Hacking my own creative process

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.

Chewed up pencil and computer keyboard.

Photo by Tracy Carpena.

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.

Scary clown.

Nightmare fuel courtesy of Daniel Perry.

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?

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4 Responses to Hacking my own creative process

  1. I think the most common thing for me, the thing that will drive me to write, is finding an idea that excites me. That can be anything; a scene, an opening, an ending (though the ending is often the best one, as it gives me something to move towards.)

    The maddening thing about that is that I seem to get them most often at between two and four in the morning, when I’m trying to get to sleep. If I was still seventeen, I’d probably just jump out of bed, run to the keyboard and write; but I have other work to do too, and I just don’t function very well as a sleep-deprived zombie. So I just write down the ideas, and then come back to them. When I am able to write at the time the story first catches and excites me, then I think I do my very best work; but more often, I have to put the idea to one side.

    That plays into another thing you mentioned, though — simply writing often. I used to be bad at that, but I’ve started to manage it far more effectively; and that also means that very few of those ideas sit for long enough to go cold, or for me to forget the details that excited me in the first place. (I have many notes for stories that I’ve thought of, but for some of the old ones, I still have no idea what I meant when I wrote them down…)

    For writing time; I’ve never written against a deadline, so I can’t speak to that. However, I’ve noted two things in my own writing: I write most often when it’s late, but I write most effectively when it isn’t. When I get into the habit of writing in the mid-day rather than in the wee hours of the night, I usually write more, and like more of what I write. I should probably learn from that…

    And I claim my free pony.

    (P.S. – in case you care to know, I found your site after seeing your name published via the Brag feature on the Submission Grinder; I saw your acceptance to Strange Horizons there, so congratulations on that!)

  2. P.S. — you can delete this comment, but I had to try five times before this comment form didn’t throw me either an “unreadable Captcha token” error or a “Possible Spambot” error (which I think may have been linked to me using my Twitter profile as my website entry). But it’s definitely glitchy.

  3. Joe Iriarte says:

    Hi Robert–thanks so much! I’m still walking on clouds over the sale!

    Lately I’ve been finding that it might not be so much the deadline as the writing at odd hours when the rest of the world is asleep. I guess my inner editor is asleep too. *g* The problem is I’m trying to train myself into healthier sleep patterns right now–we’ll see which drive wins. I *have* noticed that since I started sleeping more, I’m dreaming more and remembering my dreams better. So that might lead to some happy writing sessions that offset the need for late night writing.

    Thanks for letting me know about the capcha. I recently switched to akismet because I was getting hammered with spam before. I’ll keep an eye on it to see if it continues to be a problem, but I definitely don’t miss the one or two dozen spam comments I used to get a day!

    Ponies are sent USPS, so watch your mailbox. You don’t want to leave those sitting out there too long!

  4. I do my best to bind and gag my inner editor, but he’s a bit of an escape artist. That said, I find he’s only a really big problem for the first three or four sentences. If I can get those down and get some momentum going, it seems to shut him up.

    I haven’t remembered my dreams for a long time. It’s not that I don’t dream; if I’m woken abruptly, I can often recall them. But if I wake from sleep naturally, my dreams tend to be lost. I daydream a lot, though, and find a lot of ideas in that happy space between sleep and consciousness — the trick is actually remembering them…

    (Again; this threw the same Captcha errors three times before I could submit, and I had to delete the website column entirely.)

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