I feel like my road to being a successful artist is filled with dozens if not hundreds of RPG-like level-ups that I need to unlock. Learn how to finish what I start. Check. Learn how to write novels. Check. Learn how to write prose that is tight and polished. Check. Learn how to write a good query letter. Check. Learn how to keep short stories under five thousand words. Check. Learn how to tell stories that anybody besides me cares about? Okay . . . still working on that, though I think I’m making progress.
One area where I seem to be a long way away is unlocking what makes the words flow easily. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but other than putting myself in the way of inspiration by writing as often as I can, I haven’t found a specific set of cues that predictably results in productivity from me.
The closest thing I’ve found so far is pressure.
Last spring I got one of my first clues. I took a couple of writing classes with Cat Rambo (which I can’t recommend enough, by the way). And though I learned a lot of great techniques and concepts, for me the price of admission may have been recouped in the beginnings of a glimmer of insight into my creative process: Cat would give us a writing prompt and five or ten minutes, and damnit, I would write. And I would get stuff written that I thought was more than halfway decent.
Back in January, I competed in my first short story contest within the neo-pro writing community of Codex. Everybody there has some sort of writing achievement to their credit, so I figured I’d be doing okay if I just didn’t get blown out of the water. Despite January being a pretty murderous time for me, I managed to get stories written four of the five weeks, and placed in the top twenty out of fifty-four or so writers–with one of my stories finishing in the top five for its week. I was pretty jazzed just to feel like I belonged on the playing field with these folks at all, but I also got some more glimmers into my own process (or lack thereof). Each week I struggled to come up with a story for the prompts we were given . . . until around ten or eleven the night before the deadline. (For me on the east coast of the US, the deadlines fell at 3 am.) I was stuck until I had four or five hours, when suddenly the words would start pouring out. It was seriously that predictable.
I think I could’ve done better in the contest if I’d gotten the stories written earlier and had time to polish, but in the end the most important thing is getting stories drafted at all. Polish could come later.
So there seems to be an element of sheer unvarnished terror when it comes to unlocking the words for me. Maybe in ten minutes we’re all going to be reading our snippets out loud and by cod I better have something to read, or maybe there’s a deadline so I’ll get it written or else.
This last seems to work well with my writers’ group deadlines as well. But the other thing I’m noticing is that sometimes it’s enough just to be up stupidly late. I do a fair amount of writing in overnight binges that begin in the evening and end after the sun has come up. I guess my muse only talks in her sleep.
None of this is ideal. Sure, it’s better than failing to write. But I’m never quite happy with the quality I get when I run up against a deadline, even though, sure, once it’s written at least it can be revised. But the other thing is it’s artificial. If I can write when under pressure, then I can write when I’m not under pressure. Either way the words are there, inside me somewhere. I refuse to accept artificial restrictions. I refuse to buy in to excuses not to accomplish what I want.
So I guess that’s where I am now . . . trying to unlock Writing Without Pressure.
Have you struggled to figure out the triggers behind your own creativity? Have you figured out the hacks to make your brain work on your terms?