The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

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The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

The novel-in-progress is chugging along pretty consistently at the moment, but I’ve picked up a short article that needs to be written on a crazy tight deadline, so it will have my attention all the way up to Wednesday. After that, my non-notebook time gets spent creating a check-list of things that need doing on the novel rewrite, so I can create myself some milestones and tracking tools in the weekly outlines that go into my bullet journal.

What’s inspiring me this week?

This week? Like pretty much every other fantasy writer on my friends list, I’ve been hitting up Kilian Schoenberger’s photography page and pouring over the images, particularly those where he’s trying to evoke a fairytale aesthetic. Incredible stuff, and I am quietly saving up the scratch to pick up a copy of his Sagenhaftes Deutschland book.

If you managed to avoid his work this week, start with this series over on Behance.com which captures why he does incredible stuff.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

So after three weeks of putting something akin to “getting on with editing” here, I’ve recognised that simply saying it will not motivate me to do it. Edits are big and amorphous and I am not good with things that share those two traits. Yesterday, in an effort to clear that process up, I put together an editorial check-list with over 130 separate tasks required to edit/rewrite a novella I produced last year.
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The bulk of those tasks are breaking up the editorial process scene by scene, based on what I’ve been trailing lately – each scene gets one pass where I focus on pulling out the action, one sweep where I catalogue what happens and important information conveyed during the scene, one sweep where I re-read the scene in detail and make a whole bunch of rewrite notes, one where I revamp the action inside the scene without dialogue or description, and then the final sweep-through to flesh out the rewritten scene. 115 total check-points on a 130 check-point list.

It’s slightly terrifying, but it’s similar to the process I use to track page-count every week, so I’m hoping it’ll make it a little easier to fit editing tasks into my schedule when I sit down to do a weekly review.

Blocking, Prose, and the Perfect Combination

A few weeks back, when I first discovered Every Frame a Painting, I spent a lot of time re-watching Tony Szhou’s tribute to Robin Williams and the way he moves in movies. It’s one of the most succinct explanations of the importance of good blocking in a series that is full of great instalments that examine good blocking and framing (see also the episode on movement in the films of Akira Kurasawa, which is brilliant).

The bit that particularly resonated with me was a section where he examines back-to-back clips from Jumangi as an example of what Blocking actually is:

“Good blocking is good storytelling. If you’d like to see this for yourself, pick a scene and watch how the actors move…You can watch this film with the sound off, and still understand most of the story. That’s good blocking. Everything you need to know about the characters, their relationship, and how it changes, is presented to you through physical movement.”

I loved this particular episode because, as a writer, I struggle with blocking. Worse, I like to write the kinds of stories where good, clear blocking would be an incredible advantage, but I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around the way it works in fiction. The clarity that Szhou talks about – the ability to strip everything away from a scene and tell the story in action alone – is a very visual process. Delivering the same same result in prose was a much harder thing to conceptualise.

In one of those incredible acts of good timing, I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook a few days after I first went through the entire run of Every Frame a Painting. In his section on editing and redrafting, VanderMeer suggest an exercise where you go through each scene and pull out every action or act that occurs there. Not the stuff that happens off-stage, or before/after the scene begins, but the action that occurs in the narrative present.

It was a singularly confronting exercise.

I tried it out on a short story I’d been submitting for a while, which occasionally got nice feedback but ultimately a rejection. The results were…surprising.
Take this example, from the first scene of a short story I’d been submitting without any real success. The moment I separated out the action, the problems became clear.

Selby talked crap.
I didn’t believe her.
Selby found me first, ahead of the others.
She said.
I nodded.
I kept staring at Selby’s hair.
She said.
I said
Selby closed her eyes. She said.
I said.

There were ten action takes within the scene – not a lot, but it’s a short scene, maybe two hundred and fifty words – and nearly half of those were either events that took place outside the narrative present (highlighted in red) or actions that were either internal activity or a continuation of an action I hadn’t established (highlighted in purple).

When you strip those problems out, I’ve got a scene where the most significant action is dialogue, a nod, and a character closing their eyes. Actions that may be significant, if deployed properly, but largely crop up in my writing as a place-holder reaction to something another character says. They’re a narrative pause, not really adding anything significant to the scene.

I found myself thinking of Tony Szhou’s quote about blocking as I did this, because suddenly a means of figuring out blocking in prose seemed possible. VanderMeer follows this exercise up with a list of questions to ask yourself about a scene – does every action have a consequence? Is there true cause and effect? Is your progression from one action to the next sound?

Increasingly, as I applied this exercise to my work, the answer was no.

But figuring out the solutions was so much easier. That scene above? Highlighting the problems like this immediately gave me solutions. Start the scene early, build a sequence around the reveal of the hair. Let that underscore the dialogue and add contrast, rather than relying on the conversation to carry the momentum of the story.

Doing it for the whole story allowed me to go through and mark out the problem actions. No more nodding. No more closed eyes. No more action that takes place outside the narrative frame. A story I thought was pretty good starts to reshape itself into something very different, very new, and ultimately better. I

But this post isn’t about blocking and editorial processes (although, yeah, try that exercise if you’ve never done it before. The feeling of control you get over your work is incredible).

What’s important is this: good writing advice isn’t always obvious. The thing you need to hear will shift by time and expertise, and what seems like ordinary or unimportant advice one day will become incredibly useful the next.

Watching Every Frame A Painting on its own would have piqued my interest in blocking, but not given me a framework for figuring out how to apply it. Wonderbook gave me a framework for applying it, but I’d read that section of the book a dozen times without seizing upon why it was really important to go through that process. It’s the combination of the two, back to back, that allowed for a moment of epiphany where problem and solution were put together in a very clear, very meaningful way.

When it comes to figuring shit out, in writing, you need to cast a broad net and you need to keep paying attention. Put bits of advice together to see how they resonate.

You need a plurality of voices, talking about similar things in very different ways, in order to find the combination that makes the best sense for you.

Tips for Getting Analogue With Your Writing

Hobbit Notebook Page 200If you take a quick gander at my Instagram feed, it should be pretty obvious that I am now an unapologetic notebook guy these days. A good 90% of my posts are basically me doing the pictorial equivalent of posting word-counts in a blog – tracking progress through a project by photographing page numbers.

I do it there because, quite honestly, I have a pretty minimal number of Instagram followers and it’s less likely to piss people off, but also because I’ve come to appreciate the value of focusing on my process, rather than my goals.

Occasionally I feel bad about doing this, but over the last week I’ve talked to a handful of people who have been inspired to the rock the analogue approach to their writing. And, since this wasn’t exactly a natural progression for me, I figured I’d put down a little advice.

First, some background: I spent about fifteen years failing to write in notebooks prior to last year. I liked the idea of it. I could see the sense in working away from the computer. And, every year, there would be a sporadic attempt: I’d buy six packs of Spirax notebooks or legal pads, do about a dozen pages of notes or story drafts, then abandon them for the keyboard within the space of a week.

I’m faster on a keyboard, I’d tell myself. I’m just not wired for handwriting. 

When I decided to handwrite a novel draft last year, it was largely out of desperation. GenreCon was looming. I’d hit a point where I needed to draw a line between my writing and my duties as the guy who got a conference running, and that was getting impossible to do when I worked on a computer.

I was surprised to discover how effective it was. Even more surprised when I made the decision to go back to typing first drafts, after the con, and discovered that I had completely broken my process. I spent much of December and January struggling to get things done at the keyboard, right up until I broke out a new notebook and went analogue once more. After that, boom. Approximately half a novel inside of forty days.

What made this attempt work after all the previous failures? Research. I looked up the work habits of writers who were routinely working longhand and paid attention to the things that did and didn’t work for them. Trialed a whoe bunch of processes and kept the ones that worked for me.

None of which implies that you should be handwriting all your work – my process is not your process – but if you’re inclined to try, this is the stuff that really worked for me.

ONE: INVEST IN BETTER QUALITY WRITING TOOLS THAN YOU NEED

It’s hard to say this without feeling like an incredible wanker, but one of the biggest differences between my recent attempt to go analogue and my previous attempts was really paying attention to the tools.

Using dedicated notebooks instead of exercise books was a big starting point, particularly since the hard-backed style books by J Burrows and Moleskin that I’ve been using essentially give you mobile writing surface built right into the notebook. That freed me up to work anywhere, with relative ease, and really cut back on the amount of stuff I’m carting around to write clubs.

The notebook made a difference, but the bigger difference was paying attention to the pen.

Holy shit, do pens matter.

Ballpoint pens conquered the world because they were cheap and easy to produce, but they are a complete arse to write with in large quantities. The ink used in them doesn’t flow as freely as it does in old-school fountain pens, which means you have to press down harder to get the ink flowing across the page. If you’re writing twenty or so pages ever day, having to press down matters more than you’d think. For me, that difference manifested in the form of shoulder pain if I spent too long scribbling.

That hasn’t happened in about a year, despite me writing far more than I used too.

Invest in a good pen. It doesn’t need to be a fountain pen – I still look at them and wonder if I’m that far gone yet, and I’m not – , but do go for one of the new-school options like a gel-ink pen or a rollerball that flow a little easier across the page. I spent about four straight months working with PaperMate Grip Rollerballs, which I originally picked up to do the signing sheets for the Flotsam hardbacks in an acid-free ink.

I goddamn loved those pens . They were an absolute pleasure to write with, just thick enough to be comfortable with a smooth-flowing ink that would, admittedly, bleed into the notebook if I pressed too hard. I would have stuck with it, but for the inability to reliably tell when it was running short of ink, which meant there are pages where my writing got…scratchy.

Now, I’ve converted to the Pentel Energel after getting nerdy about handwriting while talking to Anna Campbell about her process. It bleeds on the page less than the Papermate, and has the added advantage of a window where I can see how much ink is remaining in the pen. Just as easy to write with, but the perks are considerable.

TWO: ALTERNATE INK COLOUR EVERY DAY

Google Neil Gaiman and longhand writing and this advice should come up, repeated all across the internet. Basically, grab two different coloured pens and alternate which one you use every day. This allows you to quickly see where one days work ends and the next begins, especially when you’re two hundred pages into a project and flipping through the work that’s come before.

This was originally important to me because I was tracking writing data for the tail end of the 600K writing challenge I took in 2015. These days, it’s important to me because I’ve realized one of the secret satisfactions of writing longhand: it actually feels like you’ve done something, at the end of the day.

Adding a thousand words to a computer file has an air of satisfaction about it, because you know you’re making progress. It’s right there in the word count, growing steadily upwards.

But when you’re writing in a notebook you are always aware of your progress. Every time you open the book up, you’re visibly further along. Because I’d never done more than twenty pages or so, I had no sense of how brilliant this was until my most recent drafts. I’m going to run out of space in my first notebook sometime this week, and I find myself doing a little bit extra every writing session just to get there faster.

THREE: PAGE NUMBERS, INDEXING, AND THREADING

I number the pages of my journals before I write in them. Pretty much every writer I researched did some variation of this, but I’d never even considered it before I encountered the idea while researching the Bullet Journal towards the middle of last year.

And page numbers are useful, but what really made it possible for me to stick with notebooks long-term was the concept of indexing and threading mentioned in the bullet journal archives.

The inside cover of each notebook contains a list of all the contents, with the corresponding page numbers. This allows me to quickly find a particular chapter, or the notes about the overall structure I made halfway through the notebook, or a short story that has one scene written on page 12-15, and the next on page 20-22.

Threading is a similar concept – basically, at the bottom of page fifteen in the example above, I’d put a little 20 and an arrow pointing forward. On page twenty, I’d add a fifteen and an arrow pointing back. Quick and easy ways of going from story section to story section, without having to search and remember when and where the other parts were written.

Being able to work on more than one story at a time is a big part of my process, and was frequently a fail-point for me and notebooks. I’d frequently end up carrying around a small mountain of books, just to cover all the things I was working on, which isn’t really practical.

FOUR: EMBRACE WHAT YOU’RE GAINING, FORGET WHAT YOU’RE LOSING

Let’s be clear: I can burn through a novel draft much faster in a notebook than I can on a computer.

My per-word output on a keyboard is better, but I’m prone to getting distracted by other things and I will frequently get slowed down by my own typos. Hell, I’ve habitually corrected three or four things just in the process of typing this paragraph, with at least one sentence that got rewritten on the fly. I’m aware that I’m doing it, but only on a barely conscious level where I habitually swear at myself for being a clumsy idiot and intellectually hit backspace.

This is the advantage of working on a computer, but it’s also a curse.

Do you know how many typos there are in my handwritten manuscripts? None. Everything that’s on the page is pretty much what I was thinking. I gain a lot of time by not having the ability to go back and do a quick edit of something that’s not-quite-right. I have no choice but to move forward, no matter what. If I want to junk something, I have to junk whole paragraphs, whole pages, and there are rarely points where that’s worth it to make the kinds of fixes that are habitually on a computer.

This speeds you up more than you’d think.

On the other hand, I get to the end of the manuscript and I have four hundred and eighty handwritten pages full of things that are not quite right. The typos aren’t there, but I’ve also lost the ability to quickly duck back and make a quick correction. Those I have made were usually urgent, but there are significantly more sloppy sentences and poorly conceived scenes than I’m used too in a draft.

So the upside is that I can actually finish a novel draft in about two months. The downside is that I need a much more stringent editorial process to get it into readable form.

And, as I’ve discovered recently, I don’t have a stringent editorial process. I’m used to living inside drafts until they’re done, shaping and reshaping as I go. This is one of the reasons why I spent so much tie working on short stories and novellas, ’cause that process is utterly balls for writing novels. I got bogged down in scenes that didn’t work, blind to the larger picture and unable to keep up forward momentum.

FIVE: HAVE A WRITING BUDGET

When I started out, I expected a 240 page notebook to last me a couple of months. Turns out, I will go through one in a period of about 40 days. I go through at least one blue pen and one black pen every week, more if I’m using them at work. The pens I use aren’t exorbitantly priced, but they cost six or seven bucks for a four-pack. My preferred notebooks set me back about fifteen bucks.

At the pace I’m writing and going through things, all this adds up quickly. It adds up really quickly if you’re used to working on a computer and quietly printing your manuscripts on the work printer at your dayjob.

It adds up even quicker if, like me, it suddenly occurs to you that you can write anywhere you want now that you’re not connected to the keyboard.

When I figured this was my default mode of drafting from now on, I immediately started setting aside budget and spending quality time in stationary supply stores, waiting for things to come on sale.

SIX: EMBRACE YOUR PROCESS; EMBRACE THE RITUAL

There is something about writing in a notebook that will make you feel like a hipster wanker, unwilling to engage with the modern world and preparing to grow an epic beard. There is no escaping that. There is also no escaping the fact that other people will comment on your new analogue process.

But the nice thing about a notebook is the way it lends itself to writing rituals, which are more important to developing habits than you’d think. I did a lot of reading about habits and processes over the course of 2015, and I became very conscious of the notion of triggers and reward that Charles Duhigg talks about in the appendix of his book, The Power of Habit.

Computers get used for so much, these days, that it’s easy to slip into a habit other than writing simply by doing something slightly differently when you sit down and boot up. Notebooks don’t give you that option, which is part of their strength. Every time you open a notebook, you are sitting down to write.

What I find really useful about notebooks is the way they make it easier to keep motivated with regard to writing. I’ve always been very goal-oriented with writing, rather than focusing on process, and it turns out that may be the wrong way to go. Goals are great for getting you to an activity, but will detract from your motivation over time.

What helps keep us engaged with an activity long-term is a focus on the process. It’s why – much as people complain about things like word-counting posts and the #AmWriting hashtag on twitter, they can actually be remarkably useful in terms of getting to the end of a big writing project.

My process with notebooks is replete with little rituals designed to keep me engaged with the process. Instagram photos of the work in progress is one of those, but little things like going back and circling the page numbers after I finish a block of four pages, recording the time I start and finish a micro-stint of writing, and quietly riffling through the pages whenever I’m pondering the next scene are also there.

I’m a heavily tactile person, in general, so having something to hold and play with as I work is incredibly soothing for me. For the first time in years, I am not anxious about writing. I don’t fret about whether I’m doing enough, or the quality of what I’m doing. I’m just enjoying the whole process, and looking forward to the next time I get to sit down and write.

Which is not to say that I don’t have bad writing days, or even whole days where I get nothing productive done. But there are fewer than there used to be, and the periods where I’ll disappear down a rabbit hole to binge on Netflix or pay computers games are much shorter. Things that used to be my kryptonite have become relatively inert.

Rituals matter, in this context. And notebooks lend themselves to rituals like you wouldn’t believe.

This, at it’s core, is one of the secret strengths of going analogue, so I figure you may as well embrace it.

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Well, those are my tips on the analogue front. One thing I have discovered since doing this is the number of other writer who get enormously geeky about their own analogue processes, which is part of the pleasure as well. If you’ve got any recommendations for tools or processes, let me know in the comments.

I’m always happy to try and fine-tune my processes a little more.

Avocado, Toast, and What They Make Me Think About Writing

I had breakfast at my local cafe this morning. It’s a habit I’m cultivating this year, on Write Club days, after realising that breakfast at my local cafe makes me extraordinarily happy and it becomes affordable within my budget if I stop buying Coke Zero.

Giving up Coke Zero for something that makes me extraordinary happy is an easy trade, and so, twice a week, I trot down to the Low Road Cafe and order their avocado on toast for breakfast.

There are two things I love about the Low Road’s avocado breakfast.

The first is that it’s a production. It’s thick slices of doorstop toast, avocado, three different types of nuts, little slices of radish and radish flowers. Lemon juice. Freshly chopped herbs laid over the whole thing like a winter blanket. The kind of food put together by a chef who isn’t regarding their vegetarian menu as an afterthought, and enjoys the process of making tasty things.

Avocado on toast is usually one of those meals that cafes do well, ’cause it’s easy, but Low Road elevates it to the point of elegance. They catch you by surprise by defying your expectations.

The second thing that I love: it’s always different and it’s always delicious. The 20th century worked towards a theory of homogeneity, in some respects. Fast-food chains proliferated by offering the same experience, wherever you were, and the same expectation. The food may not be good, but it offered the comfort of the familiar and that eliminated the risk of trying something new.

If you were travelling and didn’t know there area – where to get a good meal or cup of coffee – you could head into your local McDonalds and get something you knew.

At Low Road, the avocado on toast is always subtly different. There’s nothing uniform about the toast that they’re using – it’s always different bread, different flavours. The same goes for the nuts, and the herbs scattered over the top. Today’s breakfast leant into the flavours of the lemon juice and the the peppery taste of the radish slices, whereas my last breakfast there was nuttier and had a slightly stronger avocado presence.

They’re not afraid of sending out something that looks different to the last time you ordered it. It’s always familiar enough for you to recognise it and tastes phenomenal, but they’re certainly not afraid to give you something that tastes different, either.

Those slight differences – that expectation of quality with a consistent expectation about flavour – is what keeps me ordering this breakfast again and again when I head to the cafe. It’s the perfect blend of the familiar and the unexpected.

Naturally, all this makes me think of writing. Because everything makes me think of writing.

Often, when I’m talking to new writers who want to get their first book published, I will ask a simple question: what’s your genre? The answer will generally offer a good indication of how much help people will need.

Folks who have thought about their genre will have a good answer. Fantasy. Crime. General Fiction. Romance. Those who have put a lot of thought in their genre will go for specific – Steampunk! Hardboiled! Regency! – or will at least be able to offer touchstones in the form of similar authors.

The folks who stumble over that question – or worse, break out I don’t know; I don’t think there’s anything else out there like this – are frequently much, much harder to help out. Often their expectations are much higher, and their work needs more development, because they’ve bought into a whole bunch of rhetoric about muses and creative inspiration.

They believe that their idea, rather than the execution of it, is what will get them published.

But the number of people who pick up a book thinking I seriously hope this is like nothing I’ve ever read before is extraordinarily small. Most of us enjoy stories that are linked by a number of traits, whether it’s a particular voice, or set of genre tropes, or familiar character archetypes.

And within that familiarity you have to do two things.

First, make the familiar great and surprise your new reader. Taking something familiar and breathing new life into it by adding unexpected elements, or turning it into something new, is a tried-and-true way of engaging readers.

Second, keep delivering something that’s familiar, but subtly different and always bloody tasty. The familiar and the unexpected coming together, to create surprise and delight.

Mostly, a post in which I rabbit on about notebooks

My notebook habit has resulted in a certain level of proliferation in recent weeks. I tend to leave the house with the notebook containing my novel-length work in progress, one for short stories, a bullet journal I’m using to run my life, a notebook I used for taking notes when reading throughout the week, and a planning notebook that’s used for brainstorming elements of the novel.

Oh, and a blank 128 page notebook that I assumed I’d packed for a reason, except it proved to be blank when I pulled it out and opened it up to reacquaint myself with its contents.

It is a terrible thing to be a writer and give yourself permission to indulge in your notebook fetish, but it has hit the point where I need to cut back.

And so I wondered down to my local Officeworks yesterday afternoon and invested in a larger notebook than the standard a5-sized beasts in my notebook wodge. The new one is 181 mm x 250 mm, large enough to handle compiling the bullet journalling, study notes, and short-story drafts getting compiled into a single place.

I would add the the novel brainstorming to the new one as well, but it’s taking place in a very lightweight notebook I picked up in Vienna that’s not too arduous to carry around. And the three notebook pile does actually make for a rather handsome set of writing and productivity tools.

Ghost Western Wodge

‘Cause nothing says matching set like the combination of an embossed image from The Hobbit and the works of Egon Schiele. I dearly wish the Schiele and Klimt notebooks I picked up in Vienna back in 2013 were good for prolonged writing projects, but they have surprisingly low page-counts and they’d fill in about two weeks.

One of the advantages I’ve discovered about the J. Burrows brand books I’ve come to prefer (and the Moleskins I’ll occasionally find among the backlog of notebooks people have given me as gifts) is that one 240 page notebook will last me a little over a month of steady drafting. It also breaks down into a useful metric when trying to gauge the pace of the story, since two hand-written notebooks is largely going to be about a novel draft.

I’ve got less than fifty pages to go, in the current novel notebook. I’m not at the halfway point – not anywhere close – which means it’s turning into a big, sprawly kind of book at this point.

Which makes my title page, way back when I begin, something of a lie. It reads:

Ghost Western (A Novella)

I cannot think of another project where I’ve been that wrong about the final word count.

 

When in Doubt, Maslow the Fuck Out of Your Creative Process

Death Before Death Before Reborn Survival WorldONE: MASLOW THE FUCK OUT OF IT

My friend Laura Goodin has a saying: Maslow the fuck out of it.

Actually, that could be a lie. She has something similar to this, but I can’t remember if I’m inserting the profanity or the profanity was there when she deployed it in our most recent conversations.  If I’m wrong, the intent was definitely something close, and I will owe Laura a beer and an apology.

Life would be much easier if I actually copied down the interesting things my friends said, exactly, on the basis that I will one day want to write a blog post around their adages.

But for our purposes, lets go with this. Laura Goodin has this saying: Maslow the fuck out of it.

Near as I can gather, the saying come from her years working with emergency services, where she would train new recruits in the best way to respond to a crisis. When in doubt, work your way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Take care of the biological needs, then the safety needs, then the social needs.

Much as those of us on the internet would disagree, providing a populace with food and a safe place to sleep and ablute trumps getting them access to good quality wifi when working with limited resources.

In terms of art, the same applies.

TWO: ART, UNHAPPINESS, AND THE BITS WHERE LIFE KICKS YOU IN THE BALLS

This is a story about misery and writing.

The most productive time I’ve ever had as a writer came in the months immediately after I separated from the woman I once thought I was going to marry. Details don’t matter much, but the year that followed was a complete shipwreck, culminating with losing my job at the end of twelve months and going into three years of unemployment.

My second most productive time, in terms of raw word count, came in the twelve months prior to my sleep apnea diagnosis, which is a basically twelve months in which I was consistently falling asleep at the keyboard and convinced I was going mad.

Neither of these were happy times, but they were productive when looked at from a certain perspective.

I’m not alone in this. Several times I’ve noticed people coming out of relationship and basically working like a motherfucker on their art (especially when they’re dudes, whose coping mechanism for break-ups are generally…well, not good). Or times when things go wrong in friends lives and they generally respond by doubling down on their art and career.

I don’t wish to perpetuate any of the myths about misery and being an artist. What I’m talking about here is a given, nor a thing you should be doing. There are times when things go wrong and you do not want to create art at all. That’s a perfectly valid response. It was much easier to create regularly in the early days of unemployment, much harder at the end of it when things were…worse.

But for the most part, creating art is an easy response to misery. There is a cleanness to your motivation that is easier to understand. When I was unemployed, writing was important because words paid phone bills and grocery bills and internet bills.

When I was broken up and miserable, writing became a means of reclaiming a part of my life that had laid fallow while I was in a relationship. I ceased being the guy who had just been rejected, and became the guy who wrote.

When I was exhausted, writing was a lifeline. As long as I produced, it meant that none of the things that were physiologically wrong with me were that big a deal.

And when those needs were met, in various ways – when I was employed and my self esteem was improved; when I was getting the apnea treated and actually sleeping more than two hours at a time – when those need were met, I lost that productivity.

I lost the ambition and the drive and the need to write.

I faltered. And I panicked. I made decisions that I kinda wish I hadn’t, in hindsight. I assumed there was something wrong with me, ’cause art no longer consumed me the way that it had before.

THREE: SO WHAT’CHA WHAT’CHA WHAT’CHA WANT

I was talking to a friend who had recently stopped writing and wanted to tackle that sudden lack of ambition to get things done. And my advice largely come down to this: your relationship with art changes when you’re happy.

I am a big proponent of understanding what you want from writing. Within the context of a blog post, it’s easy to make that sound like a simple thing, but it’s not. We are complicated creatures trying to reconcile multiple needs, many of them shifting and coming into conflict.

What you want, more than anything, at one stage of your life may be very different when your circumstances change. In the depths of misery and biological failure, your art can be a lifeline. In the midst of pain, it’s a means of redefining who you are.

Get too far down the pyramid, and the creation of art probably doesn’t even rate. And that’s okay.

But when you’re happy? When things have been resolved and you’re no longer consumed by absences and pain? When your self-esteem is no longer dependent on the thing that you’re holding on to with your fingernails? You relationship to your art changes. When you’re heading upwards, it gets difficult to come back to art with the same need. The same hunger.

That’s a good thing, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

It’s usually not that the desire to create is gone. It’s just that what you want from your creating may have shifted. Your needs are different and the thing that excites you about your art is probably not what it was at your low point.

Five years ago, when I was fresh from a break-up, I could think of nothing better than being prolific. Twelve months ago, I was falling apart, I could think of nothing better than getting things done.

Today, I still want both those things, but I find myself aiming higher. Wanting to better, rather than do more. I have the bandwidth to devote to aspects of craft and career that just weren’t on my radar back then.

Figuring out what you want from writing or art is an ongoing process. Even if you’re life has been free from major pain and tragedy, your ambitions change as you get things publish and master certain skills.

The things that will get you to the page will shift, and refusing to pay attention to where your ambitions have shifted too can make it harder to get yourself to sit down and start working.

Maslow’s pyramid isn’t the be all and end all of psychology – it’s generally acknowledged that we’re a lot more complicated than that – but it’s a useful tool. If you find yourself no longer writing or creating, take a moment to orient yourself on the pyramid and ask yourself what you really need from your art right now.

Basically, take Laura’s advice and Maslow the fuck out of it. Once you’ve met your basic needs as a creator, you’re going to want more. When you’re sick, when you’re unhappy, or, hell, even when you’re starting out, your needs are down the bottom half of the pyramid.

Once those needs have been met, you’re going to want more.

Spending some quality time with that pyramid may show you what you need to do to reignite the passion for your art.