Thursday, June 24, 2010

In the zone

Kristen talked on Monday about the creative well running dry.

I'm going to talk today about the exact opposite of that- those times when the creative well is so overflowing that you could supply your own village and sixty others without a blink. Kristen calls it being "in the zone", and I think that's very apt.

I'm in the zone right now. I've been here before- once in particular, between December 2006 and May 2007, when I cranked out no less than 120,000 words after joining the CompuServe Forum and getting inspired.

This time I've accelerated my rate even faster than that- I've written 55,000 words in three weeks.

But between May 2008 and now, I've been more or less dry. So why is it that you can have these periods of amazing productivity, and in between those have times of incredible apathy/ lack of motivation/ inability to write anything? If you can motivate yourself while you're in the zone, why doesn't it translate into an ability to get yourself out of the rut when you're down? And how exactly do you get yourself back in the zone when you've been out of it for a while?

I have a few ideas, since I'm so newly back in the zone that I can still remember what got me back on track. But first and foremost, above all else, I've got to say that I think the zone happens when it happens. I'm not sure you can actually create it at your own will- not fully. It strikes me as a confluence of mood, time, inspiration, ideas, and enthusiasm, all coming together at once. So all you can do is try to work on those factors, knowing that at some point they'll all be happening at the same time, and you'll have the zone back.

First point:

Keep writing. Even if your story bores you, even if you think everything you write is crap, even if you don't have a single idea in your head. You don't have to write your story- write anything. Write creative Facebook status updates, write a blog, write a diary, get involved in discussions on online forums. Email a loved one or a friend. Just keep stringing words together somehow, and whatever you write, make it good. In the end, when the time and motivation and ideas come together for you, you'll thank yourself for never getting out of practice at putting words, and more importantly your unique voice, down on the page. It's the number one factor, I think, in how successful you'll be at getting back to things.

Second point:

To kick start the zone, you need time. Time to get on a writing roll and crank out a good amount of words. A good amount is whatever constitutes a single big session for you- for some, that might be a few hundred words without a break. For me, it's more like 2-3000 words. When I'm having a great day, when I'm right on song and it's all working, that's what I'll get out.

You don't have to sit down expecting to achieve your best- but you do need to give yourself the time that, should you actually get on a roll this time, you're not going to cut yourself off before you get where you're going.

If you do get out a good amount of words, your writing self esteem goes up a big chunk. You're more motivated the next day. You do it again. Brilliant! Your confidence is back. It only takes three days of good consistent writing, IMO, to remember that you actually can do it. Less than that, and you can convince yourself it's a fluke, and you're still down and out.

So, how do you get three days of writing time? For me, there's only one answer, and that's to get away somewhere by yourself. I went away on a work trip that gave me time away from the toddler and the house, and all the other factors came together at the right time- especially the ideas and the inspiration- and bam. 25,000 words in one week. That's a roll that takes you somewhere, and by then you're well and truly in the zone. And when you're in the zone, suddenly everything that seemed hard- finding time, figuring out what to write next- seems easy.

So yeah. I'm recommending you take your own writing retreat, somewhere away from home and family and work, for not less than three days. Do it. Once a year should work, I think. You don't have to go far, but you do have to get away from your usual daily life.

Third point:

I think I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago in my post about why travel and writing went well together, but it's really become apparent to me now I'm home, and that is the need to give all of your focus to your writing when you're working on it.

Before I was back in the zone, I didn't think I had time to write. During the day, I'm running around after a toddler, trying to keep up the house, checking emails and Forums and Facebook and internet, and I never feel like I have enough time to get myself in the mood for writing, then write. I felt like I couldn't write unless I had a specific period of uninterrupted time- say a good two hours- and that's something I almost never get.

But my toddler is old enough to entertain herself for an hour now, and if she comes up for a bit of attention while I'm writing, it's not a bad thing for me to redirect her to another activity. Instead of having half my attention on what I'm doing and half on her for half the day, if I take an hour or so to really concentrate on writing and spend the rest of the day giving her my full attention, we're all happier. And I've found that following this theory, I actually have more time to write than I realised- I've managed thousands of words in the last fortnight at the same time as looking after the rest of my life.

One of the big reasons for that is my motivation and focus. Before, I felt like I couldn't use a half hour break to write, because I couldn't "get into it" in that small amount of time. But now, I'm already "into it" when I start- I'm in a perpetual state of having the story in my head all the time.

This is a factor I've noticed is quite important in the zone- the story is not something you have to work to think about. It's something that just occupies your mind at all times. That just comes from thinking about it and working on it plenty.

Fourth point:

Exactly what Kristen talked about on Monday- getting feedback. When I'm not "in the zone", I could care less about getting feedback on my writing. But as soon as I enter the zone, I'm like a crack addict. I want comments, critiques- hell, I just want to know people are reading it, and that's enough for me. I put loads of stuff out there, and the more comments I get the more it drives me forward.

I do think there's a difference in the kind of feedback you want in the zone, though- when you've finished your writing and you're in careful consideration of what stays and goes, you need good honest critique and partners who know how to constructively deconstruct your work to make it better. But when you're in the zone, what you really want is people telling you you're awesome.

Sad, but true. You want validation. You want fans! You want to be writing for someone other than yourself. It gives meaning.

Fifth point:

I've always hated it when people tell me to do this, because it doesn't seem remotely realistic, but I'm forced to admit that there's merit to it- I'm talking about the oft-repeated advice to write every day.

Like hell, my brain wants to tell me when I'm not in the zone. How can I find the time to do that?

But when I'm in the zone, as I've mentioned above, time no longer seems an obstacle. And as a result, I get to write each day- often 2000 words every day- and every word I write makes it more certain that I'll have the motivation to write the next day. The story is moving constantly. I'm not getting bored. Things are happening. I'm never stuck.

I've had three consecutive days off writing this week, and I'm getting twitchy as hell about it. But in lieu of writing the words I'd written for the preceding 21 days, I've been putting down plot thoughts and notes, following piece of advice number one, to just keep writing anything and everything.

Last but not least, I have a controversial point six, and it is this: I think depression often plays a role.

We're all artistic types, us writers. We're all introspective, and we write about other people as a way of examining the world around us. Though I have no scientific proof, I would happily guess that writers are probably more susceptible to depression than your average person.

I know I am, and I'm in the middle of my fourth run at antidepressants in the last ten years. But I'm coming to the tail end of my need for them, as I always do when these cycles begin to fade, and so I'm getting a little naughty about taking them regularly. I miss them more often than I take them.

And by coincidence, during the two biggest writing stints of the last month, both weeks in which I wrote over 20,000 words, I'd inadvertently forgotten to take my medication for more than 6 days in a row.

By the time I hit 6 days, I'm getting proper withdrawals- dizziness, headaches, crankiness- ah, the joys of modern chemical medicine. But I'm also starting to feel very different things. I've said before that antidepressants are vital for squashing the harshest negative feelings, but that at the same time they dull the highest excitement and happiness, too. And they always, always have an effect on my writing as a result- I don't get super hyped about the story. I don't have that desperate urge to write and keep writing.

Now, this may sound like an advertisement for not taking antidepressants, but let me fill you in on the flip side- it's exactly the same.

When I'm depressed, it has all the same effects on my writing. And it has further negative effects on my life as a whole, which is why the medication is absolutely necessary. It's quite the balancing act.

What I look forward to are the times when I don't need the medication, and I'm not trapped in negative cycles of thinking.

I raise this because I feel that many people out there who are missing their zone are underestimating the possible effects of depression on their writing. They can't get words on the page, so they beat themselves up more. That feeds into the cycle of depression even more, and it feels like they'll never get back to it.

But depression, like everything else, passes with time and effort. If there's one thing I've learned in years of attending counselling, it's that the "fake it til you make it" approach is critical to beating out negative cycles of thinking. Sure, you don't feel like writing. You don't even like it anymore. But if you analyse it critically, not applying emotions but logic, you know for a fact that you've loved writing in the past, and that it made you feel happy.

And so you follow the advice I've given above, and you just do it anyway. Put down those Facebook updates and those blog posts. Write words that you hate. Just keep on writing, though, and one day you'll remember that hey, you actually do love this.

And the next thing you know, you'll be right back in the zone, as if you never had a break.


  1. First off...whoo hoo, Claire. You're like my writing hero right now. Hope to join you in a writing fest soon. LOLOL. You know I HAVE to join you soon. ;-)

    The depression point is a really valid point. I know from *ahem* experience that it totally affects your output. And controversial or no, I agree with you. When in the zone, I'm in a great mood. No depression there. I think it's because we were meant to create and thus we're doing what we were meant to at that moment. So why should we be pulled down by depression? Make sense? Probably not, lol, but I loved this post. :)

  2. Controversy or not, I have to agree. The longest time I've had in a dry spell was during a relatively un-depressed period (without going into too much detail) and I'm sure a little bit of feeling off-kilter is necessary for creativity. At least a heightened sense of empathy or awareness or - well, whatever the words are (says the writer).
    I used to have journal entries in which I kept asking myself "why do I write for pages and pages on a pianful event but on good days I barely bother to note what happened?"

  3. Great post, Claire. I could relate to so many aspects of it.

  4. Hi Claire
    I thought it was time to visit the blog and see you in another capacity other than Forum. I think you make interesting and valid points. I do think as you say, write. Even if rubbish, it will get better but it can't get better if you are not writing anything, or avoiding the process. In the academic context, when students would whine to me that they have "writer's block" and an assignment due, I advised them to start with the reference list. The act of typing it might spark something; for example, oh yeah, I read about this, that or the other in that book. I think that can apply to fiction writing. Write. Just do it and it will improve but you have to do it for it to get better as hard as that may be.
    Yes, we want validation and feedback. We cannot improve witout that critical, constructive feedback so it is important to hold your breath, get it out there and take it on the chin. As long as it is constructive, it's going to help. Thanks for the topic, it's interesting reading.

  5. Claire, it's soooo great you're back in the saddle! You're a real inspiration, you know.

    As for using whatever chunks of time present themselves to write ... I really do count as a blessing the fact that I didn't get into the writing game until I had kids. I've *always* had to squeeze writing into nap times and the odd half hour when the kids were occupied with videos or Lego or dolls, and I just got used to making do with that. I didn't know any different. Of course, now that they're all in school and I do get a few consecutive hours to write most days, man, I can see the benefit of that continuity, too! (g)

    And the depression. Yeah, I think it's something many of us creative types go through. And a friend of mine has told me she experiences the same mood-flattening feelings when on antidepressants as you describe. She describes it as though the world becomes a uniform shade of grey, the highs and lows all flattened out, and only when she comes off them can she see colour again. Interesting, isn't it?