Stepping Back

May 30, 2016

A major anxiety of mine (and, from what I've read, many other writers) is the fear of slowing down, of going long periods between having work published.  Partly this is a monetary thing (let's face it, when you're an artist, if you don't sell, you don't eat), but it's also about remaining relevant, I think. Having achieved some (albeit small) success; having caught the eye of a few readers and editors, I know that unless I keep writing and selling stories and poems, I'll be quickly forgotten, and I don't want to lose that recognition. Being remembered as a skilled writer has lots of benefits, from rising to the top of the slush pile (and sometimes bypassing it entirely) to solicited work for closed anthologies and other opportunities.

 

Then there is the desire for praise and admiration, that reward cycle of positive feedback. Before I'd been published, writing was something I did only for myself, which didn't really do much to hone my craft, but did mean that I wrote only when I wanted to, and only for the sheer joy of it. Now it's hard to write without thinking about whether or not what I produce will be well-received. Like a rat, I keep pressing that button for the sugar water, and I'm pretty damned devastated when nothing comes out. Writers tend to have easily bruised egos, but I think that even using that scale I rate on the sensitive side. There have been times when the desire for recognition coupled with the paralyzing fear of failure has blocked my creative process completely.

 

Writing so often feels like trying to make one's voice heard above the din; there are literally thousands and thousands of other, equally qualified people out there doing the exact same thing you are, all of them working toward the same success. The drive to work, to publish, to be out-fucking-standing, is just...crushing sometimes. Add that to a serious case of imposter syndrome, and you can see why I have a love/hate relationship with my work. Sometimes, in order to keep some semblance of sanity, I just have to step back.

 

Many other writers have talked about this. It's a need we have, I think, to get away (even if it's only in our minds) and concentrate on something else for a while. Part of this is the need to refill that creative well, and I do that mostly through media--reading books, watching movies, and gaming; but also through learning and exploring other forms of art. At the moment I'm trying out drawing, as well as learning Gaelic and Spanish. I also read books, both nonfiction and fiction, each day without fail.

 

None of those things quiets my mind like being outdoors, though. When I'm in the garden, up to my elbows in dirt and plants and creepy crawlies, I'm completely at peace, totally focused on the task at hand. I don't worry about how we'll pay the bills, or which kid needs new shoes, or whether or not my protagonist is fully engaged with the conflict in whatever story I'm working on. The birds and the insects and the earthworms don't care whether I ever become a successful author. When I'm out there, I'm just one of them, just another living thing.

 

This is why, every year around my birthday (which helpfully falls at the beginning of spring) I take  a few weeks off, focusing on nothing more than just being alive and doing the things I love to do. I spend most of every day outside, cleaning up flower beds, transitioning the vegetable garden to spring crops, building new wildlife houses or feeding stations, planting shrubs. At dusk I come in, wash off the dirt, and collapse, happy and exhausted. I don't listen to music while I work. Instead I listen to the world. I learn the calls of birds, the rhythms of the sun, the smell of the wind before a storm. It's a time when I can let creative things percolate in the back of my mind, kicking about inside my own head. I read more. I think about things. I live, for a little while, in silence, and I come back to writing when I'm ready.

 

And like migrating butterflies, the words always return.

 

 

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