Are You Avoiding Your Creative Work in Progress?

I’m not alone in this, I keep telling myself. People take breathers from their creative projects all the time, and come back refreshed and recharged. Right?

If I avoid exercise for six weeks, my body does not pick up where it left off. Instead it lets me know how unhappy it is with me through aches, pains and general immobility. My muse is giving me the same treatment.

Speaking of needing exercise, I was proud of myself for scaling the 525 feet of Gorham Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park, in sandals, no less. Yet this photo captures a pre-teen girl who scaled the same summit, with her dog. Hmph.

On Saturday I started back in on my major work-in-progress–a travel memoir–after six weeks away from it. I didn’t plan for that absence, but my last MFA packet was due at the end of May, and I will confess that during the weeks following that packet and leading up to my latest MFA residency, I occupied myself with other projects. Then, of course, came the residency itself and its ten days of intensity, followed by a few days R&R on the Maine coast with my wife. Once back in DC, of course, my employer was naturally eager to engage my services once again. Just like that, six weeks gone.

My subconscious kept working on my WIP during that time, so I know where I need to go with the work. And when I sit down to actually write, words come out, and I suspect some of them aren’t that bad. But I still feel detached from the work, as if it isn’t truly mine. Does that make sense?

I know, I know. Write a little each day. Stay connected with your project. I read the craft books, devour the blogs, listen to my Vermont College of Fine Arts instructors. But sometimes life happens.

How did so many Acadia visitors scale Cadillac Mountain’s 1,532 feet? The same way I did; by car.

I don’t really have any choice but to keep plugging away. My first packet of this semester is due Thursday, July 26th. I landed my dream MFA advisor this semester, so I want to show her what I’m capable of, but the idea of producing 30 top-quality pages in 13 days is daunting. Produce 30 first-draft pages? Sure. But I know how I write, and I’ll need to produce 60 in the first draft to get to 30 I’m willing to share.

If anyone has any advice on how to fully re-engage with your WIP after a long absence–beyond forcing yourself to do so, which I am doing out of necessity–I’d love to hear it. Or if you just want to say, “There, there, Patrick, everything will be okay and she’ll love your pages,” that’s okay as well!

 

ADDENDUM, JULY 17, 7:00 PM ET: Wow. I cannot begin to express in words how much I value the community of creatives The Artist’s Road allows me to connect with. I am so grateful for everyone’s support, encouragement, and suggestions in the comments below. Thank you.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

52 Responses to “Are You Avoiding Your Creative Work in Progress?”

  1. Hi Patrick, I do feel your pain. Right now with trying to move (packing, looking for an apartment still..), plan my wedding, make some art and deadlines and try to blog, oh and have a bit of my summer holiday I can tell some of my projects are suffering. Yet, I am still blogging, brainstorming and taking in ideas from news media, documentaries, etc. I sincerely believe in ebb and flow and yes while I should always be working, I’m comfortable that it isn’t always on the same project. If I forced myself to do that I would actually be less productive. In the past I was very directed but almost at the expense of my creativity. I HAD to work on this one project or nothing at all. I think it is all about balance. You have been thinking about the memoir, you are developing your writing skills and maintaining a job/life/etc. so good for you. Hopefully you can feel more balanced as you transition back from MFA adventures! Thanks for sharing.

    • Patrick – this is Carrie posting above… for some reason I can’t log into my wordpress! Apologies.

      • Carrie, I guessed it was you the moment I saw your references to apartment shopping, wedding planning, art and blogging! You want to talk about finding balance, well, sister, you are the poster child.

        You write: “In the past I was very directed but almost at the expense of my creativity.” That’s quite a line. I hear you on your at times misguided need to focus solely on one task, when it sounds like your muse wanted you to find that balance. That’s helpful to hear.

  2. Sending good writing mojo your way!

    For me, one thing that works is if there is specific music that helped me to get where I am in the manuscript, or that prompted something in the writing (or can evoke something that will come later), that’s a good go to for me to reinvoke the muse.

    That and offerings of hot cocoa.

    Good luck!

  3. Patrick, when I’ve been away from the work for a long while–and it’s happened periodically–sometimes the only thing I can do is go back and read through the piece from the beginning. Sometimes what I read surprises me in a good way–did I write that? There seems to be no picking up where I left off, but reading the work helps restore my momentum. Another option is to pick a scene (I write fiction) that has yet to be written and work on that, regardless of where it’s going to go, or write a thorough sketch or backstory for a character who needs fleshing out. I suppose those are no-brainers. The best advice I can offer is to jump back in. Somewhere. The wheels will start to turn again.

    • That is very helpful, Gerry, and I’d note that my memoir is nearly all scene-driven, so your advice applies universally. Yes, reading is a good idea. Of course, that voice that feels that part of my problem is insufficient time shouts “No!” But I suspect reading at least a chapter or two will help me find that rhythm again, and that voice. I’m going to do that. Fantastic advice.

  4. Man do I empathize. I’ve been away from my main WIP for a few months now doing other projects, and I dread trying to get back into the swing of it. I wish I knew some tip to give you, but I really don’t. The only way I’ve ever been able to get back into a stalled project is by diving in head-first. Sometimes planning a “sequel” project or letting someone new read what I have helps rejuvenate the excitement, at least — although at some point I still have to dive back in. Good luck, Patrick. If you find a trick, let me know! =)

    • Thank you, Annie, it helps to hear you’re in the same boat. It would seem we’re getting some good suggestions here in the comments section!

      I will say on the “new read” point, that subconscious work my brain was doing while in Maine was driven in part by having a chapter from the WIP workshopped at my MFA residency. Three of the 12 members had read a previous chapter, but the WIP itself was new to the 9 others and the two instructors. That did provide some creative juice, but unfortunately I couldn’t put it to use immediately.

  5. As my grandmother used to say: “You’re not preachin’ to the choir no more. Now you’re meddling!”😉

    What happens when there’s more than one WIP or the pursuits that are taking priority are so much more lucrative (at least in my limited experience)?

    Suggestions? Hmmm. Take a sabbatical from everything else to offer myself time for the WIP? Maybe. Pretty impractical. How about reminding myself how personally rewarding it will be to have this project move ahead or reach completion? Probably only helps a little.

    So, I don’t have the answer. I can commiserate and offer my support, since I, too, want to complete at least one of my WIPs.

    playful blessings,
    Stan (aka @muz4now)

    • Hey, Stan! So glad to have you here, and much gratitude for sharing your grandmother’s wisdom, which I intend to appropriate and pretend it is an old Ross family saying!

      Yes, pretty impractical to put everything else aside, and yes, just about everything is more financially rewarding. I will say that, at times, I allow myself to imagine it being published as I’m falling asleep, to alleviate some of the anxiety of having been away from it. A little personal indulgence.

      My sympathies for having multiple WIPs. I’ve been there myself. This one looms larger, because it’s book length and the focal point of my MFA, but I’ve found when I have multiple ones of similar time and energy demand it can be paralyzing, deciding where at any given moment to focus.

  6. When I get disconnected from a project, I have to go back and read from the beginning like Gerry. I don’t know what your usual writing habits are, but I will say that when I get stuck at the keyboard, I can usually get unstuck by picking up a pen. I bet once you get rolling again, those 60 pages you have to write to get 30 pages will come.

    • OK, maybe I will go back to the beginning. I told Gerry I’d read some. Actually, I think I’ll go back to where I really found my voice in this first draft, which was about 100 pages ago.

      Ah, the pen. You know, before I returned to full-time work, I’d slip out to a nearby Panera and do a little freehand writing. Not sure why I decided it had to be done away from home, during what folks think of as work hours. I could most certainly do that at home, before or after work, and yes, I do find it engages my brain differently and can help me get unstuck. Thanks, Shary.

  7. What I’ve seen over and over again with many a writer is that he/she is doing better than it feels like.

    What comes to mind is something I read once about how a person can go almost straight into a brain state where the desired results are happening, but said person simply doesn’t believe it. And yet, when the brainwaves are measured, that’s what was happening. But to listen to the person herself, she was getting nowhere. And, of course, all the other people in the room were doing so much better.

    (With the study I’m thinking of, she was actually pulled out of the crowd because she was doing the best, as far as desired brainwaves go!)

    That study was not about writers and the creative brainwave . . . but it could have been. Given the amount of experience you have, it’s not like you’re trying to start up stone cold. You’re simply trying to change gears. And you have preconceived notions about how this type of writing is “harder.” And, no wonder. You have to show it to your dream MFA adviser. Not just any old adviser – your dream adviser, no less.

    Patrick, I have faith you’re doing way better than you think you are! Already.

    Sure, there’s work to put in. But I know you won’t rest on your laurels. You’ll put in the work, and then some. But even with the forcing yourself you may be producing something much more creative than you (are able right now to) give yourself credit for.

    Hang in there. Even when it feels like plodding, sometimes the writer is the last one able to judge how it will be for the reader.

    P.S. This was partly selfish. I really want to read your travel memoir. I have no doubt it will be a great read.

    • Wow, Milli! What an awesome comment. Love the study reference, that was fascinating. But I love even more the point behind it, that my own internal censor is negating work that may be better than I think.

      Yes, she is my dream advisor, one of the reasons I chose VCFA over other programs. I need to let go of any anxiety related to that. But don’t put new pressure on me, telling me you’re waiting to read it! (He says with love.) You were perhaps the first Artist’s Road reader to see this trip as a book, so you are first in line for a galley copy should that day ever come.

  8. I’m awestruck by the fact that you are doing all of the following: working (full time, if I’ve got that right) for an employer, just finishing an intensive residency during which you ALSO blogged with regularity, engaging in the ordinary things required of a marriage, attending to the social networking that is required as a part of blogging, doing the non-residency part of the MFA deal, and now returning to your WIP. Egad, Patrick! You should be wearing a cape and have a W (writer) emblazoned on your chest! I do relate to being away from a WIP, but I have complete faith that once you push through “getting to know it” again, you will find your groove. Or, put another way, “There, there, Patrick, everything will be okay and she’ll love your pages.”

    • Yes to full-time employment. Yes to the intense residency with daily blog posts. Yes to being a husband, and father to two. Yes to blogging (and teaching blogging), and social media related to it. And yes to the WIP. (You left out the personal essay writing!) Thank you for comparing me to a writing superhero (!), Terri, that means a great deal to me. But we all have full lives, and I know from reading your blog that you most certainly do. I do what is important to me, and all of those things on that list are important to me.

      Also important to me: Reading the morning advice columns in The Washington Post, listening to sports talk radio during my commute, and eating bacon at least once a week. So I fold those in as well.

      Thank you for your support and encouragement, Terri, and for giving me the “there, there” line!

    • Well said, Terri. I’ve also been amazed at the sheer amount of MFA nuggets Patrick has posted in the midst of all his other commitments.

  9. I literally just wrote a post last week about the Muse leaving the building, so I totally understand your frustration. Despite my brain working on WIP, sometimes my body just refuses to sit at a desk for 4+ hours after being at a desk all day.
    There’s no one piece of advice–one day I say to relax and breathe, the next I say to glue my butt to the chair and start writing. I suppose it’s all in the drive we have–we know that nothing will get written unless we actually sit down to do it, so maybe if we just pluck along with a few pages at a time, we’ll eventually get there! And the next time you feel inspired, I’d just RUN with it and let your fingers fly on the keyboard!

    • Relax and breathe. Relax and breathe. I like that. It’s so simple, yet so easy to forget.

      “I suppose it’s all in the drive we have–we know that nothing will get written unless we actually sit down to do it, so maybe if we just pluck along with a few pages at a time, we’ll eventually get there!” A magical line, that. Again, simple yet true. Thanks for this input.

  10. Beyond giving you my sympathies, I can’t weigh in because my similar story is in the future. I dove into a screenplay three months ago only to have “life” give me a good rattling and force me in a different direction. I’ve now got the fires under control but I know August is set aside for my novel so it looks like Sept. will be the first time I can get back to it. We’ll see what kind of jolt is coming my way.

    Good luck with yours!

    • Lisa, you’re like Stan above (muz4now, who is also a musician) in that you just have too many things cooking! Your music career, a screenplay, a novel, and “life.” Wow. Well, neglecting a screenplay for a novel is asking one muse to wait while you dance with another. You’re still engaging creatively, so kudos.

      Thanks for the good luck!

  11. I’ve been working on my second book for 14 years, off and on. Mostly off, as life got in the way – not just once or twice, but several, and in big ways. It’s non-fiction, photos+interviews, and… it’s complicated. During this time I’ve agonized over the *how* of it while taking on full time work, getting divorced, becoming the sole caretaker for my elderly mom, going back to school, and publishing 2 other books.

    There’s plenty of positive here, too. Working on (actual) book #2 helped me solve layout and organization problems with the current WIP, because I design the books, too. Time away gave me distance from my subjects that (I can now see) was much needed. It’s also given me time to research, study, and get a helicopter view of the jigsaw puzzle pieces – when I started up again about 4 months ago, I was much more serious about it.

    Instead of just continuing to gather information – which is a very fun/sexy part of it all – I made a production calendar, talked to my artistic mentor about budgets and business possibilities, made a final list of interviewees and am in the process of setting those meetings, dipped into my savings and hired a student worker to transcribe the 50 or so remaining tapes, and committed to seeing it through this time … or finally letting it go.

    I wrote book #2 in 15-minute bursts, wherever I had the time. I always keep research or editing in my car, in my tote bag, so if I’m at the doc’s office in the waiting room, that’s not wasted time. It got done. This one will, too.

    A favorite quote is something along the lines of, if you want to do something, you’ll find a way – and if not, you’ll find an excuse.

    Best of luck… and seriously, the time away is seasoning or steeping time. Not wasted.

    • Holy cow, what an amazing comment. First of all, kudos for taking on what (to this former journalist) sounds like a fascinating project, one that you are pursuing exactly right. And how humbling to hear what you’ve experienced in your life that has taken you away from it.

      It sounds like you’re finding a way, not an excuse, although you have plenty you could fall back on should you choose to. I like your 15-minute approach; it’s easy to say, “Oh, I don’t have a big block of time, guess I can’t write.” Um, who says?

      Thank you, ML.

      • Thank YOU for the encouragement – it helps to be reminded that it’s a good thing to keep my blog updated (because I talk about the process) and to stay current on Twitter and… and…

        I’ll follow your blog with interest – and added you on twitter.

        And yes, the project is journalism based, both in the interview-gathering and the documentary photography aspects. Hardest part for me is to recreate the experience of sitting in those interviews, letting the reader “hear” them the way I did. Took me a very long time to understand that the glue that will hold all these pieces together – the tapestry thread weaving through it all, pick your metaphor! – is by making *me* the central character, the guide for the reader. We’ll see!

        • Holy cow. You just captured in one paragraph what took me a year to figure out with my travel memoir, which is anchored around video interviews I did with about 40 artists in 34 states. (My “What is This” tab above explains the trip.) Yes, we all want as readers to connect with the narrator, to accompany the person and see others as he/she sees them. It was hard for me to realize that putting myself in there serves the reader; it’s not a statement of ego.

          • Wow – exactly! It took an outside reader to bring this home to me. Someone I respect, both for his writing and his knowledge of opera – I gave him what I thought was going to be the introduction. He said “As fascinating as all these people are, the most interesting ‘character’ here is YOU!”
            I rejected that for months! Finally got it – the only way to bring people along is in my shoes.
            And worked out some of that in (actual) book #2 as well, which was part history, part memoir (about a group of fine art photographers, online, in the early days of AOL – the core group are still connected, now via Facebook)
            But you and I have been on similar paths, it seems! (How have we not run into each other before?) I’ve racked up 130 interviews with tenors, singers, directors etc. in opera … 72,000 miles of travel so far … but the final interviews will be August ’13. Yay!

  12. Thanks for sharing, Patrick! It’s encouraging to know that others with vastly more experience struggle with the same challenges. And it’s inspiring to read everyone’s suggestions on how to re-energize and refocus on a work in progress. –Donna Gough

    • Hi Donna,

      One thing I’ve learned in working with creatives is that we all face the same creative struggles in life. Experience might give one more resolve, but it doesn’t exempt them from recurring challenges.

  13. I can really relate to what you wrote here:

    “And when I sit down to actually write, words come out, and I suspect some of them aren’t that bad. But I still feel detached from the work, as if it isn’t truly mine. Does that make sense?”

    It’s great that you honor your muse and yourself by sitting down to do some writing, regardless of feeling inspired or not. I bet dollars to donuts you’ll look over what you produced in those detached sessions at a later time and you’ll realize your muse must have been there writing with you all along, even though you didn’t feel her presence fully then. You’ll offer it up and someone will probably give you feedback how moved or relevant it is to them, tell you how much they marvel at your writing prowess,and it’ll leave you scratching your head in a bit of amazement how it all turned out way better than you could imagine LOL.

    I have to confess that I’m really looking forward to reading your book too. Not to put more pressure on you or anything😀 These posts and the occasional award-winning essay will suffice in the meantime…

    • A great comment as always, Carole Jane. Yes, the words wouldn’t be coming without my muse, so I am probably still there more than I think. As to your final paragraph, it definitely made me smile. (It also made me feel compelled to take the half-dozen essays I have that are 90% done, polish them up, and submit them places, so that’s still more work. Ack!)🙂

  14. I think the most important thing is not that you took a break, but that you get back to it, which you already have. Life happens to all of us. The successful writers find a way to get back to it. And eventually, word by word, you’ll start feeling engaged with the writing again.

    • Thank you, Charlotte. I just finished another session on the WIP, and I have to say that today was the first day where I felt the writing really take me. I ended up writing a flashback scene I had no idea I would be writing, but now I look at it and it seems so perfectly placed. When the muse takes me off of my outline, and I’m smart enough to follow, good things happen. So I’m just about back.

  15. Really reassuring to hear of your situation. I’m in the same boat myself, having been away from my WIP for weeks. Thank you for the comraderie and reassurance others feel like I do. I’ve never combed through comments as carefully, scooping up all the advice I can. Just what I needed. Thank you for voicing your concerns!

    • “I’ve never combed through comments as carefully, scooping up all the advice I can.” Thank you, Girl Parker, for reading the post and for your comment. What you’ve written here is what I consider to be the strength of this blog, the tremendous contributions readers are willing to make as we all explore these issues surrounding creativity together.

  16. Alice Chan, Ph.D. Reply July 27, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Patrick, every writer’s nightmare is to have to produce under pressure. The more we think about the pressure, the more the creative juices dry up. It sounds like you’re letting the advisor, the time pressure and everything other than you true love–i.e., writing and being creative–rob you of your joy and why you’re in the MFA program to begin with. Forget what she may/may not think, forget that it’s 30 pages of whatever you fear quality may or may not be. Just feel the love you have for the words that want to flow out of you. Enjoy writing for no other than YOU. There’s no better guarantee for quality than that. All the best, Patrick!

  17. I definitely feel your pain! Sometimes it helps me to read over what I’ve already written. Often I’m reminded that my WIP isn’t quite as awful as I remembered, and I’m inspired to keep working from where I last left off, with everything fresh in my mind.

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