I think it was Annie Dillard who said, “I write well, but I rarely live well.” The woman who can write profoundly about the simplest things, a moth, a candle, a weasel in the woods, but had to lock herself in rooms over parking garages or haunt libraries at night to make the words come. The writing life is an open plain where the inner life runs wild, it is uncharted territory in the transcendent, and those who live in it tend to emerge from it every now and then to offer the world a wrenchingly beautiful word. And yet, you don’t necessarily think of Annie Dillard as having spirited dinner parties or being the chair of the PTA. We writers tread a fine wire. For who can write about the world if we are not really inhabiting it? But who can write honestly and well in the midst of domestic chaos, laundry, and desk jobs? We are constantly having to navigate cultivating the inner life, that will yield syllables and stories, and the life rooted in the physical world, that which gifts us with experiences. Living gives us content for writing, and writing drives us to deeper living. One feeds the other, and we rely on both.
It’s frustrating, at times, when the spark to write is just not there. I feel drained and useless. Caught in a cycle of meaningless house tasks, work projects, and filling my time with empty entertainment which does not provoke the mind or the heart.
I’ve learned that the ebb and flow of creativity between schedules and daily demands is natural, sometimes circumstantial, or perhaps for no good reason at all. But I’ve also learned that it’s up to me to bring it back. I have to make myself, and I always drag my feet. But there are a few things I’ve found to help:
When I’m stuck and feel I have nothing to say, I start reading. Not the addictive paperback bestsellers, but good, rich literature with words to savor. The Hunger Games might be more entertaining to read, but I’m halfway through A Severe Mercy, and this story cuts me to the bone and the marrow of life, heightening my senses to the world in a way that will haunt me long after the book is closed. Read the things that will provoke your own ideas.
Engineer Your Environment
As writers, we are in charge of curating our creative environment. Cut yourself off from distractions. Log off Twitter, close your email browser. I find it helpful to head to a coffee shop where I can tune out everything but the work at hand. In an outside environment, I don’t have the distractions of a messy house or things that need to get done, I am left alone to my work.
Create a Physical Transition
A walk in the woods, making blueberry scones, or taking a hot shower may not seem like a writing exercise, but I find that I need to transition into a writing place, and these simple sensory experiences allow me to relax and start paying attention to detail. Since activities like these don’t require intellectual effort, your mind is given free range to reflect over ideas. Then when you sit down to write, you already have a starting point.
Don’t Lose It
When you live, don’t lose it. Sometimes we’re so engaged in living that writing seems like a chore, but don’t lose it. If you’re too busy or uninterested, just write down impressions. Preserve the sensory experiences: what she said, what caught your eye, the change in the air, the shape of the scene. Write down phrases in incomplete sentences, verbs that stood out to you, descriptions. When you come back to it later, your brain will fill in the blanks and make it come to life again.
What helps you navigate everyday living and the creative life? How do you balance experiencing and writing about life as it happens?
Stephanie S. Smith is a twentysomething writer, editor, blogger and independent book publicist addicted to print and pixels. She runs her business, (In)dialogue Communications, from her home in Upstate New York where she lives with her husband. Follow her at www.stephindialogue.com writing about creative life, embodied faith, and millennial culture, or @stephindialogue.