On Writing, Ranée

Disorder

Creativity requires a certain amount of disorder—a good kind of chaos, if you will, and I fully admit to being a bit Scarlet-Witchy (OK, more than a bit). However, in this post, I’m talking about the bad kind of disorder, the sort that comes from a lack of clarity and has nothing to do with creative spirit.

I’ve spent some time this week migrating content that I’ve written for my current story from my notebooks into Scrivener and, in the process, I’ve come to an important realization—I should not be writing when I’m depressed or stressed out unless I’m just writing about how I’m feeling. I haven’t got much of substance to show for the months when I’ve been trying to write while feeling bad; the little that I do have is a jumbled mess. All of the more organized threads that flow into actual chapters were written prior to depression and anxiety setting in. It is exceptionally difficult for me to maintain a decent level of concentration and to organize myself when I am depressed or anxious; that’s always been true. The difference now is, I’m aware of it. I know now that this was the real reason I could never finish a book let alone really get one started—my emotional struggles caused me to lose focus to the point that I just couldn’t get it together.

The other lesson I’ve learned is that I need to follow my own advice and when nothing good is coming or I’m just not feeling like working on a particular project, then I need to write something else, whether that something is journaling, writing a blog post, or working on another creative project. With regard to the latter, I’ve been forcing myself to stick with one creative writing project at a time out of fear I’ll never finish anything if I don’t make myself plow through, but I’ve realized that, by doing this, I’ve been hampering my own creativity (and as I noted above, the real problem for all those years was depression, not my tendency toward chaos-witchiness). I hate doing the same thing all the time; I get extremely bored and end up feeling constrained. I certainly need some structure to keep me on track, but instead of forcing myself to push on when my heart’s not really in it, I should instead embrace my own dynamic nature, be flexible, and work on whatever project I feel like on a given day (employ an organized chaos, so to speak). My hope is that by changing things up, I’ll avoid stagnating and will instead keep the embers of my creative fire burning.

Along the same lines, while my story ideas tend to be nonlinear, with scenes/flashes coming at random, I need to write in chapters. If I have a scene in my head, then I will write it but I also need to write what goes around or with it, connecting the dots. This will save me having to go back and fill in loads of blanks later and will help to keep me organized. I mean, even when Wanda was completely disrupting people’s lives, she still provided a substantial amount of structure. The least I can do is turn random scenes into full-fledged chapters (the fact that I have already done it is proof I can do it again).

So this will be my new process once I’ve moved over the stuff I’ve got in my notebooks. Maybe I’ll even consider going back to writing on the computer. Ha! Sorry, but computer writing for creative projects is reserved for revising . . . unless I find a good electronic approximation for a pen and notebook that can be transferred straight into the computer and integrate with Scrivener, but that’s another topic for another day.

On Writing

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Anxiety and focus issues are some serious super creeps known to plague writers. If you’re haunted by such ghouls, then you may find yourself spending a lot of time staring at the horror that is a blank page or screen or over-preparing for the battle instead of heeding the call to action (i.e., getting caught up in things like researching, outlining, or character sketches instead of writing the actual story). You might sit down to write and have every intention of doing so, but some nasty little troll has other ideas and you end up chasing it in an endless time loop of distractions like checking social media, texting a friend, surfing the web, or drawing pictures that have nothing to do with your writing project. If any of that sounds familiar, then I empathize, fellow ink-slinger, because, unfortunately, I know all too well what’s it like to battle those Big Bads. Here are a few tips I’ve collated from my own experience in the fight.

Break It Up

If you struggle to stay focused (and I wouldn’t be shocked if the majority of people do given that the average attention span is a matter of seconds), then try building in more shorter writing intervals with breaks in between instead of fewer extended sessions.  If your goal is to write a certain number of words or pages per day, you certainly don’t have to write them all in one go.  Breaks will allow your brain to hit the reset button and hopefully you’ll be able to approach a project with renewed focus. If your brain is rested, it can also come up with fresh ideas.

Go Dark

If you’ve been staring at a blank page or screen, then try going dark. Turn off the computer screen and type away, even if you’re just banging out a string of nonsense letters, or close your eyes, pick up your pen, and do some automatic writing (ie, writing whatever comes into your mind). This is a fantastic way of unlocking your subconscious mind and letting it roam free as well as experimenting with letting go period. I realize that for someone with anxiety, that may sound terrifying; you need structure, you have to have a plan! There’s nothing wrong with an outline or plan, but you have to allow at least some room for flexibility because the creative process is by its very nature free-flowing. Start by trying just a few minutes of being like water; see how it goes. You might be surprised by what comes up when you do. I’ve found that this tactic often leads to some of my best ideas/work.

Daydream

If you’re losing interest in what you’re working on, then instead of forcing yourself to plow away at it, why not embrace the boredom? Boredom actually sparks creativity, so go ahead: imagine a place or that you’re some other person and let your mind wander, do a “what if?” exercise, or write in your journal. Sometimes distraction can actually be a good thing.

Get Reacquainted With Your Muse

Maybe you’re stuck for ideas because you’ve lost sight of your purpose. What was it that inspired you to write this project in the first place? Thinking about that, reminding yourself how you feel about that person/place/thing and why you wanted to write about it might be just the thing to spark renewed interest.

Work on Something Else

If you’re stuck sorting things out with a particular project or have lost interest, then work on something else for a while. It’s OK to take a break (as long as it’s not permanent or you don’t completely trash what you’ve been working on). Working on something different will get your creativity going again and might just help you figure out where to pick up the thread with your other project.

These are just a few ideas to try if you get stuck. Ultimately, you’ll need to explore what’s driving your anxiety or focus issues in the first place. What’s the root cause? Once you figure that out, you have a responsibility to yourself to take the necessary steps to manage it. If you can’t do that on your own, that’s OK; Buffy was the Slayer and she had a Watcher (well, two at one point) and the Scooby Gang helping her fight the Big Bad every week. We’re not superheroes, so we’ll likely need a lot more back-up to win the fight.

Ranée

Silence Is Golden

I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to disappear.  I remember staring out of my bedroom window, looking down at the snow and imagining myself falling into it, sinking deep beneath the vast whiteness, until I was completely covered over, frozen and blissfully numb.  I wanted to feel nothing because every emotion that I did feel was just too intense to bear. 

That desire to turn off my emotions stayed with me for most of my adult life—for nearly twenty years.  I took all the pain of fake friends (the “cornflake girls” or “mean girls”) and bad, meaningless relationships, including a sexual assault that I blamed myself for, and shoved it down as far as I could.  I became the very thing that I hated—a liar.  I hid my true self behind a mask every day because I was desperate to conceal the turmoil inside me.  I spent an excessive amount of money and time on expensive clothes I couldn’t afford and on perfecting my outward appearance because I was determined that no one would see what was really going on with me.  That’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  If you feel bad, you’re supposed to just suck it up and get over it.  When someone asks how you’re doing, you’re supposed to say “OK” or “good” or some other positive word regardless of whether you’re genuinely feeling that way.  I put up walls to protect myself, to stop anyone hurting me again, to keep people from seeing through the carefully crafted facade, and to keep myself from feeling for them because the last thing I wanted was to feel someone else’s pain on top of my own.  

Despite my efforts, I could never completely turn off my emotions, even when I tried to drown them in alcohol.  All of the negative thoughts and feelings that I kept locked up inevitably escaped, often in the form of anger or tears. 

Depression is a secret, silent predator because it strikes from within.  It eats you alive.  Depression coupled with anxiety is absolutely paralyzing, like screaming in silence.  The longer conditions like these are left untreated, the worse they get.  You become stuck in quicksand and you can’t even move or try to pull yourself out because you just sink deeper and faster.  It took having panic attacks at work to scare me into finally talking to my doctor and then a therapist and a psychiatrist about what I was going through.  

That was five years ago. I’m still seeing a psychiatrist and have been through a series of reiki healing sessions, but am proud to say that thanks to other changes that I’ve been able to make in my life, including a complete rehaul of my diet and beginning an exercise regimen, my medication dosage has been stepped down to the lowest level. Allow me to pause here to say that taking medication to ameliorate symptoms of a mental health condition is not a bad thing. In my case, my doctor, my therapist, and my psychiatrist all agreed that my specific depression and anxiety were situational, that in order to really battle them, I had to be able to change my lifestyle. I couldn’t have done that without the immensely helpful boost that medication gave me. But not all mental health conditions are the same; causes as well as treatments are unique to the individual, so needing medication or higher doses of it should not be seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of progress. What I’ve learned in my recovery process is that there are two things that are vital for all of us to have good mental health: self-care and a supportive environment.

Self-care means taking care of yourself on all levels—nourishing your mind, body, and soul. I didn’t really start doing that until a year and a half ago. When I did, it kicked my healing into overdrive. Things that have helped me are eating healthier, exercising daily, meditating, spending time in nature, finding a good work-life balance, and making time for things that I enjoy doing like writing. For me, maintaining that creative outlet is essential.

Apart from taking care of yourself, you also have to surround yourself with genuinely supportive people who have your best interests in mind, ones who aren’t deaf and blind to your pain or contribute to it, but recognize when something is off and encourage you to talk openly about whatever you are feeling.  They will do seemingly little but incredibly meaningful things like say, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you seem down/stressed?  Tell me what’s going on” or “How can I help?”  For a long time, I lacked those sorts of relationships or kept myself from having them out of fear of incurring further pain.  Now that I do have them, I foster and cherish them.

There is one other thing that I believe is essential to coping with and changing the perception of mental health conditions and that is to talk openly about them and encourage others to do the same. There is still such a tremendous stigma attached to mental health conditions, but we can collectively change that. If those of us who have experienced these issues share our stories, first with each other and then with the world at large, then we can tear up the labels that ignorant, insensitive souls want to assign us. There will be no more screaming in silence but a chorus of voices too loud and beautiful to ignore.