When the magic isn't working

One of those days

We all have them: the off days, the slow days, the dull days, the befuddled days, the days when nothing goes quite right. The days we forget how to write, how to paint, how to sing or sculpt or design or teach or cook or parent or do much of anything creative at all; when knowledge dries up, inspiration shrivels, and we reach inward but nothing comes out. I'm not having One of Those Days right now, mind you...but I certainly will again, and sooner than I'd like, no doubt. This is part of the creative process, too, and thus deserving of our attention.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayIn "Why I Write," Francis Spufford describes what a bad work day feels like for him:

"[T]here’s the gluey fumbling of the attempts to gain traction on the empty screen, there’s the misshapen awkwardness of each try at a sentence (as if you’d been equipped with a random set of pieces from different jigsaws). After a time, there’s the tetchy pacing about, the increasingly bilious nibbling, the simultaneous antsiness and flatness as the failure of the day sinks in. After a longer time -- two or three or four or five days of failure -- there’s the deepening sense of being a fraud. Not only can you not write bearably now; you probably never could. Trips to bookshops become orgies of self-reproach and humiliation. Look at everybody else’s fluency. Look at the rivers of adequate prose that flow out of them. It’s obvious that you don’t belong in the company of these real writers, who write so many books, and oh such long ones. Last, there’s the depressive inertia that flows out of sustained failure at the keyboard, and infects the rest of life with grey minimalism, making it harder to answer letters, return library books, bother to cook meals not composed of pasta."

Ouch. And yet, so true.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayThere are days, says Neil Gaiman, "when you sit down and every word is crap. It is awful. You cannot understand how or why you are writing, what gave you the illusion or delusion that you would every have anything to say that anybody would ever want to listen to. You're not quite sure why you're wasting your time. And if there is one thing you're sure of, it's that everything that is being written that day is rubbish. I would also note that on those days (especially if deadlines and things are involved) is that I keep writing. The following day, when I actually come to look at what has been written, I will usually look at what I did the day before, and think, 'That's not quite as bad as I remember. All I need to do is delete that line and move that sentence around and its fairly usable. It's not that bad.'

"What is really sad and nightmarish," Neil continues, "(and I should add, completely unfair, in every way. And I mean it -- utterly, utterly, unfair!) is that two years later, or three years later, although you will remember very well, very clearly, that there was a point in this particular scene when you hit a horrible Writer's Block from Hell, and you will also remember there was point in this particular scene where you were writing and the words dripped like magic diamonds from your fingers -- as if the Gods were speaking through you and every sentence was a thing of beauty and magic and brilliance. You can remember just as clearly that there was a point in the story, in that same scene, when the characters had turned into pathetic cardboard cut-outs and nothing they said mattered at all. You remember this very, very clearly. The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair."

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Douglas Rushkoff points out: "The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day"That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

"Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created."

My favorite reflection on the subject of Those Days comes from Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life.

"When my son was little," she says, "he loved a book by Judith Viorst called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Poor Alexander. He woke up with gum in his hair, he ended up in the middle seat during carpool, his mom forgot to pack dessert in his lunch box, he had a cavity at the dentist, and just when he thought things couldn't get any worse, he saw people kissing on television. You can feel the momentum of a day turning against you, and if it does, sometimes the best thing to do is crawl back into bed and wait for it to pass.

6a00e54fcf7385883401a73dacf18d970dShapiro advises that writers (and other arts freelancers) must learn to be kind to themselves. "What we're doing isn't easy. We have chosen to spend the better part of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts, obsessions and concerns. We unleash the beasts of memory; we peer into Pandora's box. We do this all in the spirit of faith and exploration, with no guarantee that what we will produce is worthwhile. We don't call in sick. We don't take mental health days. We don't get two weeks paid vacation, or summer Fridays, or holiday weekends. Often, we are out of step with the tempo of those around us. It can feel isolating and weird. And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she's a child she loves very much: Sweetheart, she'll say. Darling. Honey. That's all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You'll try again tomorrow."

For some reason I imagine this in Delia Sherman's voice, perhaps because Delia is so wise and sensible.

Walk the dog. Read a book. You'll try again tomorrow.

And indeed, we do.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The drawings above are from the American children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, written by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz.  I often mutter Alexamder's refrain of despair -- "I think I'll move to Australia" -- whenever  it's One of Those Days. My English husband, who doesn't know the book, always looks a bit perplexed...but it makes me feel better.

Taking Our Own Hands

Studio door

In her lovely book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro tackles a subject that will be familiar to many writers and other creative folks: the feeling that we somehow need "permission" to pull ourselves away from other tasks and sit down to do our heart's work.

"If you're waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you as a writer," she says, "you'd better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you're going to be waiting for a good long while. Accountants go to business school and when they graduate with their degrees, they don't ask themselves whether they have permission to do people's taxes. Lawyers pass the bar, medical students become doctors, academics become professors, all without considering whether or not they have the right to be going to work. But nothing and no one gives us permission to wake up and sit at home staring at a computer screen while everybody else sets their alarm clock, puts on reasonable attire, and boards the train....

"Sure, there are advanced degrees in writing and various signifiers that a career might be underway, but ultimately a writer is someone who writes. A writer who writes is someone who finds the way to give herself permission. The advanced degree is useless in this regard. No writer I know wakes up in the morning and, while brushing her teeth, thinks: Check me out, I have an MFA. Or, for that matter, I've published x number of books, or even, I've won the Pulitzer Prize. There is no magical place of arrival. There is only the solitary writer facing the page."

In the studio

"Whether you are a writer just mustering up the nerve to sign up for your first weekend workshop," Shapiro continues, "or filling out your MFA applications, or one gazing moodily out from a big poster in the window of your local Barnes & Noble, you are far from alone in this business of granting yourself the permission to do your work. Masters of the form quake before the page. They often feel hopeless and despairing. They may also fall prey to petty musings. They have days in which they simply can't get out of their own way.

"But when we give ourselves permission, we move past this. The world once again reveals itself to us. We become open and aware, patient and ready to receive it....We give ourselves permission because we are the only ones who can do so."

Studio desk

Shapiro's good advice actually applies to many things in life besides writing, for there are all sorts of ways we can hold ourselves back from the things we need most to be doing. Most importantly, we must give ourselves "permission" to be the person we truly are -- as opposed to who we thought we'd be, or were raised to be, or who others would very much like us to be -- and no one else can do this for us. Teachers, mentors, partners, friends can provide support in various ways, but permission has to come from within if we are to own our lives, and our art.

I started this post with a photograph of my studio door, which is where I write a favorite poem each month. (The gold ink washes off with white spirit, allowing me to change the poems as often as I want to.) Many of the poems Jane Yolen has shared on this blog have ended up here...including the one below, chosen for the month of March. It's been on the door before, but it's worth repeating, and it feels just right today.

Door poem 3

Tilly in the studioIn the photo above, Tilly looks out over the hills and waits for spring to arrive. The poem on the studio door, "Taking My Own Hand," is © 2012 by Jane Yolen, all rights reserved. The Bunny Girl on my desk is by Wendy Froud.

On giving ourselves permission...

Tilly in the woods, 1

"To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories -- to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing -- is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, 'When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.' This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring."

- Dani Shapiro (from her new book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life -- which I'm reading now with great pleasure, and recommend)

Tilly in the woods, 2

Tilly in the woods, 3

From the archives: The Writing Life

Fairy Scribe by Alan Lee

"It wasn't that I couldn't write. I wrote every day. I actually worked really hard at writing. At my desk by 7 A.M., would work a full eight and more. Scribbled at the dinner table, in bed, on the toilet, on the No. 6 train, at Shea Stadium. I did everything I could. But none of it worked. My novel, which I had started with such hope shortly after publishing my first book of stories, wouldn't budge past the 75-page mark. Nothing I wrote past page 75 made any kind of sense. Nothing. Which would have been fine if the first 75 pages hadn't been pretty damn cool. But they were cool, showed a lot of promise. Would also have been fine if I could have just jumped to something else. But I couldn't. All the other novels I tried sucked worse than the stalled one, and even more disturbing, I seemed to have lost the ability to write short stories. It was like I had somehow slipped into a No-Writing Twilight Zone and I couldn't find an exit. Like I'd been chained to the sinking ship of those 75 pages and there was no key and no patching the hole in the hull. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, but nothing I produced was worth a damn.

"Want to talk about stubborn? I kept at it for five straight years. Five damn years. Every day failing for five years? I'm a pretty stubborn, pretty hard-hearted character, but those five years of fail did a number on my psyche. On me. Five years, 60 months? It just about wiped me out. By the end of that fifth year, perhaps in an attempt to save myself, to escape my despair, I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write, that I was a minor league Ralph Ellison, a Pop Warner Edward Rivera, that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future...well, great. But I knew I couldn't go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn't.... So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it. Five years of my life and the dream that I had of myself, all down the tubes because I couldn't pull off something other people seemed to pull off with relative ease: a novel. By then I wasn't even interested in a Great American Novel. I would have been elated with the eminently forgettable NJ novel."

-- from "Becoming a Writer" by Junot Díaz, who went on to finish his novel and win the Pulitzer Prize. Read the rest of this wonderful article here. His books are terrific too.

Fairy drawing by Alan LeeImages above: "Fairy Scribe" and "Small Fairy with Brush" by Alan Lee.

When things go amiss

Winter Stream

"When I'm writing," says Meg Wolitzer,  "I ask myself the question that a reader inevitably asks a writer: why are you telling me this? There has to be an erotic itch, a sense of book as hot object, the idea that what's contained in the book is the information you've always needed.

"If the answer to the question 'Why are you telling me this?' doesn't come quickly, if I'm writing without urgency, that's my first sign that something's amiss. When novels or stories feel like they're going nowhere, they've lost their imperative, their reason for being.

"Imperative is the kind of thing we associate with urgent, external movements -- say, with political causes. I also associate it with art. You know that something might be righted, whether its a social wrong or incomplete information. That's what art gives you: a more complete view, a view of corners you wouldn't otherwise have seen." *

Old Oak

But what if you've lost that imperative, gone astray in the dark forest of the creative process?

"Don't sit down in the middle of the woods," Margaret Atwood advises. "If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page."

"Don't panic," says Sarah Waters. "Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there's prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too."

Hilary Mantel advises: "If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."

The Muddy Path

"Never stop when you are stuck," cautions Jeanette Winterson. "You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether."

Helen Simpson agrees: "The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying 'Faire et se taire' (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as 'Shut up and get on with it.' "

The last word today comes from Neil Gaiman:

"The main rule of writing," he says, "is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter."

Winter Bracken

Tilly in the Bracken

* The first quote comes from Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran (Plume/Penguin, 2013), published in aid of the 826 National youth literacy program. Please consider ordering a copy to support this worthy cause.