The Axe: A Guest Post by Sherry Simpson

December featured author Sherry Simpson

By nature I am a fraidy cat whose long list of fears encompasses the ridiculous more than the rational: Alien abduction (all that probing). Unnervingly hairy arthropods (tarantulas). Mushrooms (they grow on manure!). The usual writerly anxieties afflict me, too: fear of failure, a craven need for approval, a sadistic internal critic who must be bludgeoned into silence.

But a few months ago, something really scary happened to me. For the first time ever, I sat at my computer and had nothing to write about. Nada. Zip. The Big Zero. It was more writer’s blah than writer’s block. I felt de-sparked, un-mused, ex-inspired. What if this hollow sensation meant I had used myself up? What if there was no more there there (if there ever was)? Terrifying.
After a couple of days of constructive moping, I diagnosed the problem. For one thing, I work at home. This is great because I like being alone, and because who doesn’t want to wear pajamas all day? (For the record, I don’t. The point is that I could.) Too often, though, the circumference of my days is pitifully restricted.
Also, I’m between big, all-consuming projects. The manuscript that I finished 15 months ago is apparently being waterboarded by the editor in an undisclosed location, and it’s impossible to immerse myself in the next big thing before the last big thing is finished.
The real trouble is that I spend most days with my eyeballs affixed to lines of words crawling across a page or a computer screen. But I can’t live between the lines for months at a time. I had distanced myself from a world where actual people do and say interesting things, and unexpected events happen, and experiences connect with ideas. The painter Robert Motherwell once wrote: “The function of the artist is to express reality as felt.” I hadn’t been experiencing enough reality to feel anything worth expressing.
This encounter with the inner abyss made me see that I had taken creativity for granted, treating it like an artesian well whose origins I’d never bothered investigating because there was always water available. Then one day, there wasn’t.
What helped me was thinking of creativity not as an endowment, or a feeling, or a gift from the gods, but as a tool. Like any other implement, creativity needs to be sharpened, lubricated, adjusted, adapted, used. So for a time, I stopped worrying about the wood and started thinking about the axe.
When I tried activities that weren’t directly related to writing, what engaged me again was photography—not as a “I’m going to become the best darn photographer ever!” undertaking, but as a different way of being in the world. During daily dog walks, for example, I noticed that instead of being unable to see the forest for the trees, I couldn’t see the trees for the forest. Photographing individual trees meant paying attention to bark, roots, leaves, light, shadows, the constancy of death, the stubbornness of life.

I don’t analyze, I just respond. I especially don’t worry about whether the images are any good, because the looking matters more than the result. And looking has made me remember particular trees I’ve climbed, burned, nurtured, decorated. Maybe I’ll write about them sometime. Maybe I won’t.
I also ferreted out concrete ways to think about creativity from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; and the website 99%. What struck me most was this observation by Csikszentmihalyi, who spent 30 years researching how artists, scientists, and visionaries think, work, and create: “The only way to stay creative is to oppose the wear and tear of existence with techniques that organize time, space, and activity to your advantage.”
As someone whose existence is a grim struggle to organize time, space, and activity, I found it reassuring to learn that creativity depends less on the arrival of fickle muses borne on the backs of whimsical unicorns, and more on practical measures that I can control. That’s why my future posts will suggest tools, techniques, and resources to help writers organize information, reduce distractions, and spend more time arranging words than cursing word processors.
In the meantime, you might appreciate ideas from the blog Creative Creativity: Inspiration and Tools for Creativity or from TED talks by Csikszentmihalyi and authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Amy Tan. If you don’t feel creative, check out people who do at I Feel Unmotivated, or try these strategies for surviving a creative drought from 25 artists.
But keep in mind, as I do, painter Chuck Close’s words: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Better yet, be creative about where you show up and what you work on.
Do you have a favorite site or idea? Share it in the comment section below.

December featured author Sherry Simpson is the author of two collections of essays, The Way Winter Comes and The Accidental Explorer. She teaches literary nonfiction for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Low-Residency MFA  and at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

4 thoughts on “The Axe: A Guest Post by Sherry Simpson”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Love the topic and I appreciate the links. I've had stretches of time in my life with lots of time and no ideas, and stretches with too many ideas and no time. Always reassuring to hear how other writers and artists deal with the dry patches.

  2. Thanks for the links, Sherry. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    When the well feels dry, I try to go someplace unfamiliar to shake me out of my stupor. If the waves that once inspired me seem to be gone, then I head to the desert. If intimate partner dancing seems boring, then I shake it up.

    For now, Zumba dancing in a crowded dance studio with loud booming music seems to be doing the trick to rekindle my delight in creating.


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