Creative people-for example, musicians, actors, artists, and yes, writers-are often considered a bit odd or ‘funny’ by the rest of humanity. That’s okay, because the truth is we are different. The drive to create a work that perhaps has no permanent utility yet still stands outside the creator can sometimes cause the creator to do things that are perhaps a bit daft, as our British friends might put it.
This can even be seen in the things we do to put ourselves in a space where we can create. For example, I once read of a well-known cartoonist who literally could not work if he did not have one foot in a pan of hot water and the other foot in a pan of cold water. (Unfortunately, the book in which I read that account seems to have not survived my most recent relocation, so I can’t give you a cite.)
At a slightly more mundane level, I can tell you of at least two or three pretty well-known science fiction authors who write best with metal-death music pouring from their stereo speakers at high decibel levels. I know of at least two very successful authors whose work regimen is to write from about 10 p.m. to about 6 a.m, sleep in the early part of the day, then spend the afternoon and early evening with the spouse and kids before sitting down at the keyboard again at 10 p.m. And there are always stories about someone’s writing for the day getting totally derailed because his/her coffee/tea/drink of choice was just not available and it blew his/her routine off the tracks.
So writers are often considered to be a species of odd ducks, and sometimes for valid reasons.
I never considered myself to be an odd duck, but the one thing I secretly took pride in was I could pretty much write anywhere. Airport, coffee bar, hotels, airplanes; if I could get my laptop there and open, I could put words down regardless of the distractions around me. The day job had me doing the road warrior gig several times over the years, so I had plenty of experience in working in places that were not home. In fact, my personal best getting-lots-of-words-down-in-a-short-time record happened in a hotel room in Grimsby, England-6000 + words in five hours. Truth. Cross my heart.
So for a long time, I kind of felt like I was invulnerable as a writer.
Then came March of 2009. Remember? The housing bubble had burst, all the mortgage rocks had been flipped over and we were gagging at the putrefaction we found underneath, and the economy was on a greased slide to nowhere and it was getting there fast.
Skipping a lot of the details, the bottom line is that the day job laid off about 400 people, and one of them was me. I found out in March 2009 I was going to be laid off, and at that moment my fiction writing dried up. Withered. Croaked. I wasn’t actually laid off until December 31, 2009, but I knew it was coming. And yeah, at first I was in shock, and angry, and all the typical emotions, but this wasn’t the first time I’d been out on the street, so my head straightened out pretty quickly-except for the creative voice. I could write text for work without any problems at all. I was serving as a Bible study teacher, and I could write study materials without a glitch. Words just flowed. But try to write fiction? Wasn’t happening.
Fast forward. I spent January through October 2010 in school picking up some education credits to help the job search. Writing for the classes, no problem. Fiction? Uh-uh. Oh, maybe a paragraph here and there, but nothing good, and no comfort at it. I put that down to just the uncertainty of my situation
In November 2010 I got a new job with a great company. Only problem with it was I had to move about 160 miles to take it. And selling a house in 2010 wasn’t much easier than selling a house in 2009 would have been. So it was back to the road warrior gig: leave town on Sunday afternoon with a car full of clean clothes and food, come home on Friday night with a car full of dirty laundry, spend the week in a small hole-in-the-wall apartment. (Not unlike being in college.)
I figured that with the new job, the uncertainty would be gone. I had lots of experience at living in road warrior mode, and lots of experience at really producing words while doing it. I thought, “Great! Five nights a week in the apartment with nothing else to do. I’ll get tons of writing done.”
Yeah, that’s how it should have been. But the next ten months proved to be one of the most frustrating times of my life as a writer. I was used to writing up to 2500-3000 words in an evening. A night in which I only put down 1000 words was substandard for me. Yet during those ten months, I would sit down night after night, spend two to three hours at the keyboard, and if I was very lucky I’d have 150 words. A lot of nights I only had 50. More nights than I care to think about I had 20, or 10, or none. Truth. And if I did get some words down, the next night I’d probably delete most of them as dreck. But I kept trying.
It drove me batty. I knew I could do better than that; a lot better. But no matter what I tried, nothing primed the pump; nothing got the words flowing again. You could have used me for a picture of frustration in the dictionary. I was dying of thirst in a writing desert. Still, I kept trying.
Fast forward again to August, 2011. We sold our old house in the city we moved from and bought our new house in the city we moved to. We moved in September.
After the move, I kept trying to write. And to my surprise (and joy), slowly, bit by bit, it became easier to write. The words starting to flow again-a trickle at first, but soon in a stream. The volume of words produced each day started to grow. At the beginning of December, 2011, I was consistently producing an average of 1000 words every time I sat down, which, while it’s not where I was pre-2009, was so much better than what I’d done in the last 2 ½ years I was ecstatic. And then around December 15, it was like the muse opened the flood gate. I wrote 40,000 words in a little over two weeks. Joy, relief, happiness; oh, yeah, did I feel that.
So what made the difference? What opened the door to my creative voice again? I think it’s having a home. When I was laid off, I knew that I would most likely have to move to get a good job. I think that something about not having a home even in prospect just really shriveled my creativity, and it wasn’t until I got the new home and actually settled into it that it started to revive. Makes sense to me. So perhaps I am an odd duck after all.
What’s your bedrock? What’s the one thing in your life that if it was removed, you wouldn’t be able to write?
I hope none of you ever land in that writing desert. But if you do, the best advice I can give you is keep writing. Persevere, even if you only get 30 or 50 words done in a day. From my experience, when you get out of the desert you’ll still have the patterns and habits of writing, which means you’ll get back in the flow that much quicker.
Meanwhile, enjoy paddling around with the rest of us odd ducks. Quack, quack.
David, I totally feel your pain, and I’m glad it’s over for you. I, too, was laid off in June 2009, and it took me almost two years to find a job. That was the pain, but for me, I somehow turned that time into the best writing time of my life. I spent every day at Starbucks looking for jobs for a couple hours, then writing for at least four. It was my daily routine, and in the first six months of my unemployment, I actually churned out almsot 130k words on a novel. It was garbage and has been shelved since, but it was wonderful practice.
The second year of unemployment was just as good, spawning 160k+ words which, to this date, I’m “keeping”. What killed my creativity, was actually getting another job! As soon as I got my current job in May 2011, it completely screwed up my daily routine, and the word flow shrank to less than a dribble. Other life changes happened later last year which have only served to further choke the muse within me, but, as you said, perserverance is the odd duck’s friend.
Love the post, David. I have no idea what my triggers might be, but everyone who knows me well, knows I’m an odd duck. No need to experiment with house loss or anything of that nature. *knocks on wood*
Yes, I know exactly what you mean. It’s such a hard hole to crawl out of but, with perserverance, it happens eventually.