Just Breathe: Rejuvenating Your Imagination

Sometimes we forget to breathe when it comes to our creativity. By which I mean we are so busy creating and interacting with the world that we forget to pause, to be silent, to be alone. The imagination, the spark of all creativity, is a renewable resource, but it is not an inexhaustible resource. You can raze the forest, drink the stream dry, and not get it back…or not get it back right away.

As I get older, I have more and more of an appreciation for the need to be still, the need to be silent, and the need to be alone. I have less energy than I did when I was younger. My mind is less elastic, less flexible. On the other hand, because I have to be I am craftier now than I was in the twenties or thirties, and I have more experience, although not necessarily more wisdom.

Any wisdom I do have as regards tending to my own personal creativity has to do with monitoring myself and knowing my limits—allowing space for my imagination to guide me, and for it to recharge after long, difficult creative endeavors.

Two particular examples: after finishing the last novel in my Ambergris cycle, Finch, I made myself take a break from fiction. I knew that I would not just be worn out from writing an intense novel but also going out into the world to read from it and tell people about it. I also knew that I would experience a sense of loss from having lived in a world and with characters for not just three books but eighteen years of my life: almost my entire adult life. You cannot help but feel unmoored and at sea after such an immersive experience—and an experience that took so much of your imagination to see through to completion, with each book a different type of spark, a different approach to creation. So I gave myself permission not to write fiction. I forgave myself in advance…and slowly, over time, I could feel the urge to write fiction come back, and the inklings of inspiration, and those moments of going to sleep with a character or idea in my head…and waking up to find the solution, the catalyzing image, the scene expressed whole in my mind.

On a smaller, weekly scale, I also monitor my limits. Recently, my wife Ann and I undertook a fairly mammoth anthology in terms of concept and the number of what I’d call “moving parts”: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, 2011). For this book of fictions we needed faked museum exhibits, recollections of visits with Dr. Lambshead, fiction in the form of essays, and traditional short stories—all integrated with art from over 25 artists, some of them living in countries as far away as Russia. Just keeping this straight in your head is a task, let alone seizing opportunities for communication between fictions created by sometimes wildly different writers. In addition, I knew I’d be writing the connective tissue in the form of a fictional frame and fictional introductions to each section, and that these would set not just the context but the emotional tone. Well, this stuff doesn’t just conjure itself out of blue sky and clean air. It is a cumulative process and you can’t just leap in and do it all in one go. You need space: silence, stillness, aloneness. It’s a stop-and-go-and-stop-again process. Otherwise, you wring the rags dry and what comes out is attenuated, brittle, uninteresting.

So for the past two weeks, my goal hasn’t been just to write this material—it has been to set up roadblocks to writing, to find ways to procrastinate and delay so that (1) my imagination has the time necessary to work through the creative problem set before it and examine all of the possibilities and (2) so that I don’t reach that point of attenuation where it’s almost as if you’ve cooked your chicken dinner until it’s dry and practically inedible. It looks like something moist and delicious, but it most definitely isn’t.

Being aware of your limits—weekly, monthly, yearly—and having, in an odd way, the discipline to know when not to write, when to let yourself breathe, is part of making sure you have a long and happy career in your chosen creative endeavor.

Don’t Prejudge Editorial Taste

One bit of advice I think beginning writers sometimes need to hear is that it’s easy to fall into a pattern of trying to predict what an editor will like or not like, based not on the substance of a magazine or anthology’s guidelines but by wanting to read between the lines to gain an advantage. Guidelines are among the roughest and least precise of god’s creatures. They’re usually there simply to ward off the most inappropriate of submissions—for example, children’s stories about ponies to a magazine of dark horror or a novella to a market that only takes stories up to 4,000 words.

The editor behind those guidelines is generally much more complex and nuanced, and, while maintaining a main focus for their publication or book project, may also be inclined to mix in some more esoteric material, or material that doesn’t hit the center of their brief. Further, it makes sense from a proactive point of view to send in even stories that you think for some reason may not appeal to an editor from a political or social point of view. You might be surprised, you might realize that you’ve pegged an editor incorrectly based on a very small sample of interviews or back issues. Editors’ tastes also change over time, and they react to new directions in whatever general area of fiction they’re involved with.

So, as long as your story doesn’t violate a prime commandment of the guidelines, it’s generally not a good idea to otherwise presume to guess an editor’s tastes—or to try to parse subtext out of the way guidelines are written. Even back issues of a magazine may not fully illuminate for a writer the editor’s tastes because the editor may not have received a good example of a particular type of story and therefore hasn’t yet published that type or that particular approach.

Editors, like all human beings, are complex organisms and should be treated as such.

The Writing Parent is Using Booklife

Check out this great blog post about the Working Parent’s use of Booklife. An excerpt…

BookLife makes you think strategically and tactically about your creative works. While The Writing Parent’s Five Ps (Passion, Perspective, Priorities, Process, Present-mindedness), help you keep writing center-stage on a day-to-day basis, BookLife provides a larger context for your writing dreams. The Five P’s keep you focused, help you navigate through the storms that rise in life and make it possible to keep all the things that are important in you life in your life, without feeling burned out. The strategies and tips in BookLife bring you deeper in your perspective, priorities and process because it forces you to look at your creative work in a much larger context.