Fun fact: a lot of our Roundtable topics come from conversations we’re already having within the WBP critique group chat! And one of the things we’ve been talking about A LOT is burn-out and refilling the creative well (maybe because a lot of us debuted/became agented the last 3 years). So, we figured we’d bring that very complicated conversation to you all!
Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
KAT: to me, the “creative well” is your brain’s ability to just…create stories. But on a more basic sense, sometimes I call it my “word bank” and sometimes I’ve spent all the words in my account and I need to fill it again (aka, I’m all “worded out”). So, if I’ve been writing non-stop or just in a really bad place creatively, I need to go be inspired again and refill my “word bank.” If it’s just that I need a small break, I’ll try to read something that’s NOT in the genre or even age category I’m writing in. So, often I’ll read non-fiction or romance. But if it’s really bad and I have to step all the way back from my project, I’ll often go to something that’s not book. For this I’ll watch TV shows, movies, read webcomics, or try to go see a Broadway show (just saw Moulin Rouge and it was amazing!). Sometimes music helps. To be honest, every time it happens to me it’s slightly different. So I just do whatever makes me happy until my brain isn’t tired anymore and I feel inspired to write (of course, this changes if I’m on deadline because I don’t always have the luxury to just binge a thousand TV shows for a week).
MELODY: For me, refilling the creative well involves consuming a lot of nonfiction, sci-fi, and movies that stood out to me growing up (no matter the genre). For nonfiction, I listen to audiobooks and watch a ton of documentaries. There is a well of information that documentaries provide, the perfect springboard for ideas. Along with this, I am fascinated with how documentaries frame the truth and the truth that they want you to see. Great POV inspiration. For sci-fi (TV & film), I’m often invested in being inspired by how the world has been brought to life and how the characters fit into the world, along with how the world informs the story as it goes on. When it comes to movies, sometimes I just need a reset. So I’ll turn on something light, something fun to take my mind away from the heaviness of my world. To breathe above the clouds and just catch my breath. Usually this means watching a rom-com, dark comedy, adventure, or thriller. Aside from watching things and reading, I’ll also take some time out to check out the latest art exhibit that’s caught my eye, take a self care day, find new music (which, growing up I did weekly but nowadays do seasonally), pick apart a musical or play that I’ve been meaning to analyze, or walk around a nearby neighborhood. I’m in LA and LA is huge. There’s so much to see, so much locals don’t even see, so it’s really important to me to be able to get to know my city, the place I’ve chosen to call home. It helps redefine what that means for my characters.
FOODY: My creative well is fickle. It’s drawn to new, shiny things, so I tend to grow fatigued with any project within a week or two of steady, full-time work–at least for a little while. Due to deadlines, of course, I can’t simply hop around projects as I please. So in an effort to stave off creative fatigue, I like to work on multiple projects at once. Project A in the morning, Project B in the afternoon, and such. It makes my day feel more dynamic and changeable. When I’m pressed for time and don’t have this option, I get burned out, and my creative well runs dry. But only usually as long as it takes me to pick up a book to read, especially a book with anything in common with a current project. A few chapters of lyrical prose, for instance, has me rushing back to my document to tweak my language. I just need to make writing shiny again.
KAT: Oh wow, I am in awe of that fact that you can work on more than one project a day, Foody. I’ve definitely tried to do that but I never last for long. But I actually love how varied the things both Melody and Foody do to refill their creative well. I think sometimes we get stuck in this idea that to rejuvenate our creativity for our stories we have to stick to absorbing other story-shaped things. But I love the idea of just appreciating art and the world in all its forms! You never know what’s going to inspire you!
AKSHAYA: Creative well, for me, really just refers to being excited to create. When I’m feeling like I need to refill, I search out things that spark that excitement in me, that have me itching to get back to work. And this can be something that moves me or speaks to me or just gets me thinking in a different way. Sometimes that comes from a sense of comfort, from returning to the media that shaped me or influenced a particular WIP. Other times, it’s seeking out new stories and experiences. This means media, sure, and catching up on my never-ending TBR or watching a TV show that I’ve been meaning to check out. But it also means just living my life—traveling, spending time with friends, going on long walks, finding new music etc. Food is actually a big source of inspiration for me too—which I know sounds weird. But earlier this year, I was visiting family in India and while I was there, I had the chance to have this incredible meal that was a fusion of South Indian flavors and Western culinary techniques. Being Indian-American, I write stories that come out of my diaspora experiences, and that entire tasting menu felt like such a reflection of those experiences in a creative medium so different from mine. The creativity showcased by the chef and the story that they told through food got me so excited to get back to my own work.
MELODY: This is an excellent question. For me, I tend to do this before drafting each new project. I like to clear my mind and make room for certain pieces of art and life to guide me through the draft. I do this again, on a shorter timeline right before I start the middle and if I need to, again right before the end. But honestly, by that point, I just want to get to the end that I don’t. It’s kind of like what Kat said about a word bank. But think batteries. The battery just dies out so I’ve got to switch them out to keep going. And you know when the batteries in your TV remote is about to die because it starts slowing down and not responding. Same with the writing. At least for me.
FOODY: By my efficiency. The harder I push myself, the less work I manage per hour. Eight hour days suddenly yield the results of three hours of work on a good day, on a day when my energy is stronger and my motivation better. Those days are never fun. They’re frustrating, and I feel lethargic and distracted.
AKSHAYA: I’m totally the same, Foody. Writing stops being fun, and I have to drag myself to my desk and maybe only manage a handful of words if I’m lucky. And that’s when I know I have to step away and find that excitement to create again.
KAT: I think I know when I just can’t write anything I’m happy with. I don’t mean like full scenes or chapters. If I write just one sentence that I love then I’m probably fine. But if I feel like I could or should scrap everything I’ve been writing recently then I know that I’m feeling some creative fatigue and take it as a sign to step back a bit.
MELODY: The honest answer is that I procrastinate and pray that something will hit me. Which is NOT ADVICE. The entire time that I’m procrastinating, I’m paying attention to the world around me and how people react to each other, to themselves, to the world. I’m jotting down everything that reminds me of my MS, everything that comes to mind that I can hook into my characters, my story, my world once I get back to it. I talk to my CPs to walk me through the anxiety of it all or I’ll shame myself everyday until I get it together. Also, not advice. In case it wasn’t clear, I am not the right person to ask this question if you are indeed seeking guidance because I am not a fan of this process at all. The note jotting is great but I really just need to sit there and write a scene instead of jotting down bullet points for later.
FOODY: Because this doesn’t occur frequently, there’s a part of me that can romanticize the grind. It’s sort of like exam week in college, when everyone has dark under-eyes, is wearing 3-day-old unwashed flannel, reverently clutching cups of coffee. There’s a sort of camaraderie in that. If I know the end is in sight, I can sprint my way to the home stretch. I guess because I know several weeks from now I’ll get to laugh it off at drinks or coffee with another author. We’ve all been there. That makes me not feel quite as overwhelmed, so long as the state is very temporary. A week at most, maybe two. To be honest, though, I’m very lucky–I have only found myself in that position on very rare occasions.
KAT: I cry. Hahaha, not really, but sometimes I feel close to tears. I actually love Foody’s answer because I think that knowing that others are struggling with the same thing helps me feel less like I’m a failure. I think that’s the biggest stress, the feeling like I’m failing at my attempt to write/be an author. I’m fairly new in my author journey, so I still get some really bad guilt when I feel like I’m not doing enough or working hard enough. I think the most important thing is to take the “one day at a time” method. Don’t look at the bigger picture. Don’t look at all the things I have to accomplish this month. Just know what I have to do in the next couple of days and what do I need to do first to get that done? I also do some small tasks that I know I can get done quickly (like in an hour) and getting those small things does makes me feel better/more confident. Once I get into a groove I tend to just speed through my tasks. (some examples of smaller tasks might include writing a blog post, answering interview questions, sending emails I’ve been meaning to send, writing up a quick proposal for a future project, writing a blurb or a synopsis for a WiP)
AKSHAYA: Kat that’s such smart advice. A lot of my anxiety comes from feeling a lack of control, and when I have a million things left to do and a looming deadline, I get overwhelmed so fast. And breaking it all down into manageable tasks and staying focused on what one thing I’m doing right now rather than how much I have left to do helps keep me from spiraling. The other thing I do is try not to lose my daily routines. Often when I’m stressed about writing, the first things to vanish are my self-care standbys—meditation, journaling, exercise. But I remind myself that while I might not have time to do a whole workout, I can take a 20 minute walk. I might not be able to spend an hour on yoga, but I can spend 10 minutes doing stretches in my room or meditating. And honestly sometimes I just have to let myself feel the stress. I get frustrated, and I do sometimes cry or rant to friends. But then after I’m done having my mini tantrum, I pick myself up, make a game plan, and get back to work.
FOODY: Twitter, not because of any toxicity or anything–more just how fast publishing seems to move. I’m tired of constantly trying to keep up, of reading and tracking every new release. The pressure to always be on top of the trends exhausts me, and it makes reading feel more like a chore than a pleasure. I no longer read books because I feel like I’m “supposed” to. I’ve been rereading a lot of my childhood favorites, actually. That’s where the wonder and joy is, at least for me.
MELODY: Fear drains me the most. It sucks out every good idea, every bit of confidence I had in putting that idea down on the page. Failure is my biggest fear so you can imagine how problematic this is for me ha ha ha. As far as publishing goes, the lack of care and consideration publishers give authors, especially marginalized authors doesn’t necessarily drain me moreso it disappoints me. The disappointment then sends me into a spiral that fear gets caught up in then, here we are. I’m left thinking, why am I doing all of this when I can’t move this mountain on my own and look how far they barely helped them move theirs? But I love writing and if one person can be affected by my words, it’s worth it.
KAT: I feel Foody’s answer so hard here. I know that people often talk about the negativity that can exist on social media, but honestly, the idea that we have to be on top of the industry and all the small moving parts is the most stressful thing. And I’m coming to realize it’s a fallacy. You don’t need to know everything that’s going on and, in fact, being over-aware of “trends” could negatively impact how you create your stories because you might be catering to what you think is right instead of doing what fits your own style best. I think that we tend to project expectations onto ourselves because we are in a comparing industry. We compare our journeys to other people’s and that pressure is not only unhealthy but a bad metric of “success” in the first place (I could write a whole thing about how I think there’s no true objective measure of “success” and that the ones that do seem to exist are hugely flawed). I think that by stepping back and just being alone with our work is not only healthy but necessary.
AKSHAYA: It’s hard for me to pinpoint any one thing that drains my creative well because often I find that it’s a combination of factors. Fear and social media can certainly contribute, but ultimately I think it comes down to things that make me doubt myself. Sometimes it is playing the comparison game. Sometimes it’s that I’ve been revising the same chapter for a week and I’m exhausted. And when those things start to make me question am I working hard enough or fast enough—am I good enough? That’s when I know I need to step back and refocus because I’ve let all of these doubts sap my creative energy.
KAT: It took a long time for me to get to the “guilt-free” part, which is really integral. I kept thinking that if I wasn’t working on the next thing then I was wasting my time and it would never happen for me because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I think part of that comes from my upbringing as a WOC and being told I have to work five times as hard to get things. But I also think it comes from the fact that we’re told the only way to deal with rejection (which comes from EVERYWHERE at EVERY step) is to work on the next thing. So I overcompensated by pushing myself to always be working. The thing is, that there was a period of time where I was pretty sure I was failing on my querying (with my first MS I queried) and I was forcing myself to work on a “next thing.” But I was just not motivated and I was so drained. Still I forced myself to write and I ended up starting and quitting three whole projects before I just had to take a beat. It was a hard learning experience. But I wasted more time forcing myself to write than I would have if I’d taken some “me time” and cared for my mental health. Rejection is really hard, and we want to believe we are the magical unicorn that can deal with it with grace and not be upset, but that’s just not true. Everyone gets upset about rejection, we’re all only human. So, we should give ourselves time to be sad and vent and wallow (ideally with some trusted confidants). Then, once we’re over the sadness, we can use that rejection energy to drive ourselves to be bigger and better in our next endeavor. I am never against the “I’ll show them” mentality as long as it’s healthy and never becomes vindictive. Anyway, this was a really long convoluted way of me saying, don’t be like past me and try to power through because in the long run you’ll just waste even more time and feel even worse. Starting with a refreshed and clear mind is always better because it builds a healthy foundation for your next project.
MELODY: Real talk, the only time I feel guilty taking time away from my writing is when I know that I could be writing something good, I know that I have it in me right now, right this second but then I choose to do something else because it’s easier and/or I’m tired. I have absolutely no problem refilling the creative well or self caring it up when the well is fine and good. When this turns to indulgence, that’s when I feel the guilt and that’s quite frankly when I know that I need to reel it back in. When it comes to advice on not feeling guilty about taking time away from writing…you know when you need to write. You don’t need to fill every waking free moment writing. You know what you’re capable of and what your schedule allows. You know how to push yourself. So push yourself. If you really want to get to the end, you will take the time to get there. Just don’t lie to yourself about unrealistic expectations. Be kind to yourself. You’ll get to the end.
FOODY: Truthfully, I feel far guiltier when I don’t read as opposed to when I don’t write. Not reading makes me feel like a fraud, like I am not current enough, not voracious enough, in the very art I am attempting to create. It also makes me feel guilty due to letting people down. The longer I’ve been in this industry, the more authors I’ve connected with, which allows me to assign faces to my own procrastination. When it comes to not writing enough, I suppose I just don’t hold it against myself. I am known to set many, many writing goals. Ridiculous ones, even. I almost never meet them. But I don’t think of that as failures. The point of the goals was never to meet them, the point was to motivate me. But things inevitably come up, and days are always shorter than I imagine them to be. If you’re like me and your aspirations are to big for your calendar, there’s no victory gained in punishing yourself–I’d rather write like you have all the time in the world than to write like I’m running out of time.
AKSHAYA: Maybe it is the WOC upbringing as you point out, Kat, but for a long time I felt like if I was going to give up my biology degree to pursue writing, I had to prove—to myself, to my family—that I was taking it seriously and treating it like a Real Job. So I worked nonstop and refused to take breaks—and if I did take time off, I’d make myself feel so guilty for not writing that it wasn’t really a good break. I was watching a random cooking competition the other day, and a chef on the show said the motto in his kitchen was “hurry slowly, because sometimes to slow down means you’ll actually go faster.” And that was when it truly clicked for me—that not allowing myself to take breaks was actually slowing me down in the long run because without balance, I was hardly ever in a good headspace to create.
Self-care sometimes can seem like it’s an indulgence. And sure, sometimes practicing self-care is getting to go out for a fancy meal or going on a trip or just taking a night off to binge TV in bed. But most often, self-care for me is about routine. It’s journaling every morning over my cup of coffee. It’s not missing my daily meditation or workout. It’s going to therapy. It’s making time for meal prep. It’s doing my nightly skincare routine. It’s prioritizing my health and my headspace. And I can feel guilty about it all I want, but I’ve realized those are the things that keep me functional and happy and healthy so that I can continue creating.