When I first started writing, I didn’t understand my own creative process. I would often ram my way from one creative project straight into the next without pausing to recharge or reflect.
Sometimes after completing a novel, I would hit this wall of exhaustion and begin to feel really depressed. I didn’t understand why my creativity “wasn’t working.” I felt as though I was broken. This depression would lead to some anxiety. I had to write the next book. Because I’m stubborn, I would usually try to force my way through it. (Brute force was how I operated for most of my early to midtwenties.) “Just do it” was an apt motto for daily writing, so I figured it should work on a larger scale.
Forcing myself to write nonstop worked for a while, but it led to some uninspired (and uninspiring) work. Novels took longer to produce, and there was a period where my writing just wasn’t as good.
Then two years ago, I went on vacation between two series to try to come up with some fresh ideas. I racked my brain throughout that whole vacation, trying to squeeze out some inspiration. This was perhaps the most frustrating week of creative constipation I’d ever experienced. Luckily, at a grungy café in New Mexico, I found a copy of “The Artist’s Way.”
I’ve written about the serendipitous discovery of this book before, but I’ll explain what I learned briefly here. Julia Cameron helped me understand that we each have creative wells that need to be replenished. If we keep our creative wells full, there is no need to “think things up.” Instead, we “go down” into the well and see what’s already there.
Around this time, I began to understand that creativity doesn’t operate like a machine. It doesn’t run the same exact way every time. Creativity is a natural process. And, like any natural process, it works in cycles like the seasons or the phases of the moon.
Think about it: Nature isn’t equally active throughout the year. There is always a time when animals hunker down for the winter, when plants go dormant, and when the moon goes behind the sun. (“Lunar Abundance” by Ezzie Spencer is a great primer for working with the Yin and Yang phases of the moon, but I prefer to think of my creativity as having seasons.)
Here I’ve broken down the cycle of my own creativity using spring, summer, autumn, and winter to explain the ebbs and flows of creative energy. I’ve also included tips for each season so you know when to push through to the next phase and when it’s good to rest.
The Four Seasons of Creativity
Spring is when all the seeds of our ideas are sown and when they begin to germinate. Everything is fresh and exciting. This is when we are most enthusiastic and optimistic about our creative projects. Usually for me, this is the pre-planning stage of any novel, which can last days or weeks.
By the end of spring, we are in flow and our ideas are beginning to bloom. The end of spring is usually my first-draft stage when the writing is going well.
Tips for Spring:
- Anytime you are brimming with creativity, take advantage of that. Allow yourself to get swept away by your creative projects.
- Get your ideas down on paper as quickly as possible. Don’t worry if they do not immediately make sense.
- Get outside and move your body. Your brain is always working on creative problems, and giving your busy mind downtime during physical activity can help things “click” when you go back to your project.
- Once you’re ready to begin, give yourself the time and space for long feverish writing sessions.
Usually spring flows right into summer. Summer is where the hard work happens.
Things are heating up right about now, and we must take care to water and weed our crops. This is usually the end of the first draft and the developmental editing stage. For my creative process, summers are long and hot — usually lasting one to two months. The process is alternately beautiful and backbreaking as I edit and refine my novel.
Tips for Summer:
- Pace yourself. You may not always have the energy for long work sessions during this time. Consistent daily effort is the key.
- Do not get discouraged if you have to backtrack and do some rewriting. You are still making progress even if it is not clear forward movement.
- After the first or second draft, it may be beneficial to take a short break (a week or two at most) so that you can return to your project with fresh eyes.
- Respect the process. It will all come together.
Autumn is when we begin to experience the fruits of our labor. The weather may be beginning to cool. While there is still a lot of work to be done to harvest the crop, we begin to get some feelings of satisfaction.
This is when I do my final rounds of proofreading with an editor and on my own. During the harvest or the final stages leading up to publication, it is all beginning to come together. At this point, there is little that can (or should) be changed. The crop (or the novel) we have is the crop (or novel) we have.
While it feels as though we are at the end, there is still a chance that the weather could turn and delay our harvest. Good days can be interrupted by periods of frustration or discouragement, but we must persevere to publication.
Tips for Autumn:
- Just keep going! You are almost at the finish line, but you cannot stop yet. Now is not the time to take a break or step away from your project. You must see it through to the end.
- If you begin to feel disgusted by your writing, remember that everyone gets sick of their work at this stage. It doesn’t mean your writing isn’t good. This is normal.
- If ever you get discouraged, remind yourself why you are working so hard. Visualize how good it will feel to hold that completed manuscript in your hand. Picture yourself releasing your book into the world.
Autumn is always followed by winter. The hard work is over. We may be tired. We are ready for a creative rest. By this point, the ground is hard and frozen. No new seeds want to be planted.
For me, this is the time between novels, and I like to take a creative respite for at least a week or two. I may do some light work that isn’t fiction to keep my writing muscles conditioned, but this is meant to be a mostly fallow period.
Tips for Winter:
- Take some time away if you can. Winter is the perfect time for a tropical vacation or a weekend getaway.
- Do not worry if you feel dull or creatively depleted. This is completely normal.
- Do not try to force yourself to write or come up with new ideas immediately after a big creative project.
- Give yourself a chance to indulge in your favorite hobbies or creative activities unrelated to your last project. Have some fun.
- Once you allow yourself 1-2 weeks off, you should begin to do some light daily writing again so that you don’t fall out of practice. Remember that spring is just around the corner.
Once you begin to think of your creativity as having seasons, it takes away some of the pressure to perform. You begin to understand how you work as a writer, and you develop more patience and compassion for your process. It also alleviates that anxiety that you’ll never have another great idea again.
Since I just completed a novel, I am settling into winter as the world around me bursts to life. I am actually excited to take a rest, and I look forward to next spring.
Can you recognize the ebbs and flows of your own creative process? Do you use the seasons as symbolic markers or something else entirely?
Photo by Sorina Bindea