Years ago, while working at a job I didn't enjoy, I received praise from my superiors for a project. "You should feel good about all the nice things they said about you," a friend counseled me. "But I don't feel good," I protested. "Affirmation doesn't change how miserable I am doing this job."
In 2008, I picked up my master's thesis (what eventually became The Carpenter & the Queen) from the university printer so I could deliver it to my adviser. "You should feel proud," the printer told me. "You've just completed your degree." But I didn't feel proud. I felt angry, sad, and resentful. I wrote the thesis during an incredibly difficult time in my life, and it was one of many things that caused me stress, tears and sleepless nights. I wanted to throw it out the window in retaliation.
In 2015, I published Quivers and Quills. I had worked on that novel for twelve years. It was only a few years younger than my son. I thought about my characters so often that I dreamed about them like they were real people. "You've just published your book. You should feel so proud and excited," my friends said. But I didn't feel that way at all. I felt like someone I loved had died, and I don't make that comparison lightly. (My father had died eight months before, so I knew what grief felt like.) Releasing that book to the world meant saying goodbye to an entire way of thinking and creating that had encompassed over a decade of my life. I cried every day for a week after its release.
As these anecdotes illustrate, my feelings at the end of a project don't always make sense. In fact, my feelings in the middle of a project rarely make sense either. After all, writers are supposed to enjoy writing, aren't they?
But I don't. I enjoy planning. I love revising. But I hate writing first drafts. The only part of writing that makes me more miserable than writing a first draft is finishing a novel entirely. Pulling that first draft out of my brain feels like a dentist is pulling out my teeth without Novocaine.
I recently posted this on Facebook: When I have trouble writing, I say, "I feel like I'm pulling teeth." I wonder, when my dentist has trouble pulling teeth, does he say, "I feel like I'm writing"?
My favorite comment came from a former student of mine who is now a dentist: Haha. Actually, yeah.
Back to the emotional roller coaster:
Many creative people forget that even when we're pursuing our passions, our emotions don't always line up with our actions or make sense.
The other day I was telling my sister about my current work in progress (WIP), complaining, "It's terrible--probably the worst thing I've ever written. I should throw it out and forget about it."
To my surprise, she laughed. "Sounds like you're right on schedule," she said. "You always hate a project right before you start loving it and having fun."
My family is obviously wiser to my creative emotional roller coaster than I am. Given this blind spot in my self-awareness, I decided to examine the highs and lows I experienced while working on my most recently published novel, Portals and Poison. This drawing was the result.
This is important because understanding how your emotions correspond with your creative process can help you ride out the difficult moments. For example, I realized something important after creating my silly graphic: All my WIPs were in the drafting stage--the stage I hate the most. No wonder I was feeling discouraged! I needed at least one creative project in my life that would encourage more positive emotions.
That's how this blog series came to fruition. I knew I could draft, revise, edit, and publish it within a week. In fact, one of the reasons I enjoy blogging occasionally is that I think of it as instant gratification. While publishing a blog post isn't as satisfying as finishing a novel, it still feels good and can provide a fast and refreshing creative boost when I need it.
In addition to other writing-related pursuits, I picked up some easy craft projects over the last week that are fun, easy, and require little thought. I can complete them while watching television, use a part of my brain unrelated to language, and enjoy the elation of a finished product without the emotional extremes that go with novel writing.
I've taught, worked with, and befriended enough creative people to know I'm not the only person whose emotions can either impede or improve my creative process. While each emotional journey is unique and we all experience unexpected events that can throw us into a tailspin, there is a benefit to understanding how our emotions are related to our creative processes: If you know a sudden drop is coming, you can strap on your seat belt, hang on tight, and remember that what goes down must come up again.
If you'd like to examine how your emotions affect your ability to create, you can start the process by following these tips.
1) Think about a creative project you have completed.
A recent project is better, obviously, because the experience will be easier to remember. Just as many mothers forget how uncomfortable childbirth is as the child grows up, many creative people forget the emotional low points once their projects are complete. Remembering how you felt is also easier if you can associate it with specific tasks or instances.
2) Chart your emotions in a way that makes sense to you.
If you like my roller coaster analogy, you're welcome to use it, but let your creativity be your guide in this instance. Maybe you associate emotions with colors, pieces of music, pictures, favorite objects, rooms of your house, the weather, or road signs. Whatever you choose, make sure it feels right for you.
I know a creative person who daily tracks her feelings about her project and what stage she is at on a spreadsheet. Since I hate spreadsheets, using this method would ensure every emotion I recorded was negative, but it works for her. Remember, we're all different.
3) How do your emotions correspond to your creative process?
Your emotions may line up perfectly with your creative process, but it's also possible the similarities are cloudier or more complicated. For example, even though I hate drafting, I experience a wide range of emotions during the three to five months it takes me to write the first draft of a novel. I'm often excited when I begin, frustrated and occasionally despondent while I'm in the middle, and elated when I finish. All those feelings are true even though overall, I dislike the process.
Similarly, I love revising as a whole, but I still experience a wide range of emotions during the three-to-six months I spend in this stage. When I begin, I despair at all the work that must be done. But once I'm a few chapters in, I begin to enjoy myself and can't wait to sit at the computer each day to revise more pages.
Give yourself the freedom to have a wide range of feelings about creating that may or may not directly correspond to your creative process. Disparities between the two might provide you with valuable information.
4) Consider what actions you can take to feel better the next time you reach a creative low point.
Obviously this will be different for everyone, but I'll share a few techniques I've already tried that have worked well for me.
I can't write the first draft of two big projects at the same time. It's just too depressing. Instead, while writing one rough draft, I may research or plan another book since those activities are fun and make me feel good.
I've also found it helpful to balance my creative work between different types of projects. For example, if I'm drafting a novel, I'll balance it with blog posts or short stories. I also enjoy balancing writing work with non-verbal creative endeavors such as crafts, painting, music, and videos. Physical exercise or meeting up with a friend are also morale boosters that help me get through my creative lows.
What sort of activities make you feel good? Can you pair them with the parts of the creative process you don't enjoy?
5) Are you taking proper care of yourself?
When I'm on a creative high, the temptation always exists to skip meals, sleep, time with friends, or thinking time in order to maximize my productivity. But this, as well as setting my expectations too high, can quickly lead to burnout.
Are you an evil taskmaster, always cracking the whip? Do you allow yourself breaks? Do you punish yourself if you don't reach your goals? If so, this may increase the negative emotions you experience while creating.
I have a tendency to push myself too hard and set my expectations too high. That's why I've been trying to take better care of myself, set more realistic goals, eat healthfully, exercise, and get enough sleep at night. If that means I don't create as much each day, then so be it. I'd rather be healthy, happy, and live a long time. (Those writers who died young, bitter, and penniless may seem romantic, but I don't want their lifestyle.)
I also recommend giving yourself at least one creative day off a week. I take Saturdays off from writing. I know popular advice says I should write every day, but I disagree. Taking one day off a week makes me more productive the other six days. Remember, as important as your creative work is, you're a human being first. It's almost impossible to do your best work if you're neglecting your emotional well being, health, and personal relationships.
Because you're a human being, you're going to experience emotions. Like it or not, those emotions will affect your creative process. But if you're aware of those emotions and take good care of yourself, you can ride out the low points with the confidence that the next good feeling is on its way.
Click here to read Part 4 of the series about befriending your inner critic.