Monday, September 10, 2007

Cheryl On Writing: Creating Writing Energy

Procrastination or Incubation? Creating Writing Energy
Cheryl St.John

Just the term "self-motivation" is almost enough pressure to bring my creativity to a screeching halt. What is enough motivation, anyway? As much as aspiring writers claim they'd be more motivated if they sold, I confess a deadline doesn't even do it for me. Fear is not a good motivator. Ambition helps. Career growth is good. A paycheck is better. But in our line of work, you can't always force production.

I heard someone say once that high-energy people always have a flywheel. I wish I'd heard more of that talk, whatever it was and whoever said it, because I kept coming around to thinking of the principle. I didn’t know anything about it so I had to research the flywheel. A flywheel is in essence a mechanical battery. It's a heavy wheel attached to a rotating shaft to smooth out delivery of power from a motor to a machine. The inertia of the flywheel opposes and moderates fluctuations in the speed of the engine and stores the excess energy for intermittent use.

Stick with me for a minute: Energy is stored by using an electric motor to increase the speed of the spinning flywheel. The system releases its energy by using the momentum of the flywheel to power the motor/generator. Think about storing writing energy as you read this explanation:

In automobile engines, the flywheel smoothes out the pulses of energy provided by the combustion in the cylinders and provides energy for the compression stroke of the pistons. During the longer, non-active period, a comparatively low-powered motor builds up the speed of the flywheel slowly. Flywheels store energy mechanically in the form of kinetic energy. Flywheels are one of the oldest and most common mechanical devises in existence. Flywheels are better than chemical batteries because they are not as limited in the amount of energy they can hold. Generally speaking, the stronger the disc, the faster it may be spun, and the more energy the system can store.

All that information was just to understand the concept and compare it to the concept that we store creative energy. I know it's a fact for me. People--and writers in the extreme--talk about finding a "passion", about writing the books of their heart, but for me something so exalted can often end up being more draining than energizing. Let's face it; some days the book is just a job. There, I said it. The sky didn't fall.

I learned early in my career, thank God, that just because I'm not feeling the passion or my life is in turmoil or I'm facing family challenges, my talent doesn't up and desert me. It's still there. One of my favorite Dwight Swain quotes is:
“Talent is something that you’re born with. It doesn’t evaporate or drain away.
“Skill is an element you build, out of work and study and experience. It can’t vanish in a puff of smoke.”

If I open the file and place my fingers on the keyboard, words come. The work doesn't always feel inspired, but after I've edited and looked back, a good story is still there. Sure, it's better when it feels wonderful and I'm inspired, but I’ve learned something that applies to almost everything: right feelings follow right actions.

I've also learned that when I don't make time to do the things that store energy and excitement for me (call it muse, if you will), I'm less creative and more apt to avoid the work or get stuck.

We all have something, no matter how simple or eccentric, that connects for us, that gets us going, that motivates us and stirs up our energy. Cutting out recipes, cooking, shopping, gardening, painting, decorating, searching for fossils, bike riding. There's that special something that fills you with kinetic energy and keeps the flywheel spinning until you sit down at the keyboard. It took my husband years to understand that whether I'm shopping at a flea market, watching a movie, or making him change the color of the bathroom for the third time, I'm actually doing something writing related, because--in the long run--I'm a better writer for the time spent building momentum.

Like that power press, during the non-active or non-writing periods, the speed of the flywheel--or my writing energy--is built up slowly by those activities that ignite and loose my creativity. Allowing myself to assimilate and not produce, gives me the freedom to burst loose when I'm ready. I'm not procrastinating, I'm incubating. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a speaker in workshops say, "A writer writes every day." Phooey! When I was inexperienced, I took it to heart and thought I was lazy or not dedicated enough. Every time I tried to apply it and didn’t follow through I thought I’d failed. Change that to “Writers write. Period.” I sometimes go a week or a month without writing. If writing every day works for them or for you, fine and good, but don't put pressure on others. We should never feel pressured to write the way someone else does just because we admire his or her drive or skill.

Ever notice how great ideas come to you in the shower? Or in that twilight sleep just before drifting off or when just waking? There’s no special secret ingredient in your water or the fabric softener in your sheets. The right side of your brain was simply free to create while the left side eased off and wasn’t competing for dominance.

There’s a book that helped me past the hurdle of thinking that I needed to write the same way as everyone else. It’s called Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Klauser. It was out of print, so I had to by mine used with pencil notes in the margin, but I’m glad I did. The author tells the story of being a teacher and having a particular boy in her first grade class who never participated or paid attention. For months she allowed him to walk around, play with things, seem absorbed elsewhere, not turn in assignments as long as he didn’t disturb the rest of the class. She was frustrated, feeling she wasn’t getting through to this child. However, when the end of the term came and she asked if he’d like to tell a story and offered to write it down for him (she had begun to doubt he could even print), he grabbed the paper and wrote a story in cursive, using every technique she had taught—similes, metaphors, and alliteration! All that time he’d been processing with the luxury of a silent time and no pressure to write. He even had a story accepted and published in a children’s magazine.

That story set me free. I understand now that my time spent away from the keyboard is not unproductive. Now don’t get me wrong, if you want to finish a book, you need to apply yourself to putting the words on paper. I’m a firm believer that you should finish every book you start. If you don’t finish products, you’ll never learn to push past the middle or how to tie the end to the beginning or prove to yourself that you can follow through and be consistent. We all need to set deadlines and have strategic goals. But I don’t believe everyone works the same way or dances to the same drum. Appreciate your differences. Use them to your advantage.

Anticipating a weekend activity or a midweek break can get you up in the morning every day for a week and get you through the otherwise mundane tasks. Refuse to feel guilty or silly or like you're wasting time when you know that you're getting the flywheel in motion. Make up your mind to generate creativity by getting that fun hair cut or buying an outfit/shoes/purse in a color that makes you happy. These things aren't life changing except in how they motivate you. Charge your own battery and see if you aren't more motivated to write.

Incorporate flywheel energy into your writing routine. What have you got to lose?

"Don't pay any attention to what the critics say. No statue has ever been erected over a critic."
--Jean Sibelius, 1865-1957


  1. Loved the blog - especially the part about doing the things that re-fuel you. I think people (especially women!) feel guilty when they take time for themselves.

  2. Excellent blog--that fits me perfectly this past month! Great reminders!

  3. Awesome, awesome, awesome! It was just what I needed to hear tonight. I'm so glad my writing doesn't always have to be inspired. And I can't wait to read Henriette's book! :)

  4. Great blog Cheryl! I'm so glad to be able to access your site again.

  5. Thank you for the inspiration talk. Just wanted to let you know, I finished your Christmas book and ... I LOVE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I could have kicked Marvel at times, but loved the story. Especially getting to the end. You kind of expected things to happen that didn't and things you wouldn't have thought of did. Another great story girl!! Am VERY proud to call you friend!!!

  6. Thank you, Sue! I am always interested to know the things that were unexpected. What happened that you didn't think would? What didn't happen that you thought would?

    Inquiring mind and all....

  7. I really needed to hear this. Everywhere I turn I hear about writers writing every day, and that just does not work for me, no matter how I try. And I'm burdened with guilt half the time because I see it as a shortcoming.

    Your way makes so much more sense. Why should there be one size to fit everyone? Every now and then I back away and don't even think about the writing much, then ideas accrete of their own volition and before I know it, I'm back at the keyboard and the work is flowing.

    Or if I'm stuck on something forcing it doesn't work for me. I take a break and it comes together in my head in its own time, miraculously, with no effort on my part.

    Great advice.

  8. Do get Henriette's book, Wordtryst. It will set you free to write your own way. I used to feel the same way you said you did. Now I know I write the best way for me. The way that works.

  9. Thanks for submitting this to the Romance Writers Blog Carnival. Great post. I just adore the Klauser book. Writing on Both Sides of the Brain. I've had it over 15 years, and still open it up and browse through it.