus pour mon manuscrit (la suite de mon premier roman). J'ai beaucoup pleuré. Ce refus m'a totalement chamboulée. Depuis, je suis épuisée, tout ce que j'écris semble nul (c'est la voix de mon critique intérieur, je sais...)
    Je crois que j'ai besoin de nourrir l'artiste en moi, mais surtout de l'accueillir dans son épreuve de ne pas être reconnu...
    MERCI pour votre article : il tombe à point dans ma vie. Vous êtes bien inspirée...
    Annie :o)

  2. Wonderful post. You put words to what I've been experiencing recently (lots of tears,too). Sometimes it can be so hard to remember what 'fills the well', and how necessary it is to take the time to do it. Merci beaucoup!

  3. Thanks, Mary Carroll. I love your blog and look forward to each post. I read a lot of different writing blogs, but your blog is the best. I recommend it to all my friends and really appreciate the care you put into writing it.

  4. Thanks, April. It certainly is a hard task to let ourselves replenish, although it should be a piece of cake.

  5. Thanks, Angela! And thank you for recommending the blog to your friends. It's great to know that it's helpful.

  6. Thank you for this post! This is exactly where I am at, so it is heartening to read about your experiences and strategies.

  7. Thank you, Liz! I think a lot of us are here about now. . . Glad it was helpful.

  8. I joined the chorus of praise for this post with a post of my own:

    Hope that's OK, Mary. Best regards.

  9. Thanks so much, Tom. I'm very honored to be mentioned on your blog. Hope others reading this will visit--it's a really good blog that shows the life of a published writer. Congrats again on your book and I wish you big success with it and future publications!