The blood going to it: On Depressed Creativity

I use to write like this. It was 10 months ago. I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. I’ve had slumps before. Everybody does, but this is different. I’m sorry, we don’t know each other but there aren’t that many people I can talk to about it. I don’t understand what’s happening. There’s no blood going to it. I’ve never had to locate it before. I don’t even know where to look.

That’s a quote from Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, and it’s something that’s long resonated with me.

I haven’t blogged here in the past couple of months, and I wish I could say that’s because I’ve been devoting all my typing to productive writing. Some days, that’s been true. Many days, it hasn’t been. Many days, it’s been a definite struggle to put myself in front of the laptop and get even a few hundred words down.

Part of it has been my everyday life being quite busy, both at the day job and socially. There are, after all, only so many hours. But part of it has been depressed creativity. It’s hard to find the love, to find the juice, to find the blood when you feel stagnated. Being on sub is a rough place to exist as a writer, especially one hoping to make a solid debut. (There aren’t as many posts covering the submission process as there are for querying, but there are some fairly good ones out there — and this one absolutely nails what it feels like). Writing takes a lot of dedication, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of energy. When you feel like the wheels are just spinning in mud and kicking up gravel, it’s hard to keep going — hard to feel like the words you’re carving out are anything worthwhile.

But. You have to.

More accurately, have to.

I wrote over 3000 words yesterday, and 3000 today, and all actually on the correct project, not scattered all over the place in drips and drabbles of assorted nonsense. These have definitely the best writing days I’ve had since mid-May.

It reminds me that I can. It reminds me of my ability and of my passion for the words. It reminds me that I have stories inside me that want to be told.

And it reminds me that I need to suck it up, cupcake. This isn’t a game for whiners or quitters.

Creative Idealism vs Risk Aversion

Or, how the Great Recession damaged, and continues to damage, artistically-inclined Millennials.

To have a lifestyle that allows you to put creative endeavors front and center, to prioritize art above other concerns, you need one of two things: a safety net or the willingness to fly without one. And most of my generation doesn’t have either. We don’t have security, but we’ve become risk-averse in the extreme, unwilling to sacrifice what little we have scraped together. We’ve seen what happens when you take risks, when you don’t plan well enough, or when you put your faith in the wrong institutions. As students, we trusted that education and dedication would get us where we wanted to go. “Self-determination” was the buzzword of my high school, as though being capable and wanting a thing enough were sufficient in this world.

I know so many Millennials in similar straits to mine — mostly in theatre, some in writing, some involved with music or visual arts. The ones who are more sensible than I am wised up in college and went into computer science or medicine instead (higher debts, but higher chance of paying them off, too). The ones who are braver than I am, who do strike out and try to live entirely on their art, generally have to accept a pretty low quality of life in order to do so, or else they have to sacrifice a lot of independence. And the trade-off for the rest of us, struggling to achieve some sort of satisfactory balance, is less than stellar. “Selling out” for job security doesn’t bring the boons it once did. It’s still a survival game. Entry level jobs now require years of experience, tenure tracks have disappeared, and employers of all stripes are likely to hire the candidate who will ask for the least rather than who’s best for the job. We may have our heads above water, but that’s not the same thing as success. And we have to tread pretty hard just to stay there. For all of that, we’re told to be grateful — and the sad part is, most of us are. We know our situations could be worse. The lesson we learned from the recession was that we are never safe. Financial security is elusive to the point of being mythological. Even for those of us who are successful, or who have had familial or spousal safety nets to fall back on, I think that fear still lurks for anyone that’s even a little self-aware: This could all evaporate, and then what would I do? That’s what keeps us in this limbo. As I told a friend earlier today, I feel like it’s hamstrung our generation.

Lizziestillpoor

So what does this have to do with writing, specifically?

All aspiring authors, I think, dream of being the one to land that mega-advance that allows you to set aside mundane concerns and retire to a charming nook to pen the next work of genius — then of having sales numbers so spectacular that financial survival is never a problem again. We’re not stupid. We know the reality is nothing like that. But it’s still the stuff of our daydreams.

I won’t pretend to have intimate knowledge the inner workings of the publishing industry — I’m not there yet. I’m closer and better-informed than I was a year ago, but until I am a published author, what I’ve got to go on is still speculative and observational. That said: Writing is one of the few careers in the world where you can put in thousands of hours of work, never knowing if you’re going to get paid for it or not. (Though similar ideas certainly prevail elsewhere in the arts — that you should do it for the love, be grateful just to “express yourself”, and not expect compensation for your sweat and blood and time). And even if you do get paid for it, that seems to endow less security now than it used to. I’ve read various studies and observations from individuals in the industry, tracking the decline of advances from publishing houses over the past decade.  That makes it harder for writers to justify the hours and energy it takes to create. For my peers, that means the hours scraped out of lives already dominated by multiple jobs and energy already brought to its breaking point by financial stress.

Something of a sidebar: This doesn’t entirely derive from but does relate to the ongoing dispute between Amazon, Hachette, and others. It isn’t all Amazon’s fault, and it isn’t all Hachette’s. I’m not on either side here — I’m on the side, as I must be, of authors, particularly the new and unproved, who are hurt most by the fight and the conditions that created it. Advances and royalties have been declining since before they started feuding, for a wide variety of reasons — but this particular drama encapsulates a lot of the problem. The distributor, apparently under the impression that manufacturing costs account for most of the expense of creating a book, want more money out of e-books, arguing that lower overhead for the publisher should mean more profit for them. (This is, of course, never minding that most of the expense is not in the physical object but in the labor behind it from the writer, agent, editor, graphic designer, proofreader, typesetter, marketer, etc). When distributors take a bigger slice of the pie, there’s less left for publishers to give to authors. This leads to smaller advances. I suspect it also contributes to those advances being harder to earn back, royalties-wise — thus making it challenging for writers to see continued revenue. And then all of that tangles together with how much a publisher can afford to and will choose to spend on marketing and publicity, without which even great books will flounder into obscurity.

Taken all together, there seem to be a lot more impediments to making a sustainable career as an author than there used to be. As several analysts have pointed out, this ultimately discourages a lot of writers, or at least delays them from being able to seek publication, since writing has to be crammed into the hours not spent just trying to get by — and the creative world is weaker for that. As Evan Hughes pointed out on Slate back in May, “Diet Coke has a set formula of ingredients, so the actual beverage is not going to get worse if Walmart drives a hard bargain. That’s not necessarily the case with books, each of which is a unique product. If publishers make less money on every book, they are going to pay people less to write and edit them, and talented people will decide to do something else with their time.” This crux is particularly damning for writers of my generation who have learned to be risk-averse.

And yet — I am, essentially, an optimist. That impossible daydream tantalized and provokes me, so I continue to create and I continue to hope. I will wear myself ragged balancing my cost of living with my artistic drive. If I’m to be honest here, it’s at least as much cussed stubbornness and pride as it is idealism. I refuse to let conditions beat me down. I refuse to let the gray mists of discouragement swallow me up. I will be as tough and resilient as this course demands.

It’s exhausting. But I’ll keep going.

This was heavy. Here’s a playlist that I use to keep my spirits up:

And sometimes you fall on your face…

Welp. April’s attempt at Camp Nanoing the new project was… an unqualified failure, really. I was aiming for 30k. I made it a little past 6. Maybe 2 of them good.

There are a lot of reasons. I could plead how busy I was during April — I worked enough extra hours that I could basically take an extra week and a half off without burning any PTO, and I was rehearsing the new murder mystery. I was traveling the first half of the month and so exhausted that I didn’t know what day it was for the second half.

But all that is just excuses. I could’ve found the time, and somehow, I probably could’ve summoned the energy. The truth is that… that story just isn’t ready yet. It needs a lot more percolation before it will be anything resembling coherent. I was trying to force something to work that just wasn’t, and when I realized that, I lost steam and decided to spend my energy elsewhere (mostly in naps, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves).

This is okay, though. Failing is important sometimes. This gif came across my Tumblr the other day, and at a moment when I was primed to appreciate it:

TinaFeyfreeingfailure

Failure is part of writing. Sometimes the stuff you try just plain doesn’t work. It might work later. Or pieces of it might. The important thing is not to let the failures stymie you. So I’m picking myself right back up and working on a new project. Well, a new-old project. All that Star Wars business has me wanting to dip my toes in sci-fi again (in female-centric defiance), so I’m taking a handful of ideas from across years and years of writing — some of them originating in my very earliest endeavours — and giving them a respin in a new universe. Will it work? No idea. But it certainly won’t if I don’t try.

On Perseverance

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 11, but as a teenager, I went through a period of time where I also wanted to be an actress. I’d always liked performing — I’d been in church pageants and school shows since the age of four, I’d fallen in love with Shakespeare at eleven, and in high school, I was getting a taste of “the real thing” (insomuch as that exists in a high school drama club). But when I was 15, my mother sat me down and said, “Honey. You’re a good actress. You’re never going to be a great actress.”

Now, at the time, I of course handled this with exactly as much grace, serenity, and wisdom as any hormonal, melodramatic fifteen-year-old would. In the years since, however, I’ve recognized what my mother was getting at, and I’ve come to thoroughly appreciate it. What she meant was that, given the choice between two pipe-dream-style careers which hinge as much on hard work, perseverance, and the ability to take a blow as they do on inspiration and talent, I needed to focus on the one that I was tough enough to endure. And she was right. I never cared about acting enough to do the things you have to do to make it as an actor. And I didn’t care in the right sorts of ways. While I liked being on-stage, liked memorizing lines and playing with characters, I could never get as much into the different techniques and methods behind that madness. I would not have done well in a conservatory. Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think my ego could have taken the rejections, and even if I’d met with some kind of moderate success, the cycles of tension would probably not have been good for me. Actors always have to have an eye out for the next job, and I don’t know that I could have stuck with it enough to deal with those conditions.

For writing, though — for writing I could face all of that.

I care enough about writing to have spent I don’t even know how many hours improving my skills over the years. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. I don’t know that writing is ever something you truly master, but I’m sure I’ve spent those hours and well beyond by now. As a teenager and college student, I filled dozens of five-subject notebooks (Mead 5 Star only, I was very specific in my preferences). I still have them all, living in a box under my desk, ready to pop out and embarrass me someday (or perhaps not. I remain perversely proud of my eighth-grade Star Wars fanfiction). I got into text-based roleplaying because it flexed similar muscles. I wrote and wrote and wrote because I loved it.

The hardest point, I think, was after grad school. I’d fallen out of the habit of writing fiction, because so much of my energy had to go into academic writing while I was pursuing my degree — and then my job after school used those same skills. Making time to write creatively was hard, but finding the energy was even harder. I began to understand how people can come home after an 8-hour workday and just zone out in front of the TV until it’s time for bed. But I pushed through it. I made myself write a little each day, even if it was just 100 words, whether fanfic or original, even if they made no sense. Even if they sucked. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration to strike — because inspiration is a lazy little tart who generally needs a good kick up the backside to get going.

Gradually, that built up. Gradually, I was able to push myself back to writing more each day. In 2011, I won Nanowrimo for the first time in years — and that story was the earliest incarnation of Aven. And then I kept going. I used to marvel at Stephen King writing two to three thousand words a day, six days a week, wondering how it was possible. But sometime in the last year and a half, I realized that, on days when I didn’t have to do anything else, 3000 words was a breeze. (In fact, when I’m at the beach — my most relaxed environment — I can bang out three or four thousand words and still have time for a lie-in, sunbathing, a bath, and a nice dinner with the family). So I did that. I finished a draft. I edited it. I pitched it in-person to a couple of agents at a convention. Based on their feedback, I edited some more, and some more, and some more.

And then, the querying. My ego, which is an admittedly tender thing and would have been pummeled in rounds of auditions, found it could miraculously sustain itself through the querying process. Maybe it’s because the rejection feels less personal this way — the agents never see you, of course. I was able to summon the requisite dispassion to acknowledge that, no, not every project is for everyone, but I was able to keep the optimism that, yes, someday, someone was going to want to fight for this project as hard as I did. That doesn’t mean there were never moments of crisis, never moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing. There were plenty of them, in fact. Those “what if I’m just not good enough?” thoughts creep in even when you’re trying your damnedest to keep up the optimism. But I was able to fight through those, and, after almost a year of polite form letters and more than a few dead silences, it paid off.

Now, having cleared that hurdle at last, the path is requiring a different sort of toughness. Editing is a difficult beast, and for the first time, someone else’s opinions and experience have to matter, too. Which is brilliant. Having someone else whose ideas can provoke me into making my manuscript even better is fantastic. It’s honing a different skill set — focusing the somewhat haphazard creative energy that typically contributes to my writing process. That focus helps me get a lot done in a short amount of time. I had a “day off” on Monday, and I spent at least eleven hours of it working. Some of that was editing old material, some of it was creating new material, some of it was poring through reference books, and some of it was just plain staring at the Scrivener corkboard until I figured out how I needed to re-arrange the puzzle pieces. And it was a good day. It felt like a good day. I went to bed exhausted, but I felt so positive about that.

So the point of all of this is that my mother was right. It’s not enough to have talent or desire. You have to choose the path that you care enough about to fight for. Trying to make it as an actress would have been a tremendously frustrating path for me to take, and one that probably would not satisfy me nearly as well even if I did meet with some moderate level of success. Trying to make it as a writer, though, has only pushed me to be better. It’s only made me want it more. I’ve grown a little bit of a thicker skin, I’ve learned to bounce back, and I’ve developed a real sense of duty about what I’m doing. I am not a dilettante, and this is not a pipe dream any longer. This is what I work at, what I’m willing to pour countless hours of my life and brainpower into.

And, as it turns out, I do still get to act sometimes. 😉

A thought on subjectivity

When, in the space of a week, one agent tells you, “love the concept, but the writing didn’t grab me” and another agent tells you “love the writing, but the concept didn’t grab me”, this could easily turn into a rather depressing line of thought. After all, how can you win that game? How do you know which actually might need improvement? How can you feel confident in either, hearing that both have somehow failed? And when everything is so subjective, sometimes it can just feel like you’ll never know the mystical secret that will get you noticed in the right way.

Being essentially optimistic, however — early attempts at being sophisticatedly cynical never did quite take for me — I choose to look at it differently.

What it means is that both the writing and the concept have something that people do love. I just have to find the right person who takes to them both. After all, there are plenty of books I wouldn’t enjoy reading, even though they’re perfectly good from an objective standpoint, either because it’s not my preferred style or not my preferred kind of story — so I can hardly fault an agent for feeling the same. And I wouldn’t want someone who only felt lukewarm about my project. I want someone who loves it, all of it, like I love it. So I choose to see subjectivity as my friend.