In a posthumous release of his correspondence, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein reported to a friend that he had not been writing and had felt miserable and sick with a cold that wouldn’t go away, but once he started writing again, he felt 100% better. Something similar can happen to anyone who feels the creative urge.
Writing, for those of us who treat it as a natural and necessary part of ourselves, is essential to our health. It can be the source of our income, to be sure, but it is also sustenance itself. The very act of writing feeds our soul and helps us sort out the world. Writing is there to help us make a roadmap through the world, calm us when we’re irritable, allow us to rant and vent our rage when doing so publicly would be socially unacceptable. Creating something new–especially new worlds, characters, or situations–is exercise for the imagination.
It’s sad but true: my fiction writing has dwindled over the years. In fact, I can directly trace my loss in fictional productivity to starting my career as a paid technical writer. I dropped from writing anything from half a dozen to a dozen stories a year to two or three to one to writing every other year. I felt sad at the change but considered it a necessary by-product of spending all my day in front of a computer, hacking out words for other people’s use. By the time I got home, I had very little energy to write for myself.
In truth, my imagination has gotten flabby, much like my body can do due to lack of exercise. I have a lot of incomplete stories in my files–stuff I started and dropped because I felt the ideas stupid or the execution lacking and I lacked the energy or interest to rethink the story and fix it.
It’s one thing to write bad fiction (and trust me, I have plenty–note that I’m a professional technical writer, not a professional fiction writer). It’s something else again to transform the sow’s ear into a silk purse. That requires inspiration, alchemy, and careful feeding of the Muses, but mostly it demands a lot of hard work and a commitment to Heinlein’s dictum that “You must write. You must finish what you write.” After a long day at the office, it can be very easy to go slack on your own stuff, especially if no editors are clamoring for it and you have no deadlines to meet. So I’ve been lazy.
I’ve also been somewhat down lately. Lots of little things piled on to give me a Class A First World funk. Trust me, given a choice I’ll take my problems over anyone else’s any day, but that’s not to say that the marvels of middle age don’t vex me from time to time. I have worries and annoyances and things in my life that irritate me or make me seriously unhappy, just like everyone else. So yesterday morning I made a list of a dozen things I needed to do to get some feeling of control over my grouchy disposition. By the end of the day, I’d done maybe two. I went home from a social gathering feeling less than productive and not particularly proud of myself.
As I am prone to do when I’m in a funk, I lecture myself. I was giving myself a good earful in traffic about my general laziness and ingratitude for the gifts I’d been given in life when something strange began happening in the long-neglected imagination center in my brain. Hey, you know you could write a story about that, my subconscious was saying. My conscious mind stopped lecturing and said, “What?” Yeah, my imagination continued, you could write about someone seriously gifted going lazy. Why would he do that? What would make a genetically modified super-genius decide to underperform? So my logical conscious mind joined in the fun and started playing with ideas.
The story had practically written itself in the back of my brain by the time I got home. At least I had the structure, the main character, and the motivation. The rest was filling in the blanks. I think the story ran around six pages. Maybe ten. Whatever. But wow, did I feel better afterward! I had accomplished something, I had done something creative again, and I slept with the comfort of being myself again. My subconscious, rewarded for doing such a good job and nudging me out of my funk, treated me to a lot of various and confusing dreams, but it was like, “Okay, you wrote that, so here’s a bunch of other thoughts I’ve been storing up. What about this? What about this? What about this?” It’s a blur now, but there was enough stuff churning around that I’m sure the important thoughts will come back.
And all it took to restore myself was writing again. If I was feeling really ambitious, I’d try to get that story published, but let’s not get crazy. Silencing the inner critic is a blog for another day. For now, all I can recommend to writers who are in a funk is the same old rock ‘n’ roll: write it down, baby. Get it all out. You’ll feel a lot better.