Not Writing is Not Writing

In my previous post, I described how writing is not writing, how frequent breaks and non-writing activities are necessary to the creative process. Here I’m going to consider those extended intermissions which are not conducive to creativity. What do I do when I’m in a slump, when not writing is indeed not writing.

My vocational demands are greatest during the fall and winter months. During these months, I don’t have the luxury of manufacturing distractions from writing with walks through the park or rides on my motorcycle. My life during these months is full to the brim with responsibilities that distract me from writing. I’m usually only able to make time to write a few days a week and only for an hour or two at a time. I’m generally satisfied if I can keep that pace, and the sparse writing schedule can even spur creativity as I discussed previously.

However, if I miss a few days of writing because of some pressing demands, then a week or more may pass by without any writing at all. I consider myself in a slump if two or more weeks have gone by without my working on my novel or this blog. Some slumps are easily recovered from. I only have to set aside some time during the weekend, cancel any engagements I may have, and write. But a slump can gather momentum until the situation feels intractable. When I find myself in an intractable slump, I have two ways of responding. First, I attempt to mitigate the consequences of being in a writing slump. And second, I try to pull myself out of it.

The consequences I experience while being in a slump, when I’m not writing at all, are lethargy, dullness, and inertia; in a word, depression. Sometimes the factors that keep me from my writing are beyond my control, and there is nothing else to do but deal with it as best I can. I try to keep myself engaged in activities related to writing but that don’t require the same level of time and commitment. In short, I read.

Reading maintains my ability to use and manipulate literary schemas. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Peter Stockwell describes literary schemas as “a higher-level conceptual structure that organizes our ways of reading”. Literary schemas structure ordinary world schemas (context), text schemas (structure), and language schemas (style) when we are reading or writing in a literary context. Being able to use and manipulate literary schemas means being able to manage various levels of schemas to restructure, reinforce, disrupt or refresh these ordinary schemas. Reading is where writing starts, and I always have several books near to hand. But when I am in a writing slump, I make an extra effort to read more than usual.

I enjoy a wide variety of novels, from serious fiction to scintillating pulp. Often what distinguishes one from the other is the level of schema the writing engages. Writing that manipulates language schemas is considered highbrow. Writing that engages world schemas is called lowbrow. I find all of it pleasurable, including experimental writing that plays with text schemas. And I like to take my time with novels, reading a book over a period of weeks or months allows me to digest the writing and live with the story, rather than merely to find out what happens. And occasionally I will re-read a novel, attending to a different level of schema on subsequent readings. How does the writer of this detective novel use language to develop characters? How does the structure of this experimental novel determine the narrative?

Poetry is something I linger over. I may read and reread the same poet or long poem for several years, growing with it and letting it shape me. When I find myself in a slump, poetry is an effective tonic. Reading poetry inspires me, and very often I am compelled to return to my own writing after reading poetry. Perhaps because I don’t usually get caught up in the narrative, reading poetry focuses my attention on language schemas.

But pleasure reading, even intense pleasure reading, is several steps removed from actual writing. Although more actively imaginative than watching a movie or playing a video game, pleasure reading is passive compared to writing. Reading can go deeper than pleasure, though. Research into literary analysis engenders my reading of fiction and poetry with a level of engagement that goes beyond the passive connection to already developed schemas. So when I am in a writing slump, I also read literary criticism to develop my understanding of the nature of literary schemas. This understanding increases my appreciation of literary schemas encountered in fiction and poetry, affording me the opportunity to read creatively at the level of context, structure, and style. And reading moves that much closer to writing.

Mitigating the negative consequences of a writing slump is important, but there is really only one way to pull myself out of a slump: I write. This blog has been helpful for that. Although my posts are relatively long compared to many blogs, each post is short enough that I can complete it in a reasonable amount of time. And if a slump has stretched on for several months, then my writing always feels clumsy when I return to it. When I am working on my novel, I know I will have to edit and revise any chapter I write that is subpar—which can be yet another deterrent to writing. So I allow myself to write and post to the blog even when I don’t feel the quality of my writing is at its best. My apologies to the reader.

I also have people who encourage me. My sister asks me occasionally about my writing and if I’ve been working on anything recently, which serves as a gentle and kind reminder to get back to it. And I encourage myself. I’ll promise myself treats and rewards for an honest hour work at the keyboard.

As this year draws to a close and I look toward 2017, I find myself mired in a writing slump. I have been writing but not on my novel. So this blog post and the last are attempts to shake off the slough. Most importantly, I don’t chide or berate myself for being in a slump. That doesn’t help at all. I maintain a positive attitude and keep myself engaged as much as possible through reading. The muse will return, always, I am certain.

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