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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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Losing Vision and Finding It Again

As a writer, I am long on delivery, short on inspiration. Tell me what to write about and I’m off like a shot. Leave me to my own devices without a topic or a deadline and I can find an amazing amount of suddenly critical distractions. Some people are the other way around, having lots of ideas and some impediment or other to proceeding through to completion. Rather than flogging yourself for your own personality, use this self-knowledge to do your bidding.

 

I get past my idea-less idiosyncrasy by gleaning ideas from previous blogs (I keep a running list of ideas handy for such future blank-pages), or if I’m lucky, from a question or a direct request from a reader or client. (I love it when people tell me their grammar pet peeves.) But that only works for blogs. What about the other stuff I want to write? What about that Great American Novel? Or even that chapbook of poetry? How can I stay productive in those arenas where there’s no reader or deadline to keep me motivated?

 

The first trick, I think, is to recognize whether you are reactive orcreative. I am reactive. I can take just about anything and turn it into prose. Yes, I loved term paper assignments that were fairly narrow in scope. I like the research, I like organizing my thoughts into some sort of argument or discovery, and I like feeling helpful in answering the question at hand.

 

If you are creative, you come up with lots of ideas but aren’t motivated by the implementation. That part of it, once you get past the initial flush of excitement with the project, seems like drudgery. You probably have a lot of projects begun but not finished.

 

So reactives need to find ideas to implement and creatives need to find perseverance. I suppose if you’re lucky, the two types are in a close relationship and can spur one another to completion. I suppose reactives might feel like they’re doing all the work in collaborations within such a relationship, so maybe that’s not the best solution.

 

I’ve told you that I look for inspiration in my own work and from reader comments. I also troll related blogs and Web sites and flip through books in my own library. Sometimes, I find a specific subject—there’s a frequently asked question or heavy coverage on some topic. But more usually, I find my own subject or question as I read. Sometimes I already know the answer, other times, I use some trick (like the who/whom he/him thing) to help me, but I don’t really know the rule until I look for it. My most inspired pieces are when I look for coverage and can’t find any.

 

In my less public work, like my novel and cookbook, I have to put myself on a schedule. Oh sure, there are some days when I just can’t wait to get to it, but most of the time, I can find a lot of really good excuses. So I use a schedule to keep me honest. It can be a gentle schedule, like Saturdays from 9 until noon, or it can be rigid, like every weekday from 6:30 until 8 in the morning.

 

The schedule doesn’t always work—sometimes I sit looking at that blank page and blinking cursor feeling defeated. I get past it by using a spin-off on the “Write What You Know” theory called “Know Who You Are.”

If I’m working on my novel, usually what bogs me down is that I hit some part that is stage dressing rather than the story line. I have a hard time knowing how much character development is too much and how much setting the scene is distracting. Instead of sitting there staring at the screen and trying to figure it out, I get past it by just going ahead and writing it. I can edit it out later. Even if it doesn’t get used in the final work, the study that I did to write it will give veracity and weight to the work that remains.

Or maybe I just can’t get inspired to set the scene. In that case, I just skip the scene setting and go on with the plot development. Later, I will find out that it wasn’t essential, or go back and write it when I DO feel inspired.

In short, as a reactive, I get past my loss of vision by using other people’s work as inspiration or by giving in to my own personality, knowing that I will be editing myself anyway, and accepting that there may be huge chunks of text that evaporate.

If you are a creative, your problem is that you can get started but you can’t follow through. What you need is to have several projects going at once and a strict schedule with deadlines.

If you have, say, a blog, a novel, and an article going, you can easily prioritize. You know that the blog is the easiest to do, so save it as a treat for when you’ve been “good” on your other projects. The article is the one with a deadline (even if you don’t have a publisher for it, you don’t want to write about Windows 95, do you?); make that your first priority.

You have to make the schedule realistic, so don’t plan to work on all three projects in a single day or sitting, unless you really have nothing else going on in your life. Give yourself an hour and a half on the article (three hours, if you’re partially reactive), and then reward yourself with a little work on your blog. Then go do something else. If you set a realistic goal for each sitting, like two pages on the article (or novel) and half a page of blog, you will get through it. If you have a publisher waiting, you need to plan several of these sessions in every day to make sure you maintain the discipline. But don’t try to deny the fact that you will be distracted by something else.

The way I see it, writing is a lot like dieting. You’re going to fall off—you know it, and there’s no point in denying it. You might as well give yourself permission to fall off here and there and just make sure to get back on right away. If you know what knocks you off—say a fresh idea or a pint of Chunky Monkey—just put it on the schedule too. Once a week, you are allowed to cheat on your diet with this one favorite thing. You don’t have to cheat, but if you’re struggling, know that you can do it without recriminations.

Caveat: The terms reactive and creative, in this usage, are entirely of my own coinage, based on something I read twenty years ago in the I Ching.