Finding Inspiration in the Low Places

The other day Galen and I were taking about art, and I raised a point about finding inspiration not only in great art but also in bad. She readily agreed, and stated that she’s almost more inspired by bad art than other things. See, in great art it can be difficult to appreciate all of its wonderfulness—individual aspects of genius are lost in the overall transformative experience of the work. You just know it’s great. But in bad art, every wart is apparent and you immediately see all of the things you would do differently.

Bad art inspires you to make something better. The same can be said about writing.

Before I get too far into this point, let me state that you need examples of greatness from which to learn. If you want to be a great artist, you need to look at the masters. If you want to be a great writer, you need to read great works of literature. Let these be your teachers—it is, after all, how they learned. But if you only ever use them as your guides it’s possible you may feel overwhelmed—how can you ever be good enough? And, worse, is there any point in trying?

These are defeatist thoughts, something we all suffer from at times. This is where exposure to weaker, poorly-crafted works come into play—they actively inspire you to try harder, to do better.

With a work of art, there are a number of components that make up the piece—composition, color, value, line or stroke quality, variation of scale, etc. Often when something is poorly done none of these aspects are handled well. Even still, the overall idea usually comes through—you get the intent, and you (if you’re an artist) see how you could do it better, or at least improve certain elements.

Written work is no different. A great many elements go into crafting a piece of writing—pacing, plot, character development, tone, word choice and sentence structure, etc. Again, when poorly done many of these elements fail, but the intent is usually obvious—and, as a writer, you see how you would have handled it differently. You may not be the best writer, but you know you could do better than this.

Additionally, when you look at enough bad work you start seeing patterns of common failures, things many people do poorly—and things you can learn to avoid yourself.

Here is where getting involved with slush* can be quite useful. Up until a week ago I had never read through a slush pile. While I was familiar with the process through peers (and reading about it), knowing about something and experiencing it directly are two different things. This has been very educational. Certainly there has been some wonderful submissions—really impressive work—along with the not-so-good, but there are also lots of interesting works which succeed in some ways and don’t in others—these perhaps are the most inspiring. The promise of—maybe not a great story but a good, well crafted piece—is there just begging to get out, if only the story was paced better, or the characters had more depth. Sometimes the failures are general sloppiness—a poorly edited manuscript, or a piece that received no proofing at all. These are fixable things, and seeing them so glaringly in another’s work will help me identify them in my own efforts.

At a minimum, I’ll come away with the idea that I could do better than most of the stories in this slush pile. I might be wrong, but at least I’m inspired to try—and sometimes that’s enough.

*The point of reading slush is to help craft a great anthology or magazine, but there is this added benefit of learning from others’ errors. I think every writer should experience this at some point in their career.

Time is Your Currency – Spend it Well

There’s a common expectation that you should give time and attention to everything else but yourself. That you are a better person through self sacrifice. God, community, family—all of these things should come before yourself (or, in this case, your projects).

I say: not so fast.

Time is a commodity we all trade in, giving it away for various reasons. Some of these reasons are quite valid—most of us need to work to live, we have families that are important to us, or we engage in social or community activities for the betterment of the world around us. But we need to take care when getting involved with outside projects (commitments, activities, etc.)—will they become significant time sinks?

You don’t get this time back. What you use is gone. It is the most valuable currency you hold, and you have no option but to spend it—it can’t be saved.

Of course you can time manage—in a way it’s a form of savings, but it would be hypocritical of me to talk in depth about this subject. Time management is not really my forte. In reality I’m a time thief—I steal my time from other activities (as I write this my lunch is getting cold). Rarely do I watch TV without my laptop or iPad out (do you really need your full attention to watch The Voice? It’s not as if I’m watching So You Think You Can Dance). This practice can be productive even if inefficient.

However, your real gains will come from self discipline and self respect.

Self discipline comes in the form of knowing your priorities and sticking to them. Avoid activities that do not achieve your goals—browsing Facebook, playing World of Warcraft—when you have more important tasks at hand. This is doubly important when you are trying to work on a personal project—blow off your employer’s time if you must, but not your own. Find the best times to do the things you want to do and make sure you don’t do anything else during that time. If this is writing (or other repetitive tasks), do this regularly. Make it a habit. And make sure this time is priority time for you—schedule other activities around this. If you often have conflicts, find a different time slot. It takes discipline to make this work.

It also takes self respect. Certainly you need to respect yourself and your time, believing in your abilities enough to make these kinds of priorities. But respect also comes into play when deciding which outside projects to take on. How do you value your time? Will this other project benefit you—financially, experience-wise, exposure-wise—more so than your own work? Are you sacrificing time from your own creative efforts by taking on something else?

To me, this last one is the biggest consideration.

I do take on outside projects—when they are something I believe in. My involvement here at BookLife Now is essentially an outside project, or at least not within my primary creative efforts. Same goes for a Kickstarter project I’m involved with (I volunteered my professional skills). There’s little to no financial gains here. And the exposure gains are minimal (don’t buy into doing work for exposure—your best exposure will come from working on your own projects, and building your own brand). I do these things because I believe in them, I feel I have something to bring to the table, and I appreciate the sense of accomplishment they give when they succeed. But I try my best to ensure that what I take on doesn’t eat too much of my own time. Giving up TV? Fine. Giving up gaming? Sure. Giving up writing time? Not if I can help it.

Be smart, be selective, respect your own creative efforts and time—and maybe even try out that time management thing. But remember that your time is your own—spend it wisely. You can’t save it up, but maybe you can steal a bit from yourself.

Dealing with Burn Out

As your career advances, the intensity and difficulty of your projects increase. Writing weekly columns, book series, performing the research for book proposals. There is a point where you may snap. You will want to chew a limb off to escape if necessary. Now, if we can pull our arms out of our mouths for a moment, there’s a way to escape. But to escape, we have to identity the problem.

Burn out. Those two words are dreaded by people. We’re writing, we’re supposed to love it, every second. No excuses. Sit down in that chair and write! The writing advice we’re generally fed is “tough love from your scary drill sergeant” or “follow your floaty muse to your happy place.” We don’t get burn out advice.

To start with: it happens.

It can happen to any writer, on any project, at any time. We exceed the energy—physical and emotional—that we have available. Life stress piles up, like suffocating invisible laundry. Magically, calendar days get closer to our deadline. Three months to finish the book? There was that one weekend we wrote 11K. The weekend we spent crying because it’s all we did, and it sucked. Because we were already starting to burn out!

Escape by straight out dumping a project often isn’t possible. There are financial and contractual obligations, our reputation and those of our creative partners, agents, editors, artists. In many cases, quitting a project isn’t an option. And that realization often triggers a wellspring of dark, sickening rage and depression. We feel robbed of agency, and forced beyond our abilities. The ways to cope with that are a little like advice about how to fall asleep: everyone will give you something different to try.

I’ve been burnt out and stuck for months inside projects. What I’m going to tell you is how I survive those moments in time without committing felonies or developing substance abuse habits.

First, I grid out everything left in the project. I make lots of little bullet lists with headers, post-it notes, calendar reminders. If I can find the will to at least stay on target with the bare minimum for the week, I avoid outright drowning.  It’s a step. But I never have just one writing commitment going on. So my calendar and my wall become this multi-coloured map of my existential career despair made manifest. So many articles for Y magazine, this work on the book for X publisher, these guest posts for Z website. Then travel, signings, events, and family obligations.

But then! The list of rewards.

If I can get through this laborious, burnt out period, I will be damned if I don’t reward myself along the way. Naps. A walk somewhere pleasant. Reading time related in no plausible way to any active project. Movie night. The sacred sin of take-out Chinese.  Getting the Hell out of my house. It’s easy, when so many of us are freelancers, to shackle ourselves to the desk.You may not be able to chew free of the project, but give yourself a break. If you don’t take a break, don’t reward yourself, find ways to replenish your energy—you may and often will have catastrophic results. Illness, inappropriate emotional outburst at loved ones, at people you work with. Depression and rage and incomplete work.

You are not the only person who suffers, when you are burnt out. So for yourself, for your creative partners and your loved ones: learn what your burn out warning signs are. Learn appropriate, healthy responses to it. Learn what your limit is for work you can take on.  And abide by that limit. Self-abuse as an artistic norm isn’t healthy, it’s a creepy myth.  Writing is demanding, brutal work when we do right by it. But we can’t keep writing without doing right by ourselves.

The project will end. If you take care of yourself, there will always be more of them in the future. Your career will still be there, as long as you are still here.