3 Steps Off the Path of an Art-Committed Life

College Hall on the campus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I will receive my MFA in Writing in early July.

College Hall on the campus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I will receive my MFA in Writing in early July.

It is one of my greatest fears. I have abandoned my creativity before; this blog is my chronicle of returning to an art-committed life and working to stay there. That is also a central theme of the travel memoir I am in the process of polishing to final. But it is so easy to drift away from the creative path. That fear drives me to ponder what factors can lead us away from our muse.

In less than two months I will have an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. During this program I’ve heard horror stories about MFA graduates (of any creative field) almost immediately drifting away from their craft post-graduation. So in doing a little online surfing to find examples of this, I came across the blog of a woman who graduated from VCFA a year before me, Shawna Lenore Kastin. Here’s what she wrote about her experience post-graduation:

I graduated this summer and it was scary and wonderful and bittersweet. And then I got home and I didn’t feel like writing. But more than that, I suddenly hated writing. The whole process felt like trying to cram my head through the eye of a needle. So I stopped for a month. But I was terrified I would never start again so I forced myself back to work. And writing felt like work. Boring, miserable, “Why am I doing this to myself?” work. And why was I doing this to myself? Why not just quit and join the circus or find myself an actual pirate ship or *gasp* get a normal job like a sensible person? That would be so much easier than writing.

It took Shawna six months to start writing again. And she tells us she is still, but “very slowly.” So what factors lead us to abandon our craft, particularly when we’ve been so dedicated for so long?

  1. Lack of deadlines. I’m forty-five years old. I spent sixteen years meeting deadlines in school, then about fifteen years meeting deadlines as a reporter, and now about a decade meeting deadlines in a variety of other communications jobs. I know that every one of my readers also faces deadlines in their own professions. In a low-residency MFA program, there is a looming deadline very month. A typical VCFA semester requires me about every four weeks to produce thirty pages of original and/or revised prose. I have now turned in my final packet for VCFA. I have a memoir manuscript that I completed in that program, but it’s rough and needs revision. I am attempting to set a revision schedule for myself. But no external force will require me to adhere to that schedule. I can’t tell my wife and kids or employer “Sorry, I have to meet this MFA deadline.” This is, of course, the daily existence of most creatives.
  2. Lack of encouragement. I read last night my final packet letter from this semester’s advisor. It was, as these letters often are, very encouraging. He provided some direct guidance for improving the material I provided him, as well as constructive advice for revising the manuscript as a whole. But I seized on his final sentence, which I will quote here without his permission: “For one thing, your manuscript will become a book, and I’ll want my copy autographed.” How will I keep writing without these monthly injections of encouragement? Where will I find that endorphin injection post-MFA? There are family members, writing groups, local courses. But by and large I will be  returning to the natural order of things in a writer’s life: solitude.
  3. Lack of quantifiable and regular measures of success. When creatives put their works out into the world, there is no guarantee of acceptance. A literary journal may sit on an essay for months and then reject it (this is the normal state of affairs for even the most successful writer). The same cycle applies for painters, photographers, songwriters, etc. A third-party validation clearly provides motivation, but they are in no way predictable, the way a monthly packet letter is. So, like self-imposed deadlines and self-encouragement, I must set my own measures of success–perhaps completing a certain revision by a certain date, or pulling off an extended metaphor that has been thwarting me for months–and hope that is enough.

I wish I could say I had the answers to these three challenges. I would love to tell you, “Okay, now here are the three actions you can take to ensure you continue with an art-committed life.” But I do not have those answers. I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., for a quarter-century, my professional life entangled with politics and policy. We are all very good at identifying problems. Developing and implementing solutions? Well, you know our track record with that.

I’d welcome your thoughts. Have I left out obstacles? Am I overlooking work-arounds? What has worked for you to keep going with your creative endeavors, or to return to them after drifting away, like Shawna did? I’d like to learn from you today.

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About Patrick Ross

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

71 Responses to “3 Steps Off the Path of an Art-Committed Life”

  1. This almost reads like a guarantee that I will fall into the “crevasse.” It is, however, encouraging in its own way. How has your post-MFA creative life played out, Jodi?

  2. You’ve been focused on output for so long, it may be you need an input break. I call it re-filling the well and, for me, it’s simple. I go to museums and fill my eyes. I listen to CDs I’ve ordered but never played. I watch favorite films, older ones, well-done ones. I go to the 99-cent store and buy pipe cleaners and crayons and I make a mess on some blank paper. And I read – anything unrelated to my project – I did that 2 weeks ago when I was off the computer/social media grid for a mere 36 hours, discovered a writer whose style and craft leave me breathless in admiration. But that’s me.

    Here’s more about me🙂 Staying focused on a long-term project is brutally, painfully difficult. All the times I’ve tried to walk away from my complex monster, I’ve learned something about it – I see this now, in retrospect. At the time(s), it was agony. I’ve gained the emotional distance from my subjects I need and – finally – learned how to tell the story by identifying the primary unifying thread in it all (and not the one I suspected). *This* time I’ve started again is more serious – juggling the content/writing part of it with the business side. Making a “production calendar” which sounds so much better than a “to-do list” has helped, too. Bottom line, I’ve never ever lost the passion for my project – just gotten overwhelmed by how to do it. I’m pretty stubborn…. I think that helps!

    • You’ve really opened my eyes to something, Martha. I like the output/input concept. I’ve been thinking about how I’ve read so much during this two-year program immediately relevant to my learning, but I haven’t read, as in pleasure-read, in quite some time. I’d love to just curl up with a silly beach novel and not be constantly analyzing voice, structure, etc. I think that’s a way I can reinvigorate myself, with some “fun” reading.

      And on the production calendar, that’s actually a source of comfort for me, because I lean very heavily on that approach in all aspects of my life (you should see the timelines I mark out for myself on my wall-sized whiteboard in my home office). Good to hear it working for a creative peer.

      • I had that same experience, Patrick. I finally got back to reading for the pleasure of it after a long haul in college (9 years). It was a delight, and does refill the tank/refresh the spirit. Enjoy!

      • Oh, but you will analyze voice, structure etc. and throw the poorly written silly beach novel into the ocean. But it makes the good ones that much more precious when you find them.

  3. Patrick, Patrick, Patrick.
    First of all you are one of the most productive writers around and if you worry about a post-grad crevasse I should get decked out in climbing gear now. I sense your alarm will be all that it takes for you to keep moving. However, I worried about this as well and thought, wow, I could go back to nursing. Imagine getting all your work done in one shift and even being paid for it. A dream job. And I’ve also thought about painting the interior of our house because maybe chabby chic is no longer in style. To keep myself on track I did join a writers group. I also signed up for the St. Augestine Writers Conference in October. I’d love to see a lecture given by VCFA grads on this topic. Hopefully many respond to this blog and leave little crumbs for us to follow to our writing homes.

    • Nancy, you always know how to say the right thing! No wonder you went into a profession where you care for people.

      I recently left a writer’s group for a number of reasons not worth exploring here, but yes, I see the merit in it. I’m not going to St. Augustine because VCFA has left me without money or free time, but if it happens next year I will, or other conferences like the CNF one every year in Oxford, Mississippi.

      Thank you for your confidence, Nancy. It means a lot.

  4. I haven’t attended an MFA program, I would like to but I’m afraid it would keep me from my writing. After so many years of putting things off or working sporadically I have developed a daily habit of writing. I don’t know if it is good, but it makes me feel better about myself and my life. I may never write a book that will be published but I will write and that gives me the inspiration to keep writing. Any day I write is a good day.

    I have been posting serialized stories on my blog, johnhenrybeck.wordpress.com, and the deadline makes me write and the occasional comment I receive also helps. It isn’t much but I find helpful.

    Good luck with your post MFA writing.

    • Interesting that you think it would keep you from writing.

      How fantastic that you have developed a daily habit. I believe the key to that is not worrying about whether it is “good,” so you’re in the right mental place.

      Yes, I know other creative writers who use their blog deadlines for their creative writing. I haven’t been posting my creative writing here, but on some level if you can maintain a blog schedule you can maintain a creative writing schedule.

  5. I haven’t done an MFA program, but I’ve been a 9-5er for the past several years and working on my novel during my free time. It’s extremely difficult to continue working on my book and keep up the semblance of the creative life. I won’t candy-coat it. There are many times I’ve almost given up on my dream, and I imagine there will be many more. But as someone who is working towards full-time writing, I wish I had started doing this sooner.

    A few things have helped keep me on track. 1.) Setting my own deadlines and 2.) Having accountability for it. I do that either with someone else (pay my partner $50 if I don’t finish my chapter) and through my blog. My deadline to finish the final draft of my book is January 2014. I don’t have an editor breathing down my neck, but I take that deadline seriously.

    Martha’s idea of focusing on input is a great idea. You run the risk of burning yourself out if you don’t take a break. Take some time to really indulge in culture: art, music, literature, theater to replenish those reserves. Set a date to start writing again, and when you do, try not to have an agenda. Just write every day and it will come back to you.

    • I’ll echo the wish that I started sooner!🙂

      Accountability. Perfect word. I wish I had included that in the post. Interesting that you hold yourself accountable through the risk of losing money!

      As to your self-imposed deadline, you of course know most people out there writing books do not have a publisher’s deadline. (Also, a dirty little secret, most of the authors I know who do have such deadlines often fail to meet them, so their value is questionable.)

  6. Funny how books fall off the shelf, people cross our paths, and great posts like yours show up in our inboxes just at the right time! And sometimes, just posing the questions helps, even if the answers aren’t showing up right away. So, thanks for posing the questions that resonate with (probably) most creative types!

    I once completed two degrees while working full time and caring for several small children – completed both with distinction. Looking back, I’m amazed at the quality writing I produced, given my pulls in so many different directions. I think, though, it was the accountability, the deadlines, that drove me. Being immersed in the creative atmosphere, with like-minded and ‘going through the same stuff’ people are forces (and Kraft caramels, now that I think of it!) that can probably help.

    Thanks again …
    Sheryl

    • So glad the timing was right, Sheryl!

      My goodness. I’m pleased that I’m finishing one degree with two teenage children who can care for themselves. But I see you cite the same word the previous commenter did, accountability. I think I might need to write a new post around that word and what it means to our creativity. Thanks for making me think.

      (Ooh, I love caramel!)

  7. One of the main factors that determine when/what/how I write is my life experiences. It’s easy, I think, to get bogged down with one narrow path of writing, to be so set on portraying this one idea that has plagued my mind for quite some time. And when we force this idea onto paper, sometimes the work becomes tedious because like you said, after you graduate and your mentors have moved on to other students, the encouragement and creative environment dwindles. It’s a realization that the creative energy floating in the air was taken for granted. And now, suddenly, it’s up to us to create our own energy and inspiration. And do you know what I’ve found? The only way to ignite such a creative spark has been to live life to the absolute fullest. I talk to people everywhere I go. I listen to story after story. I read, I soak in information, I watch, I observe, I allow my heart to feed on emotions and sometimes I do dangerous things, I take big risks. But in my defense, no art deserves safety. It breeds boredom and that, my friend, would be an insult to the craft.

    • Yes, when you get too comfortable, it’s time to move on – take some artistic risks. I’ve been in that situation and didn’t make the move (because the rest of my life was in upheaval) and regretted that moment.

      I also find that no matter how helpful mentors, colleagues and others are to kick you up to the next level, the creative drive/energy we generate in ourselves is the strongest.

    • What an insightful and beautifully written comment. I like this notion that we take creative energy for granted. That is a lesson I learned on my cross-country road trip interviewing artist, the critical importance of creating the opportunity to take it in and make use of it for ourselves, rather than others’ projects in which we don’t have the same stake.

      Kudos to living life to the fullest. It’s like life is one big “artist’s date,” so when living life, you’re not cheating on your creativity by doing something “else,” you’re instead feeding your creativity.

      I like your profile photo!

  8. Patrick,

    Regarding lack of encouragement, you MUST reach out to other creatives (particularly in your field) for feedback – to include constructive criticism and encouragement. There must be writing groups that meet regularly in your area. If you haven’t already joined one, don’t wait. Do it now!

    Regarding lack of deadlines – enter competitions. These have set deadlines, where you must have your entry in. Put these on your calender, work toward them, and don’t falter. (This is where your writers group will come in handy). If you can, find a mentor. Someone who is ahead of you in the game and willing to guide you. If not, at least people of more success/experience who are willing to answer your questions. Hold those people close and treat them like gold. Then use them to hold you accountable to your word and your deadlines if they are willing.

    Regarding success, go for awards you think are a long shot. Believe in yourself (even if just a little bit). When you win, or get that acknowledgement*, it is an extra shot in the arm. The key is to not let it crush you if you don’t get accepted this time. Hey, it was a long shot anyway, right? Try again next year.

    If you are like me, or anyone else I know, it will feel a bit unstable when you graduate, even if you have some of these things in place. That is why I recommend pursuing them now, don’t wait another second. Create a schedule of deadlines for competitions, etc. that is posted on a bulletin board nearby, so you see it whenever you look up. Put those writer’s group meetings on the calendar, as well as coffee meetings with your mentor if possible. You must take the bull by the horns. Don’t wait, my friend.

    All my best to you,

    Amy

    * In my case, it was receiving Signature Membership status in the International Society of Acrylic Painters early on in my pro career, and being accepted into three exhibitions in NYC within a 10 months of setting my goal to get into one – and one of the jurors was HUGE in the art world.

    • Amy… yes, I agree — competitions. The pressure and excitement of competitions works for me, too. If someone is soon to read my stuff… then I have no trouble working hard at it. I also believe that competitions are a viable route toward publication. The agents and publishers pay attention to the works that emerge through the sieve of that selection process.

    • Submission deadlines! Fantastic! I’ve largely been blowing off contests and other submission deadlines because I’ve had my MFA deadlines. That’s a great idea, not just to keep writing, but to come up with what I’ll write, based on what is being sought.

      It’s helpful to hear this, Amy, because I know you went back to art school and now live the post-art-school life, and live it well.

      • These things were SO helpful to me getting out of school, which is why I pass them on to you. I hope you find them as useful as I did! (As you settle in to your art-committed life, you may find different things that work for you, but this is a GREAT way to start. 🙂 )

  9. Patrick… dare I introduce the idea of “spiritual self-confidence”? Well, there, I just did. I’m not sure any bullet list of “how to survive” will work in the long run. Nor do you. But I get a sense that you can survive moments of existential terror brought on by failures and setbacks. Some people can’t. So what I’m saying is that our ability to endure as creatives may reflect the degree to which we know ourselves. Meditation is useful.

    • Thank you, PJ, for that contribution. The notion of knowing myself, well, I find that exercising my creative impulses is one of the best ways of doing that. Few things provide self insight like working on a personal essay, looking at what I’m typing, and going “Whoa, where did that come from?” Meditation/self-awareness/curiosity/accountability/patience. Am I leaving some intertwined elements out? Probably. But you’ve got me thinking.

  10. You wrote of continuing an “art-committed” life. Not an “art when I feel like it” or an “art when I get encouragement”. That’s the word: commitment. Yes you do tell your wife and kids and friends that you have a real deadline. You do. Yes we need support and structure and yes it’s sometimes really really hard when neither feels abundant or even existent. But commitment doesn’t mean lack of struggle or compromise. When I finished my masters, a poet a few years ahead of me told me that the writers he knew who “took a little break” rarely went back. I didn’t write when my mom was dying of cancer or when I suffered major depression or had a custody fight. We have to take time off at times. But the commitment stays if it’s worth the word
    Congratulations, and good luck and keep at it. And find a good writers group!

    • Okay, you’re the third person to mention a writer’s group. I mentioned above I drifted out of the one I was in. Finding a new one is now on the list.

      Thank you for seizing on the “commitment” element of my path, and for the permission to make clear that commitment to others in my life.

      Oh, my, I’m sure you’re right about that “took a little break” and not going back. That was my experience in my past creative life; twice I embraced creative writing, and twice I walked away, both times for several years. I’m not going to do that a third time.

  11. Patrick, I highly recommend joining Writer2Writer. Andrew Marshall should contact you soon, if he hasn’t already. Each writer submits monthly packets to a fellow VCFA grad by the first of each month, on a schedule that mirrors the VCFA semester. Being accountable to John Proctor each month has kept me going. At least it did, until six weeks ago, when I fell in the shower, fractured my wrist, and started living with my left arm bent into a boomerang. Now, I’m hoping I’ll remember how to type with both hands when this cast finally comes off. Best wishes! I’m hoping to glean some helpful advice here as well.

    • Okay, Cheryl, you “buried the lede,” as we say in journalism, not getting to your shower injury right away! My sympathies.

      You know, I think I have heard mention of this program. Yes, yes, yes, I want to belong. I’ll be curious to learn more when Andrew contacts me. And John Proctor is a fantastic writer, as are you; a good pairing!

  12. I got my MFA right after my undergrad because I knew I loved to write and didn’t know what else to do. After grad school, I had that same “I need a real job” feeling and had no desire to write. So I got various jobs writing for others. While I liked these jobs, they were not my life’s dream. Your post made me realize it took me not six months but ten years to really begin writing again. And it has actually been more enjoyable than ever. When I started back up again, my only goal (only – ha) was to finish the book I’d always wanted to write. It didn’t have to be good, just finished. Having no deadlines or “must write every day” rules actually helped me. But the thing that helped most of all was finally calling myself a writer out loud and finally, truly, giving myself permission to sit in a room and write.

  13. Really enjoyed reading this, Patrick, and others’ responses. My experience with college was a B.A. in English and American Lit (the writing part interested me less than the reading, the ideas and thoughts that came from reading great literature), so when I toyed with the idea of a post-grad degree in Writing, an instructor at the University of Iowa (where I was at the time) said, basically, “Go work in the world and write about it. Don’t get stuck in the academic trap. Make Cabbage Patch dolls if that makes you happy.” (Obviously dating myself there.)

    So, I got into publishing, became an editor and got stuck there. Never writing another word, save the occasional entry in a journal. In 2012, I completely ditched my editorial career (at the age of 50, scary decision but strong gut-instinct came with it) and now committed to writing for the rest of my life. A few things have helped:

    Freedom (not without it’s financial worries, but hey that’s the price) within structure. When I restarted my film narrative blog in 2010, after losing my parents and girlfriend at the time, I rediscovered my voice by regularly posting new material to the blog. My deadline is Saturday a.m. EVERY WEEK. I usually post by Friday morning. I have a long-running editorial slate (so I know what I will write about), which I reconfigure as needed.

    Re: long-form work, in 2010 I also started a novel which 50K words in, fizzled out. Novels ARE DIFFICULT. So, in an effort to get around that, I’m setting up a new blog late this year, early 2014, that will be an interactive serial novel set in 1982 with characters I created nearly 30 years ago. The deal with myself is this: low expectations. Set up the playground, and let the children (and myself) come out to play in it. Whether that online serialized story becomes a novel later is anyone’s guess. Frankly, I don’t care.

    Anyway, I’ll shut up now, but gotta add that it’s clear you’re an amazing, open and resourceful person, Patrick. You will find a way to keep writing. I want to be there to read your stuff when you do. Cheers, Mike

    • Wow, Mike, what a comment, and what an inspiring story. We are brethren, coming to our writing passion a bit later than some but bringing some of the professional tools we developed with us. I spent enough time in publishing to know how an editorial calendar works, and you’re applying your experience with that to your craft. Kudos.

      I love your concept of an interactive serial novel. I was just talking yesterday with an artist friend of mine who was telling me all about this trend of interactive graphic novels done through blogs. I need to look into that, but it sounds like you’ve hit on a similar concept.

      Thank you for the encouragement and support, Mike. It’s greatly appreciated.

  14. Well, you have a fan, me sitting at the computer with thatched head; I appreciate you. You are authentic, and you reveal, as well as write well. You will write; how, where and when is up to you. I write well – so I am told; I’m too old for MFA programs, but somehow I survived. I learn, write, study, and I read, and oh, I teach others. This is about Arts Rising, or Arts on the Rise. Surely if there are so many of us “creatives,” a future calls us to catapult ourselves out of our global adolescence with our word dance. Can’t you imagine villages, urban centers, a plethora of places where art is shared, garnered, stored? It isn’t about the hero, the star any more – it’s about us, all of us. We create because we have to, but think if we didn’t. There’d be more word weeds, and people would bump along all sad, and heads down type of thing. It’s about all of us, solacing each other, stretching, giving, knowing, loving. Best to you.

  15. First, congratulations on your near-graduation! Second, I want to read your book. Third, hmmmm. I went to school very slowly, sometimes one night class at a time, for many years to obtain my degree in Studio Art. As a result, I was immersed in the “art (including creative writing) culture” for a long, long time. Maybe because I was “in” for so long, graduation was a relief.

    Creativity, as you know, manifests in many ways … including and beyond writing. I guess my take, trite as it may sound, is that the creative journey is where the meat is. To this end, I’m no longer certain what equates to measurable success. I can write a really good piece that may, for various reasons, not wind up published (or even seen by more than a handful of people). I can render a really good piece of visual art (even a very expressive doodle in my journal) that may never be exhibited. Still, behind the camera … in that moment of capturing something on film … that’s where I see the light coming through the trees a certain way … a way that it never will again … because, the next day, the light will be slightly different, the leaves bent in a slightly different way. Same with writing. I love to “free write” … it touches on such a fresh place, free from self consciousness … something bubbles up in a particular way on a particular day. Each freewrite is a little journey. Lately, I’m channeling my creativity into music. At 49, singing with a little garage band. It’s a blast … and the best parts, so far, are the practice sessions … where we’re tweaking things and making mistakes and laughing at ourselves … and those moments when we get into the groove.

    What keeps me motivated without school/mentors/etc.? Need. Need and the willingness to take creative risks that may seem/look/be foolish. . .

    All that said, I’d advise finding/joining a local “reader’s salon” wherein you can read your work aloud before audiences. This provides immediate feedback and connection in what, otherwise, is a pretty isolating gig. That and … once in awhile … do something that polite society deems inappropriate (start a water fight in the Lincoln Memorial reflection pool). As Stephen King says, if you’re going to be a writer, your days in polite society are numbered.

    • Hello Terri! Thank you for this insight into your life and learning lessons. I really like this: “What keeps me motivated without school/mentors/etc.? Need. Need and the willingness to take creative risks that may seem/look/be foolish.”

      I hadn’t thought about a reader’s salon, but I like the idea. My favorite part of residency is the student reading nights. Yes, I enjoy the one night where I get to read, but it’s so amazing to hear all of the great things others are doing. It’s a mix of poetry and prose (fiction and CNF) and it’s always surprising and enjoyable. I live in Alexandria, Virginia, which Amazon says is the most literary-focused city in America (based on its sales data) so there must be something like that here.

  16. Don’t let the grass be greener on the other side. When we are unemployed we long for a reason to get up and ready for a day of work. When we are employed we long for a sick day to curl up in bed with a book. You have inspired me! I recently decided to move my music activities from the sidelines to the front line. No more office jobs. I am going to teach, perform and write about music. I just turned 50 and want a taste of a life with creativity too, and to work for myself for the rest of my life. Good luck Patrick.

  17. Being creative means that you’re less likely than less creative people to want to climb someone else’s mountain. The blind spot for most creative people is that they want everyone else to witness this and applaud. But they won’t. They’re too busy climbing the less creative mountains of their own lives. Diligently, they climb, while the creative people stall from the affront.

    Moral? Creative people are in no way special.

    Get this, and maybe you can get on.

  18. Shawna Lenore Kastin Reply May 16, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    I think a lack of deadlines and feedback is hard to get used to, but I also think the pace of an MFA program is difficult, if not impossible to sustain for more than two years. Or maybe that’s just me, lol. I think part of the reason I stopped/struggled with writing for so long was burn out, plain and simple. I needed to give myself time to recharge, but I’m impatient and rather terrified of failure, so it was hard to give myself that space. One thing that’s really helped in the past month is moving to a different genre. I spent 90% of my MFA writing fiction. Lately I’ve gone back to focusing on poetry (my original passion) and it’s working. Writing poetry feels like magic. Now if I could just get my fiction to feel that way…

    • Welcome, Shawna! Thank you for helping to inspire this post. Yes, I agree that the pace of an MFA is difficult to sustain, but I want to maintain the momentum, if not the production. I like your insight about how poetry has helped you capture the magic. In a way it’s like what I was saying above with another commenter about wanting to read something I wouldn’t find myself feeling required to analyze; it’s a way to tickle our creative side without it being part of our “work.”

      • Shawna Lenore Kastin Reply May 17, 2013 at 4:05 pm

        Yes, exactly! I think finding that balance between the magic of creating something and the work involved is really important. I’m glad to see the discussion all of this has started🙂

  19. I agree with having a schedule, whatever one calls it–it helps me, both long and short-term. But I learned some helpful things when I was a child. First, I was taught the necessity of discipline from an early age when I began studying the cello and also dance and figure skating. I engaged in a variety of arts activities/performances (I had an very achievement-oriented family and lived in that sort of community). When I received accolades and applause it was very nice but what made me deeply happy was the DOING of the art, not the public display. All those expectations others had could be distracting and, in fact, had little to nothing to do with what meant the most: creating, making art in whatever medium. Therein, for me, lay the ecstasy and the freedom, the instruction and the fulfillment. There was the excitement, the puzzle to put together, the challenge to seek. I learned I did my best work when I did not compete against others but competed against myself. That is still what motivates me today. Writing is dear friend and sometimes foe but publishing is an aside, another story altogether that means far less. I am publishing a little more again but as a writer–when engaged in any creative activity that demands my whole attention—I keep writing because I care to and am called to it. Even the less productive days (or weeks). We all have those sooner or later! And I remind myself what Kurt Vonnegut liked to note: “So it goes.”

    • It sounds like you’ve learned some valuable lessons, and I’m glad you shared them with us. This resonated with me: “I learned I did my best work when I did not compete against others but competed against myself.” One of the things I really love about my writing now is that I am competing solely against my own expectations. I fall short every day, but I can see the progress.

  20. Hi Patrick, I stopped commenting for a while there, however you asked me a while back to tell you why if I ever did veer away. All your responses clogged up my inbox to the extent that they put me off. However, then I thought of just not clicking on the ‘notify of follow-up comments’ box and that gave me confidence to venture back. I was thinking you must be back in your happy place now that you’ve left winter behind, huh? Hope so. I feel your pain re the challenge to stay the course re your writing. I feel that fear sometimes, when I’ve been busy with other things and haven’t touched my work for a while. Yet, we can’t always keep skipping through a field of daisies, sometimes we’ve just got to strap on the wellingtons and get back in the trenches and dig in, whether we feel like it or not. Just work.

    • Welcome back, Yvette! Yes, if you subscribe to comments on The Artist’s Road, you can get a lot of emails. The blog is built on the comments, but it’s easier just to come here and read through them than in a bunch of emails. I totally get that.

      I’m typing this at 5:50 am at my breakfast table, looking out over my back yard, which is illuminated because the sun is already up. Yes, I do like this time of year.

      “Just work.” Gotcha. When I hit a writing rut a few months ago I put up on my white board: “WRITE. EVERY. DAY.” And I did. Next time I’m facing that I’ll imagine strapping on wellingtons.🙂

      • That’s it, dude. My grandmother would heartily approve. She was very much a mucking-in personality. Sometimes, writing every day can feel like the cogs of a giant machine that has fallen into disuse and those cogs can take an awful lot of moving before they really get a momentum up. But then, suddenly, the cogs are oiled again and you’re away and working in the flow. And you’re so proud of yourself it’s like you just laid yourself a golden egg. Nothing better, in my opinion.

  21. After I finished my BA in creative writing in 07, I went through the same thing… I was so sick of writing, that I never did anything in the feild. I work in education now… I love it, but it has nothing to so with writing!

    Now 6 years later I regret leaving writing behind; and trying to climb back into the writing lifestyle is hard!!! That’s a big reason why I started blogging; was to feel some sort of responsibility to bring writing back to my everyday life again. I got freshly pressed on Tuesday, so I must be making some progress back!

    My biggest challenge is finding a community of fellow writers to get feedback from. I am inspired by fellow writers and that in turn inspires me to put pen to paper…

    Any suggestions for an aspiring writer???

  22. Corey Barenbrugge Reply May 19, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    This post generated so many inspiring and insightful comments!

    I particularly enjoyed Martha’s and Lynnie’s comments about input. Whenever I’m missing something to write about, I focus on quality reading, or watching a TED talk. Inevitably, something will strike a chord and I’ll run off with a new idea. I don’t see this as a break, though. It’s nourishing, and there’s strain in attempting to fully comprehend what I’m consuming (in this instance, consuming is good. It begets creating). I keep a word document with summaries of what I’ve read and any correlations I see between other reading I’ve done. It’s fun to go back and see all I’ve done, and it’s useful to look at those correlations anytime I’m trying to come up with something to write. New ideas very often are just unique connections between old ones.

    • ” I keep a word document with summaries of what I’ve read and any correlations I see between other reading I’ve done. It’s fun to go back and see all I’ve done, and it’s useful to look at those correlations anytime I’m trying to come up with something to write.”

      That’s a clever approach both for a blogger and creative writer. It reminds me of something from my journalism days we called “gathering string.” The idea was that any interesting nugget we came across that didn’t fit in the story we’re writing could be put aside for days when there was no breaking news and we needed to write an “enterprise” story. Sometimes when I’d go through my “string” folder I’d actually find enough separate items to tie together for the start of a full story.

      • Corey Barenbrugge Reply May 20, 2013 at 6:13 pm

        I love the idea of a “gathering string.” It’s similar to what I’m doing now with a different document. I’m getting ready to launch a blog, and stemming from my intense fear that once I *declare* I have something to say, suddenly I’ll have nothing to say, I’ve kept a blog ideas document for a few months now. It’s now 7 pages chock full of post ideas and connections between them, including the workings of several series of posts. Whenever something doesn’t fit well within a particular post, I make a new bullet; after an incubation period, it will become a fully-fledged idea. It’s been a very useful exercise that I continue after I launch.

        As an aside, your blog was the first one I regularly followed, over a year ago, and your example, as a writer who can write online and cultivate a conversation without cheapening your product, helped me see what is possible with the various platforms at our disposal. Thanks, Patrick.

        • Wow, Corey. Thank you for those words; I’ve really valued your comments here. I’m glad you feel I’m cultivating a community while keeping the quality up. It means posting less than I’d like, but so be it!🙂

          If I could put on my teaching hat for a second, I commend you on keeping a blog ideas document “before” publicly launching your blog. I strongly advise that in my blogging class, but it’s hard, telling somebody not to go live the moment they want to. Of course blogs grow in front of readers; if you wait until it’s “perfect” to start public blogging you’ll never start. But it sounds like you know how you want your blog to work; you’ve got strong material to use out of the gate; and you’ve developed a system to ensure more posts will come of equal or greater quality. That’s exactly the right approach.

  23. Fascinating discussion! Another important reason why we lapse from the creative life: Lack of Joy! My writers group, which has been going for nineteen years, writes from prompts every Monday night; then we read what we’ve written. What emerges in the 20 minutes of non-stop writing and the listening is a surge of creative joy, that sense of the limitless potential. While we may be working on long-term projects, those quick writes refresh us and often illuminate our ongoing work.

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