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The River of Inspiration, Part 2
Last month, I introduced you to the metaphor of the river of inspiration -- a place where the sound of your own flow and intuition is louder than the sound of all the (very loud) distractions of life. I have a lot more to say about this metaphor, because I can't stop thinking about it.
There was a time when I could stand in the river every time I sat down to write, or went on a walk, or did the dishes. I regularly got hits of inspiration, ideas about how to fix my story, snippets of dialog, clarity about the voice, or the best first lines for a story. I've talked before about how the entirety of Snappsy dropped into my brain while I was making dinner. That was me, in the river.
The last two elections and the cycles in between pulled me out of the river. Getting a smart phone pulled me out of the river. The pandemic pulled me out, too. And I'm at a point now where I'm done. Some of you can probably be in the river and also be aware of the news and social media. I can't. And I missed the river. I really, really missed being able to go on a walk to solve a writing problem. I missed freewriting, getting to inspiration by writing longhand, without distraction.
I'm done pulling myself out of the river. I had gotten into the habit of punctuating any creative activity (writing, journaling, reading, thinking -- standing in the river) with checking my computer, for something. Checking my email. Why? It's like I was forcing the world's worst meditation gong on myself to mark the time between activities. And I get it -- for writers, good news often comes via email, and it comes when you don't expect it to. So why not check, maybe there's good news? But more often, there's an email from a place I bought a bra from once or from something called classmates.com. If there is a "real" email, it's not something I need to respond to immediately. The number of times I have gotten an email that I needed to respond to immediately, like, really immediately, is: never. I'm determined to be more intentional about my email checking. I do not need to be reachable all the time.
Which brings me to my second point: a lot of us have neglected our rivers in recent years, for understandable reasons. But your river is not a plant. If you neglect it, it does not wither into a trickle. It is always there, always wide and full of rapids. It's loud. Can you see it? See how there are boulders in the middle of it? When you take a break from being in the river, crawl onto one of those boulders. Don't pull yourself out of the water onto the riverbank, where it's tempting to walk away. Be someone who is dreamily in your creative river even when you're not actively making something. When you are spacing out, dreaming, walking (without your phone), meditating, napping, reading (without your phone), cooking (without your phone), showering (without listening to a podcast), you are sunbathing on that rock in the middle of the river. You are still, essentially, in the river, and that's when you get hit with creative inspiration -- when you're in the river. But if you, like many of us, have neglected your river, that means that you walked away. At some point you pulled yourself onto the riverbank, dried yourself off, and went somewhere else. Your goal, if you're serious about making creative work that is inspired and something only you can make (because I also believe that we EACH get a river, there's no river-sharing in this metaphor), is to get back to your river. If you've walked really far away, it might take some time to get back. You may have to commit to distraction-free creative sessions for many weeks before you are even ankle-deep in that river again.
Remember: if your inspiration is a river, then social media/the internet is a loud, dirty, crowded highway. Don't mistake the flow of big dusty trucks for a river of inspiration. If you get inspired by social media, it's because you're still close enough to your river to hear it. Do you need other people's thoughts for inspiration? No. If it happens, it's just that you're hearing the roar of your river while standing in the median strip. Don't believe the lie that you need to be on social media for inspiration. You don't.
It took me almost all of last year to get to a point where I'm really standing in my river. For me, that meant deep work sessions, and, ultimately, taking social media off my phone and changing my passwords to long complicated nonsense that I have to look up and re-enter every time. It means not checking my email just to see. It's a weird feeling, when I want to be distracted but I am choosing not to look at social media, the internet, or my email inbox. My brain is like a confused puppy, wondering why I'm denying it the good treats. At first I found myself turning to strange analog activities just for the distraction. Suddenly I'd be dusting the baseboards. I'd read a magazine while simultaneously stirring the sauce for dinner (like The New Yorker is humanity's analog Twitter feed).
I spent five years walking away from the river; I'm not surprised it was so hard to really get back to it. Last year was a full year of really intentionally cutting away distractions, and I'm still not there yet. Which is frustrating on one hand, but I think that's mostly because we're led to believe there's truth in Get Fixed Quick schemes -- just turn your phone to grayscale and focus will fall upon you like sweet graceful rain. Now I'm back in the river, and I'm committed to staying. I want to write more, because I know that quantity leads to quality. Experimenting leads to innovation. Instead of "write drunk, edit sober," my goal is to write in the river, edit on the riverbank with my toes in the water.
I'm prioritizing my writing, my creativity, and my river of inspiration.
Here are the hard questions I've had to ask myself. They helped me. Maybe they'll help you too?
1. Why are you afraid of getting quiet with your own mind? Your mind is what brought you to your inspired ideas in the first place. Why aren't you trusting it to help you create art from those ideas? Remember that the process of getting the ideas from your mind to the page is a messy one, because you're transferring energy into matter.
2. Why are you letting other people be authorities on who you are? Are you spending more time worried about being likeable than on creating art that you like? Imposter syndrome is trying to be someone else. You are incredible. The stories you have are incredible. Write your stories. If you do it from a place in the river, enough people will end up liking them anyway. Don't worry about it so much.
3. It can be scary, sitting quietly with your own thoughts. Your brain might protest. "It's so much pressure! I have to be brilliant now? Ugh!" Let it throw a tantrum. It'll calm down eventually. Let your mind know you're ready to hear what it has to say. Let yourself know that you will not accept the tantrums of an inner critic as truth. Let your mind know that you trust that it can give you ideas again. Yes, you've been ignoring it. Yes, you've been spending an absurd amount of time trying to decide if you should devote more time to houseplants, get really good at making soup, or clean your desk. But now you trust it. You remember how it gave you some pretty great ideas before. Listen. And write down whatever it tells you.
I'll end by saying this: recentering my creativity has been an ongoing process of over a year now. Don't be discouraged if it takes time. But do know that you can get back to your river. The last five years, if I went on a walk, my ideas would naturally form themselves into tweets. If I'd really been spending too much time on social media, my thoughts would then form themselves into other people's possible responses to those tweets. That's...not what I want my creative brain to be coming up with. I am happy to tell you that I am once again in a place where I come up with story ideas, snippets of dialog, and flashes of insight while walking, and am back to getting inspiration at that delightfully annoying time when I'm falling asleep. I feel so much more balanced to be back in the river. Come join me (uh, again, join me in being in your river -- my river is mine!).
I am at the delightful point in my career where two amazing book creators are doing an event at my beloved local bookstore, and somehow I am allowed to be involved. How did this happen? I'm not questioning it! And, even better: I have just learned that I'm allowed to talk about whatever I want. (Within reason, I guess.) SO THAT SHOULD BE FUN. I'm especially interested to hear how making comics and graphic novels differs from making picture books, process-wise. Here's what you should know: Tillie Walden and Emma Hunsinger are amazing, their new picture book is HILARIOUS and relatable on about seven billion different levels and includes the phrase "gluten-free crystals" as a background throw-away aside, which made me guffaw. (Preorder the book now.) Come join us! It's virtual! It's next week!
Thoughts and Links
My 2019 book with Ruth Chan, The Great Indoors, showed up on this list of Dismantling the Attention Economy: Kids Stories on Unplugging by Raising Luminaries. If you liked The Great Indoors, you'll love my next book with Ruth, Rick the Rock of Room 214, which comes out later this year (you know you'll love it, why not go ahead and preorder a signed copy now?).
If you're a writer, you need to listen to the interview with Candlewick Editor Kaylan Adair on the Story of the Book podcast. It's everything you want to know about what the job of an editor really is (at least Kaylan's take on it) from the weight of too many emails, to how editors want us to approach notes and edits, to what qualities they value in a writer. It's beefy enough that it's broken into two parts: here are Part 1 and Part 2.
Have you called the PEPTOC line yet? Call 707-998-8410 if you need encouraging words and life advice from the students of West Side Elementary. It's great.
I resonated with a lot of this interview on the Freedom blog (I love the Freedom app) with Toddla T (amazing DJ name!), who talks about how hard it is to break free from the dopamine rush of social media in order to create. "It was wild how many weeks it took to re-calibrate my muscle memory to stop going to the same websites even though I couldn’t access them. Addictive stuff this internet thing."
I loved seeing all these photos of how a book gets made (like, actually made: printed and bound).
I'm not on TikTok (and have no plans to be, considering I mistakenly called it "Tic Tacs" on a voice message to my hilarious writer friend Lisa) but I did enjoy this very satisfying LEGO cooking video, which Smitten Kitchen linked to.
On LitHub: picture books as short self-help books: "Picture books aren’t just for parents administering “Literary Benadryl” at bedtime—they’re essentially Cliffs Notes for personal growth."
Another LitHub essay I liked, which asks "What happens in a world when being a mother doesn’t evoke a whitewashed domesticity?" and "What if the complicated and messy could somehow triumph over the flat and shiny?"
George Saunders, as always, offering up helpful advice: yes, your story is going to have problems, and that's ok. Those parts with the problems just might be where the important parts are, and the "problem" is merely a placeholder until you can figure out the best way to write that part. (So, get revising.)
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