Lately, it’s been hard to write. As much as I love my characters and my stories, as much as I have time available in my day, getting the words on paper is like turning on a faucet and only getting dribbles. I’m in a creative drought.
Creative droughts are periods where it feels like the words dry up. For someone who lives inside their head, it is a scary place to be. A vast wasteland where once so much potential stood.
Writers can find themselves in a drought for many reasons. It could be caused by life changes or health issues that diverted their creative flow or dried up their time and ability to focus. More commonly, writers find themselves in creative droughts, because they’ve worked too hard and failed to maintain the infrastructure that allows their creativity to flow.
Like in a natural drought, there are two factors writers must worry about. The first is access to fresh water. In writing, we would call this creativity. If we don’t fill our tanks with inspiration every so often, we can run out of reserves. When we have deadlines and expectant readers and are writing fast and furious, this can happen quite suddenly. We overextend ourselves and quickly deplete our resources.
The second factor is crop loss. In writing we can equate this to the development of our works-in-progress, blogs, etc. One way to overcome crop loss is to rotate works-in-progress that require less or different types of creativity. Having two genres you write in, writing flash fiction or short stories, adding journaling or blogging to your routine can allow you to draw from a different cistern. Having another type of writing to fall back on means we don’t lose our habit of writing during a drought.
And that’s the most important part—to keep writing. Even if it is one great line or one mediocre paragraph, we can’t creatively live more than a few days without the necessary work. But as essential as it is to write, it’s also necessary to refill our creative tanks.
REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE
A drought is a great time to evaluate your writing life. Are you depleting your resources from being over-extended? I know many writers who have burned out from too many projects on their plate. If this is your issue, then reducing your projects to one primary and one secondary may be the best way to open up time to find new creative wellsprings.
Another issue is sometimes the project at hand has dried up. Maybe you’re struggling to find a strong subplot or an interesting secondary character. Look back through your old writing and reuse a discarded idea or character. See how they would fit into this new story.
In my book, Bound by Brokenness, the old couple at the far end of the foothills came from a picture of an old man and an old woman milking their cow that I had started writing a short story about. Their deep faith and isolation were pieces of the puzzle I’d already solved, but as I dug more into their back story, I realized the fact that their son had gone back to the state they’d traveled so far from to start over mirrored Dr. Mason’s son returning to Nebraska. That parallel was what made that scene essential to the story.
A drought is also a great time to read through old writing and dig into those idea files. Recycle what would otherwise go to waste. If you find yourself in a drought, start with a WIP that you’ve established before. I love to develop characters and figure out their back stories. When I attempted to write my first novella, I pulled two characters created for a completely different story line and plopped them into a different time and place. Because the situation was different, my creative well filled with new possibilities.
REFILL YOUR CISTERNS
If you are truly empty, it’s important to focus on refilling your reserves. Whether you love Pinterest, pick up a book of writing prompts, or get together with writing friends to exchange ideas, sometimes the best thing you can do is just find new inspiration. If you are stuck in a rut, try adding something unconventional to the piece you’re working on. Put your character in a situation totally outside the story plot just to see how they will react. You’ll learn a great deal about them and their motives and personality.
Other times we need to just get out and live our real lives. There are several studies that show nature and sunlight help our brains. Let your senses take in the world. Smell the air, the flowers, the coffee at the corner shop. Listen. Touch. Taste. Observe the details. How light filters, shadows fall, colors stand out or blend in. Then find a place to sit and write about them. Some people love to people watch, writing down mannerisms or specific details that make that person stand out to them like their clothes and haircut or a tattoo or accessory that makes them unique.
Also never underestimate the power of your people resources. This is where having a writing partner or a critique group can come in handy. When you can’t figure out how to move forward, draw on the expertise of others to look at your work from a different perspective and give you feedback.
I couldn’t do what I do without listening to a dozen other people’s stories each week and realizing we all are wrestling with the words on the page. Sometimes I find what I’m missing through someone else’s critique. Other times how another writer writes something, helps me see what is missing in my own.
DROUGHT TOLERANT WRITING
For me, sometimes the simple fact I’m in a drought discourages me. I look around at all my dying WIP’s and think why even bother? But like my favorite line in The Princess Bride, “they’re mostly dead.” I have a choice whether to give up on them or to bring them back to life.
Drought-tolerant plants have two secrets, deep roots and a thick skin to keep the moisture in. Our writing can be drought tolerant too if we have good writing habits. Sometimes writing every day can hamper our ability to write well. Plants can go a few days between watering. Likewise, we may spend a few days refilling our tank, then sit down and give our WIP a good watering every few days.
When we do that, the roots develop deeper. Sharing our work with writing partners or critique groups helps us and our stories develop thick skins. We can get past the surface problems and into what’s wrong with the deeper story. We can focus on the real issues like if the soil needs more nutrients (learning the craft) or if the story needs more or less time in the sunlight (routine).
Finally, it’s important to be prepared for droughts. They are going to happen. Having people, tools and habits you can go to will help you recover more quickly and hopefully avoid getting to the place where everything has shriveled up and you have to start completely over.
How are you preparing now for future droughts?
Jessica White writes stories that shape the soul. The third book in her historical series, Dispelling the Darkness, will be out this summer. Her first contemporary romance will be published March 2020 with Mantle Rock. You can learn more about her and her books at her website. Sign up for her quarterly newsletter to receive a free 30 day devotional and come along with her as she journeys with God on her Facebook page.