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SLANT LETTER: Creative Languishing Is the Worst
A word for when you are hitting up against creative blocks and want to find your flow again.
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Dear friends, here we are on the first of March!
I spotted the first green of crocuses in the ground yesterday, and took heart. My husband Zach told me just this morning, “Let’s talk soon about our summer plans,” in effort to map out warm-weather things to look forward to.
But it’s been a long winter, hasn’t it? And today I want to talk about how a writer might begin to come forth from a dry season.
In her audiobook Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice, Brené Brown describes the radically disempowering experience of not having the words to express our state of being. She says it’s like being at the doctor because we are in pain, yet our mouth is taped shut and our hands are tied behind our back, leaving us wholly unable to answer, “Where does it hurt?”
“That’s what happens to us when we don’t have an emotional vocabulary,” Brown says.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that The New York Times’ most-read article of the year is one that so precisely named: where does it hurt?
The title says it all: “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” In what has become a ubiquitous article and concept, organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes,
That tracks, right? And carries into 2022, where we are attempting to come out of our midwinter hibernating, anxiously watching war unfold in real-time, on the brink of another pandemic Lent in what seems to be an unbroken chain of The Longest Lent.
Grant is writing about this phenomenon in the framework of mental health, but I can’t stop thinking about the effect of languishing within the creative process as well. The symptoms, it would seem, are the same.
You might be languishing in your creative work if:
You feel tapped out, like the well of inspiration has run dry
You miss the energy you once brought to your writing
You find yourself coming up against creative blocks
You feel constantly distracted
You find yourself increasingly frustrated by the elusiveness of flow
You are experiencing a rise in self-doubt which is inhibiting your work
To languish creatively is to experience a shut-down of possibility, to feel stuck in a cycle of sameness, where each new day, each new project, feels like a foregone conclusion void of discovery. Yet creativity, of course, is all about the spark of surprise.
So how can we clear our path anew, re-open the channels toward creative possibility?
Breaking out of creative languishing is not so much about hacks and foolproof methods as it is about the unexpected peace that comes with accepting it’s all part of the greater process.
So just know this first: if you’re living in languish-land, you’re not doing it wrong. The writing process is a spacious country, where faithful plodding belongs right alongside energized flow, where dry spells and slow seasons belong just as much as pinnacles of breakthrough.
This acceptance alone can free us from much needless anguish. And again, there’s no hacks here, but perhaps a few baseline suggestions for us all to try…
Get an early start
This is not a plug for becoming a Morning Person™. This is merely a recommendation to try an early start once, in the spirit of shaking things up. Why? Because cutting against the chronos paradigm in which we live most of our lives, there’s a kind of kairos time-outside-of-time that is available to us before the world wakes. Set your alarm early, just once, just as a kickstart, as a way to set yourself up for the psychological reward of starting strong and getting a jumpstart. Then let that tiny win carry you forward into your work.
Return to your first love
Writers are only writers because they are readers first, so if you’re tapped out creatively, give yourself permission to close your laptop and return to the joy of reading. Read something that will bring you back to life. When we behold other writers’ finding their voice, it often inspires us to find our own.
Remove the pressure and let yourself play
Julia Cameron says it best in The Artist’s Way so I’ll just hand this one to Julia:
“It is a paradox of creative recovery that we must get serious about taking ourselves lightly.”
Make it spatial
Writing lives in the world of ideas, which is to say that its creative process is largely intangible. My favorite thing to do when I get stuck is to coax out fresh ideas by making them tangible. Print out a copy of what you’re working on to give yourself a fresh read, marking it up as you go. Sharpie your key notes onto index cards and do a living room carpet takeover to create a live mind map. Take a dry erase marker to your bathroom mirror and make a list.
What you are doing, by getting spatial, is creating a tangible environment in which your brain can discover new connections, and making new connections is the beating heart of creative breakthrough.
I think what this all comes down to is that creativity isn’t safe.
To create is to risk, every single time. Creativity consents to the risk of failure, the risk of languishing, and the risk of not being able to find the words to express the weight of what you have to say—that principle agony for every writer!
As we venture into sunnier days, may you find the courage to risk it all, accepting that creative lows are part of the process, and moving forward anyway.
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
Know a writer who’d be into this?
This letter is this editor's off-hours labor of love. If you've found something useful here, pass it on to a fellow writer friend!
P.S. // A Blessing for Writers
SLANT LETTER is about both craft + soul care for the creative life. So today, I want to speak this blessing for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk.