Monday, August 13, 2012

Priming the Writing Pump

    As long as I have lived in Georgia, (eleven years now), the state has suffered from drought. I don't remember what a green lawn looks like.  My yard (and everyone else's) has turned cornflake brown, with lots of bald spots. Lake levels have dropped until people with "lakefront homes" now have "mud front homes." Fourth of July often includes a ban on fireworks.  Even sparklers feel hazardous when everything around you has turned to kindling.

    The writing life has it's dry spells, too.  We all have them, even though we don't like to admit it.  After all, we are writers. This is what we do.We are supposed to be endless founts of creativity. We are "supposed" to write every day. When we don't, we feel guilty. OK, I feel guilty.  For me, not writing is in the same league with not working out and eating junk food.  A few days of not writing and I come down with a bad case of brain fog.

    My first experience with a dry writing well came at the end of my MFA program at Vermont College. After two years and four drafts,  I thought I had finished Yankee Girl. (Wrong. I had another two years and three drafts to go.) Feeling very pleased with myself I jumped right into a new novel.  I had a setting and some characters so I thought I was good to go.  I wrote the first couple of chapters and sent them off to my faculty mentor, Randy Powell for critique.

   Randy made his usual cogent comments on the writing, but ended his last letter with a comment I thought odd at the time. Sometimes, after a big project like Yankee Girl, he wrote, it's good to let the creative well refill. What was he talking about?

   A year and another "finished" novel later, I figured out what he meant.  I had three hundred pages of writing; I didn't have three hundred pages of a novel.  I'd pushed myself to write a novel, when I really didn't have a novel in me at the time.  Sigh. Fortunately, by then I was working with an editor on yet another revision of Yankee Girl. From those three hundred pages (which are still lurking in  my hard drive) I learned to let a story simmer on a back burner awhile. Writing Yankee Girl drained me, emotionally and creatively. I should have given myself some time off. I should have let my well refill, as Randy had suggested.

    However, time off can turn into goofing off.  You can't just sit around waiting for rain to refill your well.  The trick is to keep writing, keep priming the pump until you get your mojo back.

    I should know. I am halfway through my current work-in-progress.  For a variety of reasons, I am too creatively pooped out to do the story justice, right now.  So what am I doing?

   Writing this blog, for one thing. Knowing that I will be talking to you all every other Monday has kept me going.  I am also lucky enough to have a series of Young Writer's Workshops lined up for this school year.  Working with students always energizes me.

   But what if you don't write a blog or have a continuous supply of workshops and school visits to keep you sharp?   What if you don't have the time or energy to journal for even fifteen minutes?

   Writer's Workout I try to find at least three things every day that I want to write in my journal. Three things that make me stop and think, or that bring back specific memories. If I am not writing, at least I'm keeping my observation skills sharp.  At the same time, I am adding "water" to the well. Priming the pump. (I promise that is the last time I will use that expression in this post!)

     Here are some of random entries in the "three things" section of my journal:

     Adult in a clown suit and full make-up, waiting for a city bus at eight in the morning

    A butterfly garden

    Sisters nine months apart who quarrel constantly

    "Take the Long Way Home" by Supertramp

     Canine siblings

     What is it like to be an Olympic athlete at the closing ceremony?

     All of these things triggered my curiosity.  Will I remember them if I don't jot them down in my journal?  Of course not.  Do I have time to write a full journal entry about them? No.  But making myself observe three things a day, keeps my writer's sensory circuits open. It's the writer's equivalent of taking a ten minute walk in place of a full work out.  This daily exercise keeps me from drying up and giving up. I will continue to write down my "three things a day."  Eventually I will discover that drop by drop, my well has refilled.

   Here's to ending the drought!

   Don't forget about our current Mystery Guest Teaching Author Book Giveaway

   Posted by Mary Ann Rodman



Linda B said...

Nice words, Mary Ann. I enjoyed the gentle way you led us to that dry pump, and filling the well. And I like the small investment you suggested in observations just to keep going. It might be a way to talk to students too, to let them know that writing on demand doesn't always work. Thanks, & I feel the pain of your drought. I just wrote a poem for Poetry Friday about it. It's just tragic, isn't it? I didn't realize that Atlanta has been hit so hard too. Best wishes for rain!

Jill said...

This post struck a chord with me, Mary Ann. When I'm "between' projects, I still see with a writer's eye for detail (I hope), but I need to get into the habit of writing down my observations. Love the idea of doing SOMEthing to ease the not-writing guilt. Great advice.

jan godown annino said...

yes yes yes yes yes!
needed to read this
want to hear this said out loud
i should hand-print this (condensed) in my notebook

abundantly of universe-sized help today. thank you.