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From the day I first discovered her lurking in my head, my muse, Gertrude, and I shared a terrific relationship. That is, until recently.
After five blissful years and seven and a half completed manuscripts, Gertrude took an unapproved vacation. No warning, no disagreement to precipitate her departure. One day she was there, the next she’d disappeared. Ideas no longer flowed from my brain to my fingertips. I spent weeks staring at a blank page in my Word document. Day and night, regardless of where I was–the supermarket, my son’s baseball game, in bed–a voice echoed: “What happens next?” And for the first time in my writing life, no answer came to me.
I tried all the methods fellow writers advised.
“Write anything-even if it’s garbage. You can always go back and revise later…” Oh, yeah? How does one revise “xruwbpw lepmtn 3dnibn?”
“Maybe you’re telling the story from the wrong POV.” Well, unless the dining room table wants to chime in about my characters, I’ve run out of heads to hop into.
“When your tale gets slow, drop a dead body into the action.” I could kill off the entire population of China, but it wouldn’t make a dent in the cement in my brain.
“Reread the works of your favorite authors. See if you can incorporate any of their methods into your own story.” I now know every word of Bertrice Small’s THE KADIN, but I still can’t write a grocery list on my own. Maybe Bertrice would consider writing my story for me? Okay, maybe not.
“Try a spreadsheet or full outline.” I never made it past the little boxes on the spreadsheet (though it did come in handy at tax time) and since the outline required me to actually write, well, you can pretty much guess what happened there?
“Change scenery. Go to your local bookstore or coffee bar to write.” I came home with $300 worth of new books (and a mega-caffeine high from too many caramel lattes) but nothing written in my AlphaSmart.
I was getting desperate. And lonely. What did people who didn’t have stories running in their heads do with all that useless silent time? Traffic jams aren’t nearly as much fun if you can’t brew a plot involving the guy with the bad toupee in the car next to you. And forget Motor Vehicle! How is anyone expected to just sit on those spine-crushing wooden benches waiting for eons while the numbers on the LCD display slowly crawl from 34 to the impossible 896 you’re clutching in your fist?
The pink haze through which I’d always seen the world had dissipated, leaving me in a funk of gray. I felt barren, useless. The only thing that kept me from jumping off a bridge was the realization that, in my present state, I couldn’t write a decent suicide note.
Then it hit me. Maybe I was trying too hard to write. What if I ignored Gertrude the way she ignored me?
I’d take a vacation! A vacation from writing. Makes sense, right? Even the toughest professions allow their employees a brief interlude to clear the cobwebs and recharge the batteries. And just because I could write anything, anywhere, and anytime didn’t mean I should.
So how does one take a vacation from writing? Clearly, I’d need some ground rules to keep me on the right path. Here’s what I came up with:
Okay, so I can’t turn my back on my critique partners, but I put myself on hiatus: Critique only when absolutely necessary. Regarding my own work, there would be no writing, no revising, no reading. None.
Figuratively speaking, of course. Most writers advise you NOT to watch television or movies when you’re blocked because it gives you an excuse not to write. I say, “Go for it. You’re not writing anyway.” But here’s the twist. Think about the plots you’re watching. If this was your story, how would you change it? How would your characters differ? What if the hard-as-nails hero had to deal with a phobic-ridden heroine as well as an explosive in the subway? (Or maybe switch their roles–he’s terrified of dark places and she routinely detonates bombs.) Piece together a love scene for them in your mind, but don’t write it down. Why? See rule #1.
If you’re not writing, you’ll probably have more time on your hands. You could clean the bathroom, but why? Now that you’ve trained the family to help out while you’re indulging your passion, don’t slide back into old habits. Remember–you do intend to write again one day. This is merely a vacation. So what do people do on vacation? They try new things: snorkeling, skiing, mountain biking, whatever. Your hobbies might or might not be a bit tamer, depending upon your personality, age, and fitness level. It doesn’t matter what you choose, so long as it has nothing to do with writing.
Before the responsibilities of adulthood, your imagination knew no boundaries. Relive those bygone days. Go to your local dollar store and pick up a box of crayons and a sketch pad. Draw, doodle, let your mind wander. Piece together a jigsaw puzzle. Play word games like Scrabble or Boggle–even Anagrams and Mad Libs can sharpen your mind’s dull edges and entertain at the same time.
Safe and reliable is, well let’s face it, it’s boring! Boredom leads to blockage. Shake up your old routine. Try a new hairstyle or wardrobe change. Buy something totally outrageous and different. This doesn’t have to be expensive. Do you normally stick to frosted pink lipsticks? Splurge on cardinal or mauve for a change of pace. Go for thigh-highs or stockings with garters rather than your humdrum pantyhose. Find out if blondes really do have more fun (or brunettes, or redheads?) with a temporary rinse.
Love chilled wine and hot bubble baths? Go for it–even if the temperature rivals Phoenix in August, turn up the AC and give your tired self some “me time.” Get a massage at a local spa. Have a manicure. Buy that 16 oz. bag of Hershey’s Kisses with Caramel (to die for–really!) and eat every one of them. Sometimes when we’re in that place where words just flow from our fingertips, we ignore our basic need for a little pampering. A case of writer’s block could be your body’s way of saying, “Hey, what about me?” Listen closely and pay yourself a little special attention.
Just because there are no current stories in your head doesn’t mean your creative side has died. Reawaken your senses to the world around you. See the different hues of pink in a mimosa flower. Listen for the minute changes in any music–from classical to Top Forty. Or eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations. Feel the sensation of scratchy sand against your bare toes. Taste and smell the subtle spices in tea and coffee rather than simply gulping that morning beverage.
Forget the guilt, don’t sweat it when people ask what you’re currently writing, and don’t rush the process. Recuperation takes time. Give yourself plenty of it. You’re on the mend, so use the slow lane for a while.
Last but not least:
Athletes go through slumps, actors and actresses make “poor career choices,” the Stock Market has downturns, and writers suffer writer’s block. Regardless of what you call these episodes, their one common denominator is that they are temporary, provided you don’t let them get the better of you.
My vacation was a little unorthodox, I admit, especially since after seven years of being a stay-at-home mom, I returned to the outside workforce as a full-time employee. (Talk about breaking out of the box!) And while a new job filled the empty hours, I still feared I’d never write again.
Undaunted, I kept myself open for opportunities that might arise, and after four months of relative silence, Gertrude suddenly began whispering about this great idea for a new story line. I made her stew for several more weeks while I remained on vacation–just to remind her who was boss of our little operation.
Today, I’m happy to report, we’re back in sync, stronger and more secure than ever.
So take that vacation, clear your head, and revel in being Jane Q. Public rather than Jane Q. Writer for a while. Eventually, your Muse will return to you–but only if you leave the door open.