When I lived in Donegal I had a cat named Jack. He fell ill when he was about a year old. He was listless, wouldn’t eat and seemed to lose interest in life.
I took him to the vet. Her diagnosis? Flat Cat. It was descriptive and true. Lying in his sterile wire cage, hooked up to an IV, Jack was indeed a very flat cat. But after a few days of rest and relaxation he regained his zest and it wasn’t long before he was out prowling for rabbits.
Like Jack, as writers we all can feel a bit on the flat side from time to time. The creative juices become sluggish; the enthusiasm for the writer’s life feels tarnished. We feel off our game plan and don’t believe things will ever change.
Fortunately, there is a remedy.
Shake things up. Break the routine. Do something reckless (within reason, of course).
How I Shook it Up:
When the moderator of my critique group suggested an assignment I rolled my eyes and begrudgingly accepted it. He asked us to write three pages of dialogue. No tags. No exposition. No narrative.
I chose to take the protagonist of my work in progress, Green Acres, and put her on a Greyhound bus twenty years from the time her story takes place. Six hundred words and one conversation with a stranger later I had learned more about how Emma feels about home and family than I ever could have imagined. I’m now developing those three pages of dialogue into a short story. You can read the original assignment on my Green Acres page.
Springboarding from that, I then wrote a short piece from Emma’s mother’s point of view. It opened the door to how Emma and Wanda’s relationship worked and how mother and daughter could see the same series of events so differently.
How I Broke My Routine:
For the past two years my routine has been to rise between 5:30 and 6 (to be fair, it’s been closer to 6:30 these days) and write before I start my workday. After checking my emails and Facebook that left me – oh – a grand total of thirty minutes or so for real writing. Now after a cursory glance I close my email program so I can’t be distracted by the little red dot on the bottom of my screen. I’ve made it more difficult to log into Facebook. And I’ve added to my writing time. I’m now dipping my toe into creative waters at the end of my work day, too – a time I’ve always believed I’d be too tired to write. Turns out I was wrong.
I’ve done a couple of other things, too.
I’ve begun to wean myself from CNN, MSNBC and – gulp – Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow. It was just getting too depressing.
I’ve been making home cooked meals. Really.
But probably the most important change I’ve made has been to my attitude. I am no longer obsessed with notions of: Publish NOW! Publish NOW! Publish NOW! Life has its own rhythm, its own special pace. It will happen. It might take a year. It might take five. Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone was eight years in the making. The hyped-up energy I felt after the San Francisco Writer’s Conference has mellowed into a ‘one step at a time, always forward’ sort of vibe (which was, coincidentally, my high school class motto).
How I Did Something Reckless:
No, I didn’t climb on the back of a Harley and ride into the sunset. Those days are very thankfully well behind me.
What I did instead was send two poems to The New Yorker. What is the worse thing that could happen?
And then I polished a short story and submitted it to a few literary magazines.
I sent a few other poems off to some competitions.
In other words, while Maggie’s story is ‘cooking’; while Green Acres develops, I’m still feeding my need to ‘get it out there’.
I know, I know – I’m contradicting myself. But it’s different. I can’t exactly explain how, only that it is. I guess putting a few stories and a few poems out into the world lends a bit of validity to this crazy notion I’ve taken. This reckless notion that yes, I am a writer.