Lately I have been binging on Kate Cavanaugh‘s YouTube videos. I, like many of her recent subscribers, found her through her series of “I tried writing like…” (in my case it was the Stephen King one). The compelling part of the series is how none of the writing styles perfectly match Kate but still she finds elements that help her learn more about what works for her and what actually makes it harder for her to write and be productive. The problem I have always had with adhering to any successful writer’s advice is that it oversimplifies the reasons for the success.
In my teens when I got serious about writing I spent a lot of time looking to successful authors for pointers on how to turn my ambitions into reality. Most of the advice is to just write. Each other has truly helpful tips as well as a lot of personal preferences that may not even be their advice to writers as much as it is their answer to the question of, “how do you write”. There is something to the advice that one must write in order to be a successful writer. I made a lot of progress through my teens by writing terrible fanfiction, moody fiction and generally just taking what was in my head and putting it onto the page. But, I struggled with my confidence. I had a difficult time juggling college, work and creativity with my ambitions to have a family. Over the years I shed the things that weren’t me or didn’t work for me. I found successes among a lot of failures. Most importantly, through the course of living a life I learned how to edit a life.
- You can’t truly know your priorities until you take a critical look at how you spend your time. We live in such an era of overstimulation and excess that it can be hard to take notice of what our true priorities are versus our bucket list of things that we genuinely care about but truly do not have enough energy or life to focus on. The reason that creativity involves an editing process is because although you may create an expansive, rich and complex world your audience needs to understand the ideas you are trying to convey to them. There’s value to raw output. But often our minds are wild and difficult to comprehend without returning over and over until we are able to truly articulate one or two true things that have resonance. Taking a critical look at your priorities helps you to deprioritize activities that you might enjoy but that take time away from the things that are truly important to you. This applies to creativity and making time for creativity. However, it also means that you may discover that you only want to devote 2-3 hours to writing because you have a job, kids and community activities that are incredibly important to you.
- Accepting your limitations and priorities allows you to truly focus on each of your activities because you know that everything has a proper time and place. One of the worst ways to waste time is to spend it fretting about all the time you don’t have. Some writers can write a book every year, some can write several books a year and some of the greatest writers have only written one book in their lifetime. Your stories can only be told by you. You aren’t racing against anyone but yourself and if you spend the first hour of the race sitting at the finish line worrying that you won’t be able to finish as fast as last year’s campion you may find that you don’t even want to try at all. You have to know why you’re in the race in the first place. Once you make that clear to yourself you can use all your energy on the things you believe are important to you.
- If you don’t already know yourself you should make the time to get to know yourself. The thing about anyone is that you’re a unique combination of experiences, genetics, environments, feelings and thoughts. Some people hit that sweet spot where they already understand themselves in so far as they have a confidence and drive that seems to come from nowhere. But, if you’re not, it doesn’t mean you can’t get there on your own steam. What I love about Kate’s series and channel is that her explorations into writing are awkward but tenacious. Through her explorations and experiences she’s honing a voice that is her own even though she’s looking to other writers to guide her journey. That voice is what an audience is interested in. One hundred writers could tell the same story but the power of their voice will influence who wants to listen. Art gives us a way to learn about ourselves but there’s a limit on how much we can learn about ourselves solely through emulating other people’s art.
- Creative Block or Writer’s Block comes down to a dissonance between our capacity to tell a story and our will to tell it. Many successful writers will say that writer’s block is a fiction invented by unmotivated writers but I’d argue that they are misinformed about the experience. The first three points are factors that make or break your experience as a creative person. Without addressing them it is easy to find yourself creatively blocked. Sometimes we don’t yet have the will to tell a story because our basic understanding of our own voice is limited. Sometimes you can write through this but other times you need to schedule time to be inspired instead of scheduling time to write. When I say “be inspired” I mean—take walks and be alone in your own mind, read books, listen to music, watch movies and actively try to understand how someone created those things. Often we consume art and struggle to be inspired by it because we are so in awe of the whole that we cannot see the parts that comprise it. Other times we need to schedule time to practice. When we think about creativity we think about the end “product” but that commodification can prevent us from developing the capacity to tell the type of story we wish to tell. Practice is rarely focused on an end result beyond learning.
It is important to note that these steps are not ones you take once and graduate from but rather they are tools to apply when you find the balance of your creativity and productivity shifting away from equilibrium.