Story Slump: Losing Your Creative Muscle

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve mentioned in a handful of other blog posts that 2013 was a slow writing year for me. That I struggled to get words down on paper or come up with coherent story ideas or stay passionate about anything I was working on. What I haven’t discussed here are the possible reasons for that blocked period that consumed eight months of my year.

I can probably think of half a dozen offhand. Job hunting cut into my writing time more than I anticipated, especially because it took me so long to find full time work. Work itself was a time suck, and the stress of bouncing between a couple different jobs probably didn’t help. Moving twice–once across state lines and once within the town where I ended up–was a huge trial. Exhaustion stemming from health reasons was another factor, and the medication used to treat said health issue sapped what remained of my energy and motivation.

At the time I didn’t care what the reason was. All that mattered was that I wasn’t WRITING. And the worst part was that I had no idea why.

I’d written almost every day through a high school schedule packed with extra curricular activities and high level classes, work and college applications. I’d written multiple times a week most every week of college, when I was bogged down by hours of homework and a job , a new relationship and friends I wanted to spend time with, and the demands of being on my own for the first time. When I moved home after school I’d written compulsively–a couple hours a night when I wasn’t working or volunteering.

But even after I became a full-time employee for a local business, with regular hours and a sleep schedule I’d figured out and a five minute commute, I still wasn’t writing. I had more free-time overall than I’d ever had as an adult, and I still couldn’t pull my act together and put words on the page.

My presumed solution to this issue comes with a massive dose of ‘hindsight is 20/20.’ Just so you’re forewarned.

I’d forgotten how. Not how to string sentences together or how to create characters or build plots. How to get lost in the story. How to delve deeply enough into a character’s head that I didn’t notice hours passing. How to make time for creating. How to turn off the inner editor in my brain long enough that creating was even possible.

That inner editor issue was a huge one for me–still is, if I’m being honest with myself. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been working on writing. I’d been editing a new MS–both on my own and with my new critique group. I’d also been editing work through said critique group. But editing a story isn’t the same as writing one, and I should’ve remembered that. In the past, it hadn’t taken me much time to switch from editing one MS to diving headfirst into a new one. I’m a multi-tasker by nature and that means I’m almost always doing more than one thing at a time. It was combining all that editing with my drafting block that got me into trouble.

Someone far smarter and more experienced than me said this first, but I’m repeating it for the sake of this post. Creativity is its own muscle. And if you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it a little at a time. Everything that cut into my writing time or writing head space stripped more and more strength from that muscle. Which is why, two months into 2014, I’m basically learning how to draft all over again.

And here in the next week or so, I’ll suggest possible strategies for toning that creative muscle and discuss how my personal progress is coming along.

Have you ever gone through a creative slump? Were there specific reasons for it? Let me know.

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Book Review #28: Sex and Violence

Sex and Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Sex and Violence” was one of those books I wanted to read the second I saw the summary. I’m a sucker for good contemporary YA and the promise of a well-drawn male perspective was too much to pass up. Despite its somewhat melodramatic title, I read “Sex and Violence” in one day. Almost one sitting, too, because I kept being drawn back into the story every time I tried to put it down so I could get my chores done.

Evan is used to being the New Guy–in new towns, new schools, and new houses that never feel like home. To make the constant moving more bearable, he hooks up with a different girl, or girls, in each new place he lives. He’s become accustomed to brief, casual intimacy without any consequences, until he is brutally beaten in the dorm showers at his boarding school for fooling around with the ‘wrong’ person. When his dad moves them to his hometown of Pearl Lake, MN, Evan has a chance to build normal relationships with the locals and maybe put his life back together.

I love a good ‘recovery from trauma’ story as much as the next person, but one of the things I loved about “Sex and Violence” was that it didn’t conform to most of the trauma story conventions. Evan’s life initially centers around what happened to him, but the more comfortable he becomes in Pearl Lake, the more that trauma fades from the forefront of his mind. Instead of constantly pretending to be normal, Evan’s okay a lot of the time. But when he’s too much in his own head or exposed to a situation with unpleasant triggers, all his memories of the assault come rushing back. The trauma impacts Evan’s life but doesn’t halt it, and that felt like one of the most realistic aspects of the story.

The other was Evan’s voice. It sounded so real to me, like if I’d managed to get inside the heads of some of the guys I knew in high school, this was what it might have been like. Equal parts crude and funny, open or withdrawn, no facet of Evan’s personality felt exaggerated or inexplicable. All of the secondary characters were similarly well-sketched, and it’s a testament to Mesrobian that none of them fell victim to cliche or caricature.

My only sort of complaint with the novel is that its pacing tended to drag between the bigger plot points. It never took the easy way out with its many difficult questions, and because of that unflinching realism, I felt that the tension could’ve been higher overall.

Otherwise I’d recommend “Sex and Violence” to just about anyone. A quiet trauma novel compared to many others, but one lending a perspective that desperately needs to be heard.

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Book Review #27: Guitar Boy

Guitar Boy by M.J. Auch

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When I added “Guitar Boy” to my TBR pile, I remember thinking that it sounded more like a middle grade novel than a YA. That idea might have stemmed from the summary, or the knowledge that the last novel I read by M.J. Auch was one I read at fourteen and pulled from the MG section in the library. Whatever the intended audience, I finished “Guitar Boy” in a day and loved every minute of it.

Travis is a fourteen year old guitar player whose life has been turned upside down in the wake of his mother’s car accident and subsequent injuries. His father is trying and failing to run the household and keep his five children fed, and a string of bad decisions leads to him throwing Travis out of the house. Travis ends up unofficially apprenticed to a local guitar-maker while he attempts to piece his life and his family back together.

For an incredibly simple premise, this story had so much heart and so much personality. It wasn’t as much about music as it was about connection–to the family you’re born with and the family you choose. The people Travis meets when he’s isolated from everything he knows become as much a family to him as the one he’s left behind, and I loved watching those bonds strengthen as the story progresses. All of the characters in “Guitar Boy” felt authentic, like if you pulled off the interstate at some nowhere town in the Adirondacks you might encounter any of them.

Every one of the subplots tied neatly together, from the local festival Travis helps the guitar-maker prepare for, to Travis’s own missing family heirloom guitar, to his attempts to reach his mother. The links in the overall chain of events were believable and heart-wrenching and ultimately hopeful.

“Guitar Boy” is the kind of book that I want to avoid talking about too specifically, because no amount of summarizing will even begin to do the story justice. If you like quieter stories with great character development and a happier ending than you might have dared to hope for, definitely give this one a read.

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