Friday, December 6, 2013

Writing Slump Busting

For me, a writing slump boils down to one thing: Not being able to hear the small voices from within that usually tell me where and how I want to go. If I want to break a slump, I have to do something I call 'clearing the channel'. New Age-y and vaguely lavender magic-ish? It may be. Here. I'll crack the
lid on my toolbox. Take a look. See if you can use anything.

REST: This writing gig is tough stuff. Appreciate that the single organ in your body that requires the greatest sum of energy from your store is the brain. Out in the world, there are some recently publicized studies showing that your brain is a bit like your muscle tissue - as you use it in particularly challenging ways, tissues break down - micro-tears it's called in muscle tissue. Dunno what it's called in the brain, but the whole notion of tears in brain tissue gives me the creeps. Regardless, when you rest, repair instantly begins. Some of the studies hypothesis that this tear down and repair cycle are the basis for brain plasticity - but hey, take this block of salt to use for evaluating that claim. Rest means sleep. It also means filling up on the things that tweak your imagination. Marathons of Mythbusters? Go for it. Propping your eyelids open with toothpicks and shoving three and half seasons of The Walking Dead into your skull via your retinas? More power to you. But rest.

EXERCISE: Yeah, I know what I just said about rest, but trust me on this. Gentle to moderate physical activity, preferably outside, in nature (no, you may NOT take your MP3 player or any other distraction device - for the first three days. After that, you decide.) balances out the energy draw of the brain - something most writers are take for granted. Giving your muscles a bit of a chance to burn some fuel boosts your immune system, positively alters brain chemistry (check the NIMH for more info on that - and also for info on the effects of depressive disorders on your ability to live, much less create), and as exercise becomes a habit, it gives you more strength and energy to burn. The point of being outside in nature is to get some solar radiation seared into your gray matter. Even on the cloudiest of days, being outside supplies far more light to your brain than can be produced by indoor lighting. Okay. You caught me. It also alters your brainwave patterns - so does meditation - but there's not room for all that here.

SEEK SILENCE: Most of us have too many inputs clogging our outputs. Count the number of things going on around you. All the time. How many TVs are on? They don't have to be audible *if* you can see the TV(s) from even peripheral vision - human eyes are designed to detect the lion hunting us through the tall grass - we're programmed to see and be drawn to glance at motion with no ability to distinguish between a hungry cheetah and a commercial for Viagra. How many radios can you hear going at one time? (Not saying that you shouldn't pipe tunes directly into your brain via your MP3 player of your choice. There's a time and place for that - it's a useful tool - but when you're in a slump, there may be therapeutic benefit to taking a break.) How many conversations are grabbing hold of your attention? How loud is the traffic? You can't control all the inputs - most aircraft aren't keen on altering their flight patterns for my convenience, dammit. But you can snatch a few hours of solitude and self-imposed silence by sending the rest of the family to a burger and a movie. Turn off everything that makes a sound (that isn't necessary to keep someone/something, including you, alive...) Do *anything* you want except turning on something that makes a sound. Resist reading. You want to wallow in the silence, not anesthetize away your few precious hours of quiet. Draw. Paint. Tidy your office. Sort through all those things in your office that you always meant to DO something with. Or just sit and listen to all the things you haven't been able to hear because of the usual noise of our lives. Don't put any pressure on yourself to do anything with your observations. (Though you can journal if you are so moved - see below) This is more rest. Rest of a different kind.

EMPTY: Journal. Check Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way for details on this. She talks about morning pages and lays out some ground rules. It's a useful starting place. That mostly don't work for me. Read her rules, try them out, and then adapt them to fit what you'll actually do. For me, morning pages? Never gonna happen. Not while I hope to remain married. And alive. The rules I keep: the journal must be handwritten. Cameron's book will give you the why for that. This is a brain dump. This is not story telling. It's not writing exercises. It's whining, petty, childish crap that's clogging your synapses and your emotional plumbing. The only way to clear the blockage is to drain it every single day until my slump is over (write at the time of your choosing - I like evenings - get ready for sleep, get in bed, sit there and scribble madly - no thinking, just stream of consciousness). On rare occasions, I get to take mini, solo vacations. I wander off to a midweek deal in a hotel where I answer to no one and accept no responsibility beyond keeping life and soul generally together. Oh. And paying my bills. Not being arrested has its benefits. When I take one of those trips, I'll write morning and evening pages just to clear out my muddled head faster. (If you have the bandwidth for a mini-three day retreat by yourself, seek silence the entire three days. Yes, of course you'll speak to other human beings, otherwise, you might starve if you can't order breakfast. You're looking to reduce all unnecessary external stimuli. You'll break the slump much faster.)

Side note: Should I die in some freak accident before I have a chance to  burn my journals? I'm counting on you to set them alight. Do not read. Burn. No one should be subjected to my handwriting or my angsty-angst.

IMMERSION: Here's the one rule to rule all my rules. Every night, after journal pages, before sleep, I look over my story notes for my WIP. Some people look over an outline. Some, character sketches. Some prefer to read the last scene or two they wrote before they sank into a slump. Me, I keep a story notebook filled with character notes, story notes, plot points, snippets of conversation from the story - flashes of how I want a scene to look - it's all there. Here's what it looks like. In no way should you take this silly looking, fun-loving notebook cover to mean that I've given up death, destruction, and mayhem. I haven't. This little book is my connection with my story and my characters. It's piece meal and unorganized and chaotic and out of order. And it works to keep me immersed in the people and world of my WIP. This step is the one that will tell me when I've succeeded in breaking a slump. If I stay immersed by reviewing my material each night, rest, exercise, and clear my head with silence and journaling, my brain will spontaneously begin offering up new scenes and new ideas.

Slump over.

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