Sunday, August 24, 2014

Even Writers Get the Blues

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Recently, TKZ's own Jordan Dane wrote about getting through the "slumps." I wanted to add to that, because all writers are subject to the writing blues from time to time.

Why should this be?

First of all writers, like most artists, are prone to highs and lows of the mind. One of the best things I ever wrote is a short story, "I See Things Deeply," about a crazy uncle who was a poet, and suffered for it. But—But!—in return he saw things most men never see. He experienced life in a way that was richer and more colorful than the poor conformists who trudge through existence in the tight shoes of the ordinary.

This is also the theme of Peter Shaffer's play Equus. I was lucky enough to see a production starring Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hulce. It's about a psychiatrist trying to help a disturbed stable boy with a horse fixation. In probing the boy's demons the doctor is forced to look at his own rather dull life. What has he sacrificed by being so (to put it bluntly) normal?

At one point, he says, "But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than any I have felt in my life. And let me tell you something, I envy it. That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time: At least I galloped, when did you?”

Yes, but there is a cost to such vision. A multi-published friend of mine recently wrote this in an e-mail [used by permission]--

I do get blue and I do have doubts about being a fake or writing a good book. I get moody. I want to be alone at times. Other times I want to be a social butterfly. It's a constant battle and sometimes I win. Other times, I just let the blues take over and wait for the fog to lift. Then I go back to my own little world where they at least understand me. :)  I'm no Zelda, but ... I sure understand her fears.    

There is some science to back up the bluish tendencies of "creatives." And of course we were all shocked by the suicide of one of the great creative artists of our time, Robin Williams. Shocked but perhaps not surprised. 

Further, we writers have many opportunities to sabotage ourselves. There are myriad things we can get anxious about: Am I any good after all? Why did that reader give me 1 star? How can I get anybody to notice my book? Why can't I get an agent? Why is so-and-so doing so much better than I am? What's my Amazon rank today? THAT'S my Amazon rank?

So it seems that the "writing blues" are a necessary adjunct to the artistic enterprise. But there are some things we can do to keep them from running roughshod over us.  

1. Learn to be grateful for what you've got

So you've self-published a novel and have only five downloads this year. First of all, realize you have been given a gift, the gift of getting your book out there for potential readers, of which you now have five (and yes, we WILL count your brother-in-law). Start by being grateful that you can type, that you can tell stories, that your imagination is on the move. And that you can learn to be a better writer. Which leads to:

2. Set up and follow a rigorous self-study program

The nice thing about writing is that there are abundant resources available for you to get stronger in the craft. Books published by Writer's Digest and online by some really good people like K. M. Weiland, C. S. Lakin and Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. There are websites like Storyfix and The Plot Whisperer and the one you are reading now.

There is a page dedicated to my own offerings, which books I've labored to make easily readable and practical for writers of every stripe.

When you work at something, you're being proactive. Activity is one sure way to drive the blues away. Do this: Take an objective look at your writing (you may need an outside source, like a freelance editor, for this). Determine the three weakest areas in your writing (Plotting? Style? Characterization? Dialogue?) and then find resources on them and study them out. Practice the techniques you learn.

I guarantee it will make you feel better. I love the craft and still diligently study it, but also remember this:

3. Write wild on your first drafts

Despite persistent internet claims to the contrary, Hemingway never said that writing means you sit down at the typewriter and bleed (it was actually sports writer Red Smith who talked about "opening a vein"). But it's a proper sentiment for the writer. Give each scene you write the most creative and wild investment that you can. Get into "flow" by "being here now." When you are in the zone, the blues disappear.

You all know about that "inner editor" that needs to be silenced when you write. Don't think too much when you're actually composing. That was Ray Bradbury's great advice. He would start writing in the morning and "explode." Then he spent the latter part of the day picking up the pieces.

Write hot. Then edit cool.

4. Know you are not alone

If you haven't already, sometime soon you'll get a case of the "review blues." You are in good company. Even some of the best books of all time have their critics.

All writers (with the possible exception of Lee Child and Stephen King) face the-lack-of-sales blues, the envy-blues, the who-am-I-fooling blues and variations thereon. Which is why many a writer of the past turned to the demon rum for solace. Bad bargain. Instead:

5. Try exercise

It works. Get those endorphins pumping.

Another thing I do between writing stints: lie on the floor with my feet up on a chair. Then deep breathe and relax for about ten minutes. The blood flows to the gray cells and gives them a bath. The boys in the basement get to work. And I feel energized when I get up.

You're a storyteller and the world needs stories––even if you have to slog through the swamp of melancholy to tell them. In fact, it may be that this very dolefulness is the mark of the true artist.

So stay true. Stay focused. And keep writing.

Do you ever get the "writing blues"? What do you do about them?


42 comments:

  1. I do get the blues, although they're more like paisley's with reddish hints for me...and sometimes a goldfish swims across.

    But right I'm in the throes of my paisley goldfish moods. Just submitted the first of a trilogy of a really intense deep story. Beta's loved it. Agent loved it. Publisher yet to be told...but can I get part two on the table in the next months?

    Oh crap.

    I suck.

    Why didn't I write parts two and three before submitting.

    Where is my Mojo?

    I can't do this!

    Clonk!!

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  2. Fillii: No Berthold....put the hammer away, one hit was enough....He''ll be right as rain in when he wakes....aye....right as rain...

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    1. There's the Mojo, sneaking back in...grab...

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    2. Basil, do Fillii and Berthold have kin this way looking for gainful employ? I can provide the hammer . . .

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  3. Jim, great post.

    As one who walks that fine line between genius and insanity (bipolar disorder runs in my family), I pay attention to these things.

    When you mentioned "the poor conformists who trudge through existence in the tight shoes of the ordinary," I could see the "automatons" in the opening lines of Thoreau's WALDEN.

    Loved all your specific ideas to keep the blues at bay. May I add to your list.

    #1 - Be grateful. Be grateful also that you have the opportunity, the privilege, to leave a legacy. Future generations of your children will be able to look back and get to know you through your books.

    #2 - Self-study. It struck me this week that the job I am burning out on is losing it's attraction for further self-study. I vowed to maintain an interest in writing by continuing to learn, never allow it to become "just a job."

    #5 - Exercise. Coffee and dark chocolate are also brain stimulants. When you described lying on the floor with your feet up on a chair, it reminded my of my father coming home from his office at lunchtime and lying in his recliner backwards (feet at the head, head at the foot rest). I like your idea for the "Bell leg-brain transfusion."

    Another helpful hint: Maintain regular sunlight exposure. In the winter, extra lighting with full-spectrum bulbs in one's writing area could be substituted.

    I'm eager to see what other ideas your readers have. Thanks for a some great ideas.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning the good old sun, Steve. As long as we take care of the skin we can do with a jolt of Vit. D

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    2. Some great advice, Steve, especially regarding sunlight. Easier said than done in the PNW, though.

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  4. I never turn to demon rum, Jim. Red wine is more my flavor of vice, and scotch. I limit the vice by not bringing it home unless I intend to drink it. I've found my willpower is much stronger at the store.

    Running helps, helps a lot, but I wrote my first book in the year when I couldn't run. It was my way of focusing on what I could do, not what I couldn't. Some days . . . some days, it wasn't enough.

    I also coach junior high cross country. I get the kids right at the time that they lose their brains but I love their energy. Kind of like sunbathing on the surface of Mercury, you're bound to find your energy levels rising and, for me, that shakes the blues. At the animal shelter my wife runs, she has volunteers come in to walk the dogs. It's good for the humans as much as it is for the puppies.

    And, oddly, acknowledging that everything I write is crap - except maybe two words yesterday, them I'll keep. If I thought I had to churn out perfection, I'd slip below the surface of the blues, never to be seen again. I 'pre-forgive' myself and just get on with it.

    I turn off the news. If I've got the blues, I sure don't need encouragement to fade to black.

    I turn on the music, sometimes loud. Not rock, but movie themes (westerns especially), and 1970's stuff. Old country. Pentatoix is an a cappella that is fantastic.

    Sometimes I just sit in a funk.

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    1. And there's the title for your memoir: Sunbathing on the Surface of Mercury.

      Thanks for the additional tips, esp. turning off the news.

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    3. Sorry, fat fingers and small touch screen had too many typos... Let's try this again...

      :-)

      If I may...

      I do the same thing with music~ not movie themes, mind you, but classic ( and DEEP cut) 60's,, 70's, and 80's rock, folk, blues, bluegrass and country ( and if you don't feel bluegrass and old school country are sadder than you are, then... well...)....

      But when the Grateful Dead or Gram Parsons or Johnny Cash or Raymond Fairchild are in the background it seems the muse is dancing and the time flies...

      Now, whether it's ballet or slam-dancing I don't/won't know till later...

      g

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  5. JSB-
    I find exercise an all-around winner. Everything works/feels better.

    Additionally I share your belief in attitude and gratitude. Most on the planet struggle to survive and face real hardship - in comparison my writing woes are petty. Those of us that have the opportunity to write are blessed.

    Comparison to others and a focus on speed are particularly negative thoughts imo (My writing is not as good as James Lee Burke's and some authors are writing 4 books a year...aaargh!)

    Self-study and continuous work at improving craft helps my writing and the effort makes me feel better about myself. I recommend adding TKZ's Jodie Renner's instructional books to the writing resource gems you listed.
    Great post JSB - thanks.

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    1. Indeed, the comparison trap is ever present. Avoiding that one mistake goes a long way.

      Thanks for the thoughts.

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  6. A good and timely post, Jim. This topic is on my mind so much now because of the suicide of my friend and early mentor Jerry Healy. I have exchanged so many emails with friends who feel at sea over Jerry's death. All writers have demons of some sort but this sort of thing puts your own in sharp perspective. Thanks for the post today and the reminder that we must take care of ourselves and look out for each other as best we can.

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    1. Wow, had not heard of Jerry's death. Very sad. I was at a convention or two with him, though we never chatted. So sorry for that loss.

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  7. Very timely post. I'll keep these tips in mind. I was down last week because of a nasty review. It was more of an author attack than a review, in my opinion. I got out of it by realizing that the review was more of a reflection on the reviewer than me.

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    1. Indeed, those sorts of "reviews" happen to the best of authors...who don't let it get the best of them. Good on you. Rhino skin.

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  8. With my first novel about to be launched, I'm scared, and being scared gives me the blues.

    Of course, I go through the "I'll never be a good writer" blues, too, but I get over that one by telling myself that I will get better if I keep on studying the craft and writing.

    But the scared I won't sell any books, and that I didn't milk the themes of my novel for all they're worth, and that's why the book won't sell. What will I do if I only sell the average number for a debut author? Will I keep writing?

    The answer, of course, is that I will keep on writing, but it would be sooooooo nice to attract some fans and to feel as though I have a decent sized audience.

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    1. Sheryl, you're going through what most authors go through at the beginning. And here's a little inside info: even those who have been multi-published and well reviewed find themselves having the same fears when a new book is launched. What a way to make a living! Just keep writing and striving, and all will be well.

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  9. It doesn't happen often. However, I find myself in the blues right now. Your post couldn't have happened at a better time. You've just given me a great idea. Go back and read something I'm really proud of, prove to myself that I can write, then get back to work. Thank you! I needed reminding.

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  10. This is perfect timing. I've got the blues so much lately I'm an honorary smurf.

    Some of it is real life stress (hopefully my husband will have a job at the end of the week!), but most of it's mental. At every first draft I reach a place where I no longer know what the story is about. No amount of plotting changes this. I get new ideas, and wonder if they work for the story or change the direction away from what the story is really about.

    It comes down to a choice and making those choices paralyze me, because I'm afraid, drumroll please, of being wrong.

    I know it's silly. I'm rereading "Techniques of a Selling Writer" because Mr. Swain had some great things to say about that. But it can stop me cold and I fret and worry, and even when I am writing the rough draft it still feels like I'm lost at sea.

    This happens with every. single. first draft. Sometimes I've handled it well, sometimes not so much. Thanks for the suggestions on handling the blues. I'll be buckling down and getting some words on the page.

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    1. Maybe a little smurf sitting on your desk would help. I like that image.

      I know exactly what you mean about choices and changes...all I can say is try to plow on to the end of your draft without major changes. It's always better than you think. Hang in there!

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  11. "Been down so long, it looks like up to me."
    But I digress.

    Last bout of writer's blues came recently when I hit page 150 of rewrite. Firing on all eight, characters and story blossoming and then I came down w/the worst summer cold known to man. It meandered from my head, to throat to chest and then back up again, stuck w/me for a week and a half. I could write nothing. Brain refused to function. Cold left, brain still refused, took another two weeks to get back into that story world.

    But, I endeavored to persevere. 2,000k words today of rewrite, now on page 220, climax lies straight ahead. The end is near.

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    1. Hey Mark, having just got back from Australia/NZ with a bug that hit me like Tyson, I know exactly how you feel. Glad you're back. I, too, wrote more words today than in the past three weeks.

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  12. Good post, Jim, and great advice. I must do more on the exercise thing! And I'm going to try laying on my back and putting my feet up on a chair today - my gray cells could definitely use some more oxygen!

    When I wonder if I have to contribute, I check all the page views my posts get here on TKZ, and the reviews of my published books on Amazon (83 for Fire up Your Fiction, for an overall average of 4.8 out of 5 stars; 63 for Writing a Killer Thriller, 4.7 average) and the positive emails and Facebook comments I receive daily, and I realize that yes, I have some valuable experiences, insights, and "teaching moments" to contribute to writers and aspiring authors. Now to get back to my third book, Captivate Your Readers!

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    1. Oops! That should be "lying on my back"!

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    2. Caught like a good editor. Well done!

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  13. You are so right, every writer gets the blues from time to time. I certainly do. I agree with all your tips, especially #2 Study craft and #5 Exercise. Studying craft has improved my fiction so much, and has also given me confidence. Exercise gives my mood a huge shot in the arm, gives me energy and enhances creativity. So often an idea or a solution to a problem will come to me in the middle of a work out or just afterwards.

    Getting enough sleep is also vital. When I'm self-deprived the blues strikes more easily, and of course writing is harder, because it takes more effort to focus and to keep working.

    Managing expectations can also keep the blues at bay. Having unrealistic expectations, especially ones on outcomes I have no control over, can be depressing and wearing. Much better to focus on what we can control, namely the act of writing.

    Thanks for another important post. Here's to embracing the joy and fun of writing fiction!

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    1. Two really good reminders, Dale. Sleep, and manage those expectations. The Stoics had it right.

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  14. I have a great writer friend and we let each other have out our moments of angst, funks and blues over Skype. It helps to have an understanding 'ear' and then I walk my collie Hamish and look at the mountains, and realize how lucky I am just to be here:)

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    1. Ah yes, a good listening ear helps. So do the Rocky Mountains. Nice.

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  15. I have a big depressive streak. So I just don't go "there," except in fiction. It's a wonderful arena for these things play out in. I'm a minor fan of Irving Goffman, who blends psychology and drama in everyday life. Fortunately, I have made these connections and am having a wonderful time writing.

    Cheers!

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    1. Yes, that's one of the benefits of fiction, working "things" out in our stories. A healthy alternative.

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  16. James, thanks so much for these important reminders, especially the one about being grateful. Every once in a while I have to remind myself to be grateful. It sounds bad, doesn't it? That I have to be reminded? Once I remember all my blessings, I have a lighter heart and I'm at peace with wherever I am in my publishing journey.

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    1. Not bad at all, Julie. Practicing gratitude is actually a bit difficult. But it is truly one major key to happiness.

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  17. Thanks for this post, Jim. It comes at a good time.

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    1. Your previous post was good food for thought, too, Jordan.

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  18. JSB--your post is inspirational in the best sense. It's also full of practical, useful advice.
    When I get depressed, I try to remind myself of what my life would be like, were I not a writer. This usually works wonders. I also think about friends, people with whom I worked for years. They were smarter than I was, more balanced in their thinking and more fair. More successful in professional terms, they retired with more money. Now, free to do what they want, I have the strong impression my former colleagues have little or no idea what to do with themselves. They cobble together trips, and spend what would be for me many nightmare hours on planes. It's not so much a question of feeling smug about the difference between us (I hope) as being grateful for it. I have purpose and meaning as a writer, and that's really what it's "all about." You might call it the special bonus writers can look forward to, especially the great majority who have day jobs and will eventually be free to write full-time. I think of it as a not-so-little booster rocket added to Social Security.

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    1. Indeed, one of the great things about being a writer is you never have to stop. I think of Robert B. Parker and Herman Wouk as two great examples.

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  19. Great list! And thanks so much for the shout out. Totally agree on the "wild" first drafts. That was a skill I lost there for a while and had to talk myself back into. Made writing a lot more fun!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Katie. Glad to hear the fun is back!

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