Since I can remember, one of my favourite parts of going to bed is finally having time to daydream, without feeling obliged to turn my mind back toward work or school or social engagement. I’d imagine scenarios in which my favourite book and TV characters found themselves — or, as I got older, scenes with the original characters from the MS(s) I was working on.
I tend to think of the history of my mental state in terms of “eras” of the particular scenes or characters I was/am excited to tinker with. When I re-read things I wrote as a kid or a teen or in my twenties or even last year, I can see the influence of a previous “era” of characters and dynamics.
But as fandomships ascend, so too do they set. Sooner or later, I work through a particular set of characters and possibilities so often they get worn threadbare. By which I mean: they no longer make me feel anything.
That is the deadliest sensation I know as a writer.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve lain there in bed, shuffling through my well-worn mental deck of scenes and conversations and characters only to spark nothing. I’m not concerned that I don’t care viciously about Narnia or Spock or the protagonists from the series I wrote in undergrad any more; that kind of pyromaniac interest burns itself out naturally. What I’m scared of is not caring about anything else again.
Maybe, I think, I won’t find another fandom or set of original characters that spurs my story-brain. Maybe this was it. Maybe from now on, I’ll have to settle for writing with technical proficiency but no heart.
I’d like to say I know that’s not true — that when my interest in The X Files wanes, I find a Harry Potter or a House, M. D. to obsess over. And so far, that’s been the case. I always find the next obsession I want to tear apart and re-work.
But how do I know that will keep happening? How can I be sure I’ll find something else this time?
There are plenty of articles and self-help books promising to jump-start creativity. But I don’t just want to be creative; I want to love it fiercely. I want it to be the thing I get to look forward to at the end of each day.
That’s impossible to guarantee, of course. Psychological studies can tell us about trends, self reporting, possibility, but they can’t capture the essence of a sensation — instruct us how to feel a specific way. Heck, they can’t even describe how it feels to feel a certain way; all they can do is detail it from the outside or, at best, cart out the metaphors (link NSFW!).
Besides, even if tips like “take a walk” or “try something new” could guarantee the raging kind of creativity, I still don’t want to feel “creative” in general; I want a specific set of characters and plot bunnies to obsess over. I want to care.
This is probably one of the reasons why creating something — stories, art, novelty, expression — is so often related to romantic love. Heck, Western classical myth even personifies the kind of passion I’m describing in the Muses, a metaphor for the similarity of interpersonal relationships and the relationships one has with one’s creation.
Searching for something new to care about can feel like searching for someone new to care about, and it’s subject to the same scary contingency. Through the closing subway doors, you might catch the glimpse that strikes the spark — or you might happen to be looking the other way. One of you swipes right, the other swipes left.
What if I catch an episode of a TV series I could fall in love with, but I’m in a bad mood and don’t follow through? What if I lose my opportunity to read that one really great book because I convince myself I need to slog through this trilogy I’m already committed to? What if I watch all the movies on Netflix and still don’t find the one I need to rev my creativity?
There are no good responses to these worries, either in love or in writing. But the conventional wisdom, that it’ll work out if you relax and stop obsessing over it, seems like good advice.
After all, I’m probably reducing my chances of finding a new story to inspire me if I scrutinize every piece of media or tidbit of news in hopes that it’ll be The One. Worrying over whether I’ll be creative again isn’t conducive to the open and curious state of mind that creativity needs.
So these days, when I run out of steam on writing ideas, I try not to stress about it. Instead, I allow myself a break from my creative writing, on the understanding that I’ll fill the time doing stuff: catching up on video games, books, movies, TV, and podcasts; hanging out with friends and family; trying new hobbies and developing old ones.
It doesn’t always work, at least not right away. And it can be hard to accept that daydreaming just won’t hold the same appeal for awhile, especially on nights when I toss and turn and can’t seem to sleep, or days when I’m stuck in the back row of a tedious lecture.
But most of the time, even if it doesn’t stoke my creativity right away, making the effort to invest my energy in other activities, to fuel up on experiences and knowledge, at least helps support me emotionally the way my stories/daydreams do. And, of course, it’s usually fun. (Especially the part about hanging out with people I love.)
And I guess it must be doing something, because even in dull periods, I haven’t run out of stories quite yet.