Rest It or Break It

I recently wrote about how making myself think creatively helped me to be more creative. It was the single best thing I’ve done to boost my imagination (aside from my daily cup of tea, of course), but it’s not something that stands on its own. Creative burnout is real, and just like muscles need to rest to grow, sometimes the imagination does, too. It’s something I forget.

When I first starting writing Of Fire and Steel, I was adamant about working on it every day. I am a person of habit, and something I still do (six years later) is make myself open Scrivener every day and write something, even if it’s just a sentence. There is a voice in my head that makes me feel guilty when I’m not using free time to write. Often that voice has a point. A current WIP is probably a better use of my time and energy than arguing with someone on Facebook. What I was reminded of this weekend, though, is that sometimes binging on Netflix and cookie dough ice cream is completely appropriate.

Over the last two weeks I’ve had two big ideas start spinning in my mind. Two brand new and entirely unrelated worlds. I’ve been organizing research and inspiration for them, giving them time to flesh out in my mind, working out some of the basic elements, compiling things to look into later. I’ve been constantly thinking about these things, finding further inspiration everywhere, and dreaming about them. Creatively speaking, it’s been a lot of work.

chocolate-chip-cookie-dough-ice-cream-12-600When I sat down to open my WIP, The Forging Legends, I felt exhausted just looking at it. I read a paragraph that needed work and could not come up with the words to rewrite it. It felt like there was just nothing up there. So I turned on Netflix (the first time I wasn’t putting on a kids’ show in weeks) and busted out the ice cream. Usually, I can not sit and watch TV without doing something else, even if that something else is just Facebook or email. But, I sat there for an hour and a half content to be fully absorbed in the TV. All weekend, I was watching the newest season of Longmire when I had free time instead of working on my WIP.

Three days later, I miss my story. It took me about two minutes to rewrite that paragraph and I’m back to my usual pace with The Forging Legends. The two new ideas are still rolling around up there, but now it seems like everything has it’s own space again. I’d been so wrapped up in the excitement and allure of the new creations that I was working my imagination in it’s usual down time and I didn’t realize how essential those breaks could be.

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Use It or Lose It

Back in the spring, I wanted to boost my creativity. I’d been working on The Forging Legends for about six years, and while nothing felt like it was getting stale, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t thinking narrowly. So I started doing weekly writing prompts. The first few I would only work on if the prompt was something that grabbed my attention and inspired an immediate reaction. That wasn’t really the way to stir my creativity and I knew that, my imagination was just being lazy.

Once I decided to be serious about it, and to do every prompt, I also decided I wasn’t going to go with the first idea that popped into my mind. I didn’t want a lazy imagination, I wanted to give it a workout.

The first few were hard. They took up a lot more of my time than I was expecting. I would read the prompt, think about it, read it, think about it for several hours. Eventually, I would get a few different ideas rolling around in my head and I had no idea how to tell if one was any better than the others. I had to start all of them and see where I was a few paragraphs into each.

Then I would ask my husband to read them. The first one he said he liked the idea, just not any of the words. It went through some serious revisions until I had something I was willing to show people outside of my kitchen.

Each week, my revisions got shorter until the only thing my husband suggested was correcting a few proofreading errors.

It wasn’t only my ability to tell a story at first pass that improved. I started getting three or four ideas as soon as I read a prompt–and they were all wildly different. Soon, it wasn’t just the prompts that made stories pop into my mind. It was shows, news, studies, photos, a random person–every part of my day seemed to be filling my mind with crazy ideas.

11891092_1006216739425320_6173079694740270934_nI saw this little rubber thing one morning as I stepped over it. From the corner of my eye all I saw was the green and it looked more iridescent. By the time I walked five paces (I counted when I went back to pick it up) I’d imagined it was a tiny portal to another world and three ideas for what that world might be like, two ways I could be trapped there, and what a journey to escape might be like. I realized my imagination was in pretty good shape.

I can’t write every story that pops into my mind, and it can be difficult to know which are the good ones and which are just nonsense as my creativity flexed its muscles. So I try to give everything a few minutes of my time. I’ll think about them, see where they go, start asking those writer questions to flesh it out. That portal story wasn’t going anywhere I was interested in following, but others have.

Reading about a Mongolian girl who hunts with eagles gave me the first solid idea I’ve had for a YA book. And an article from NPR about Chernobyl wildlife has sent me into a frenzy of research in virology and evolution. If I hadn’t put a focus on exercising my creativity, I would have thought these things were interesting, maybe vaguely inspiring and that would be it. Now, I’ve got two new worlds in my mind that I’m having a lot of fun exploring.

I haven’t forgotten The Forging Legends. I am intentional about only writing one large project at a time. I will collect research for others and record notes, but only one story gets fleshed out on paper (aka in Scrivener) until it’s finished. I know some people worry about blending worlds, but so far I haven’t experienced that. If anything, these new places in my mind have helped me look at the lands in The Forging Legends with fresh eyes and to imagine new things.

Creepy House. Flash Fiction.

Prompt: You’ve been lost for days. This is the only house for miles (picture of a creepy house in a clearing in the middle of the trees)

It was so out of place. Shades of green and brown for days broken up with so much white. Dirty white. Grimy white. Those straight lines and angles didn’t belong here, either. I should have been relieved to see this house. I wasn’t. Something about the empty windows struck dread into the pit of my stomach. It was enough to push out the gnawing hunger.

“Ominous.” It was the first word I said aloud since the string of profanity the night before.

The sound of my voice made me chuckle–nervously. It sounded too small and empty here. The trees, at least, muted everything. This opening seemed to expose it. And I had the odd sensation the house heard me. I’d just been out here too long. Too little to eat, too little sleep, that was all.

But I knew that wasn’t all. I could feel it. That wasn’t all, that house heard me. Maybe it wasn’t the house, maybe it was someone inside the house. I’d seen those movies, I knew what kind of person would be in a house like that.

But there wasn’t anyone there. I could feel the emptiness from here. It felt like it was eating into my bones.

How long had this house been out here all alone? Forever? Forever. I was the trespasser here.

The sky was darker now and a rumble rolled over the mountain. With the sound, the house was beckoning. Or taunting. It was daring me to take shelter inside.

I had the same tingly feeling I got when I woke up to that coyote watching me. The hairs on my arm prickled at the idea of spending the night here.

The bottom fell out of my stomach like I’d just dropped down the first hill on a roller coaster. Everything inside me yelled for me to run. Every instinct ordering me–begging me– to run. Turn around and run. Chance the elements and dirt and the endless sea of tree trunks.

The rain was soaking through my t-shirt, but all I could think about was the last show I watched. An arctic wolf was chasing a caribou calf. It seemed like I watched the calf run for an eternity. The narrator said the odds were even. If the calf didn’t make a mistake, the wolf would give up the chase after a mile. I don’t know how long it ran, less than a mile, I guess. The wolf closed in and barely grabbed it by the little tail. The calf just lay down. It tucked up its legs and lay down. The odds were never even, that calf never had a chance.