Interestingly, I think what we're specifically talking about here is writing fiction. It's as though fiction, coming as it does so strongly from the emotional parts of our brain, can be more affected by intrusive emotions in our personal lives. It is also likely to be the case that more emotional people - and I count myself proudly amongst them - can be knocked more painfully off track and have our concentration more deeply affected. (Positively as well as negatively.) My brain is like a swarm of bees and is easily agitated.
For most of last year, I could not write fiction. When I say "could not", doubtless I exaggerate, in the sense that if you'd held a gun to my head, chained me to my desk and removed food (and wine) until I wrote a chapter, I'd have managed something. But, in effect, I couldn't. I didn't. I failed. It was frightening and lonely. Something had happened - several things, actually - which wrecked my ability to be creative for that period. The small amounts of fiction that I did manage - probably 10,000 words of a novel I'd started the previous year - seemed to be dragged from me painfully and unsatisfyingly. (Fortunately, I didn't have a fiction deadline to miss, so I didn't fail there.) Strangely, when I read that material now, I think what I wrote last year was pretty good, but at the time I had no emotional connection to it. I thought it was rubbish and several times I decided to quit writing teenage fiction entirely. I tried writing other stuff but that wasn't working either. I messed around, hurtling through tasks, blog posts, talks, admin, housework, anything but "proper" writing. Anything but writing from the heart because my heart was elsewhere.
Non-fiction was no problem, which is why I managed to get Write to be Published written and met my deadline. If my deadline had been a novel, I'm not sure what I'd have done. (Probably, actually, done it.) I wanted to write a novel, but I couldn't get my head around it, couldn't get my heart to engage. Lots of people were telling me different things: "Write an adult novel," "Write for younger children," "You have to stick to YA."
Some people actually find they write better during these times. A friend of mine - reader of this blog, too, and she may well identify herself because I'm guessing she knows I mean her - finds that the more furious and upset she is, the more she needs and wants and manages to write, as though her amygdala drives her on. My amygdala just paralyses me.
What sort of triggers cause this emotional state that can so dramatically affect our writing, for better or, more often, worse? I can think of a whole range. If you don't mind, I won't say which one/ones apply to me, as the whole thing is still unresolved and raw. But here are some of the things that can hit us hard and which I know some of you have suffered:
- bereavement or serious illness of a loved one
- or serious illness in yourself
- real worry about someone very close to you
- redundancy or job loss, including being dropped by a publisher
- betrayal or deceit by someone else
- enormous loss of self-esteem and self-worth, which can be sudden or gradual
- failure to do something which you took for granted
- major financial fears
- anything which causes deep and prolonged anger, sadness, fear. Or all of them.
Now, let's not make too much of a special case for writers. These things can affect everyone and most people can manage to function at least somewhat throughout traumas. But merely functioning is not the same as accessing creativity. I functioned, too. I carried on blogging, buying and preparing food for my family, socialising, smiling, getting up in the morning, doing all the things that we're supposed to do. I didn't go under. But my fiction writing was a mess. It felt horrible. Dead.
So, what are the solutions? Look, I'm no psychotherapist. (Luckily for all.) All I know is what I've learnt from a bad year and from talking to others. Some of these strategies might help you as they have me. I hope so, as I am now sailing away from the problem on a fast wind, even though the underlying emotion is nowhere near fully resolved.
Here are the small solutions or strategies that I learnt. And I'd like to point out, lest you consider yourselves uber-rationalist, sceptical, old-fashioned and stereotypically British: I'm of that ilk, too. But we're all human and if you're lucky enough never to have been rocked to your core, never to have been knocked off kilter, fine. I hope you are never tested.
Solutions and strategies - pick yours
Acknowledge what's happening - reassure yourself that this is quite normal, but that it feels like shit.
Accept that it's a phase - nothing is forever. Soon, you will feel better about it and you will process what's happened and move through appropriate stages.
Realise that there will be stages - shock, anger, sadness, loss of motivation. Each trauma and each person will be different but the way you feel today is not how you'll feel next week or next month. You may not be able to reach F until you've been through B, C and D. But you might miss out E. Or not.
Step back and take a break. For a day, a week, a whatever. Perhaps you have rushed at everything too fast and done too much and filled your days too full. I had and I'd left no time to think. Thinking is essential and sometimes we just don't give ourselves time for it. So, go easy on yourself.
Analyse what you want from your writing. Sometimes emotional upset can make us lose our way and our focus and we wonder what we're doing and why. Think it through; talk it through; explore the possibilities in your mind. Ask yourself, "If I did this, or this, how would I feel?" Be logical.
Take control in small ways, as soon as you can, but don't beat yourself up when you slip back. Control is what you need to get back. We simply must not let circumstance and emotion destroy us. We have to win if we believe in free will. So, fight and win back control, in small ways first. Set small targets, such as a modest word count - more than you did yesterday. Then reward yourself for achieving it.
Walk. Walk to live and walk to write. Get out into the natural world and feel the raw wind on your face, the sun in your eyes. It's uplifting and will change you. Find high places, bright places, empty places. But while you're walking, think of your writing, your WIP or your next idea: don't waste the wonderful outdoors on thinking about your fury or your sadness.
Create strategies, not resolutions. My post on New Year's Day was written with this in mind and I'm proud to report that I'm still going strong: writing is now the top of my list whereas last year it was a terrifying task that found itself at the bottom of every to-do list. I still have the unresolved emotion. I'm writing over it. Maybe it can even make my writing better.
Yes, consider that emotion, being essential for fiction-writing, could make your writing better. Harness it and channel it. If it makes your writing angry, or sad, vitriolic or devastating, so damned what? My current novel is called Brutal Eyes. It's the most shocking thing I've written. I'm glad. I want it to be shocking. As I said earlier, some people write better when their emotions are heightened; heightened is good, but only if you can control them. I am. Hooray!
Write. Just bloody well write, OK? Once you've tried everything you think might work on the list above, just write. No one's going to do it for you.That's the scary bit, the bit we can't avoid.
Just don't let the buggers bite. Take care, good luck and remember: all this shall pass.