Help! I’m not writing: what do I do?

QUESTION:
Help! I’m totally blocked and haven’t written a word in too long, except in my daily journal which is more morning pages right now. How do I begin again?
~Sheila

Sheila!
Thanks so much for this right-to-the-heart question. I know you speak for many writers out there. You are SO not alone.

And I’m not just saying, “High five sister, you’re not alone!” I’m saying I totally and deeply empathize, and you are in the normal albeit sucky part of the creative process. As heartbreak is to love, the fallow season is the natural yang to the high of creation. The only way to avoid it is to never create. 

So high five for being in the arena at all. Most people would rather pretend they aren’t creative than go on that insecurity roller coaster.

But yes, the “not creating” part of the process raises all our fears and leaves us shaky and off balance. That’s real. And I don’t have a magic answer, but I do have a couple of reframes and some suggestions that might make navigating this time a little easier.

First some sleuthing: Why are you in this fallow period? It didn’t happen without a reason. Sometimes if we can figure out why something is happening, it helps us have compassion and put things back into context. For me, this phase often coincides with the end of a large creative project or push. Maybe you just finished a project or you’re coming off a very prolific period? Maybe it wasn’t a creative project but one that still drew on your creative energy—the culmination of a large work or school project or event, a large purchase or remodel, or maybe even a life cycle shift—death, birth, divorce, retirement, relocation.

So if can be helpful to discover (this can happen in your journal!) a clear precursor to this non-writing period—if only to give yourself some grace and get out of the shame/blame cycle. Too often we beat ourselves up for not writing when there is actually a good reason.

BUT understanding why you are there doesn’t solve it, I get that. And here my advice is not magical either, but there is unfortunately no other way:

Eventually we have to take a baby step back into relationship with our writing. A BABY step—smaller than we think is even worth it. I often suggest journaling AS a first baby step, and you’re already doing that. Daily, even! How many stuck writers aren’t even journaling? Show of hands? My point. Journaling is a fantastic first step because we begin showing up for the regular practice of looping words into sentences and spending time inside the maze of our minds. 

Keeping baby steps as small and non-intimidating as possible is super important, so I suggest stepping up what you are already doing in your journal. You could write a letter to your writing and/or ask your writing some pointed questions. Or, to kickstart inspiration and get outer-focused again, you could spend an entire day noticing and recording the many beautiful, strange, unique things in your world. Or you could make a list of all the stories you intend to write someday–I love a good list and I find this process will very often pop a hot idea.

Outside of the journal, when I’m blocked or sluggish I like to reread favorite books. You know, THE favorite books that made you want to be a writer in the first place.

And then step away from the page and go see some art, visit a garden, listen to some music, and trust that your new ideas are coming, especially now that you have let them know you are ready.

Bottom line—don’t panic! There is nothing I trust more than the turning wheel of the creative process—fallow periods are always followed by fertile ones, summer follows spring—if you stick with it. So keep showing up and ask:

What is one tiny baby step I could take towards my writing today?
(Then take another one tomorrow.)

Wishing you overflowing creativity!
xoxox
Nancy

Do you have a question about flash fiction, travel, writing, the creative process, craft, the writing life…or anything else?

P.S. I’ve had SO much fun sharing my travels, writing inspiration, creative discoveries, retreat photos, food poisoning and more! I love sharing the adventures with you xo

First Stop: Spain–CHECK! (photo from Spanish Retreat Salon Night! Full retreat wrap-up with photo gallery coming soon!)
Next Stop: Bristol, England and the 4th Flash Fiction Festival!
August: Final 2022 Flash Fiction Retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado!

Continue the adventures on:

Instagram and Facebook and Facebook Retreats Page 


Save the Date: Upcoming Workshops and Retreats


Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel
August 22-September 2

Going Short: Beautiful Flash Fiction Part II (NEW)
(can be taken independently of Part I)
September 5-9

(Details here. Registration for both opens August 1) 


The Flash Novel Mastermind: a 12-week incubator to get your manuscript across the finish line
September 13-December 2
(Pre-requisite: Flash Flood. Registration and all details Sept 1)

AND
If you’re ready for some radical inspiration, a creative adventure to energize your spirit, and camaraderie with your creative community, then get on the waiting list for 2023 Retreat Early Access and announcements this fall! 

Self-Promotion or Self-Prostitution: Why We Resist Putting Ourselves Out There

Do you hate the idea of self-promotion? Do you tell yourself that you’re not good at it? That you shouldn’t have to do it? If you hate self-promotion, or even the prospect of self-promotion, you are not alone. No matter the genre, all artists seem to share a similar aversion. Most of us are still waiting for an agent/manager/publicist to come and rescue us from the prospect of having to promote…ourselves?

But why?

As artists, we have internalized certain agreed-upon stories, certain cultural mythologies that may be blocking our ability to put ourselves and our work out into the world. And since most of us agree that self-promotion is necessary, it’s worth taking a look at these stories and deciding whether perpetuating them is serving our art and our careers—or not.

1. The Starving Artist Story: “I’m not going to make any money at this, anyway.”

The-Lemonade-Stand1If we were running a company, a large portion of our budget would go to marketing, right? If we were selling shoes, our livelihood would depend on us getting out there and selling some shoes. Even if we were running a lemonade stand, we would understand that, in order to sell lemonade, we would need to make signs or hire neighborhood kids with megaphones to let people know that lemonade is available. If no one knows about our lemonade, then no one will buy it no matter how fantastic it might be.

But when it comes to our art, we’ve swallowed a toxic “starving artist” story, which tells us that we’re probably not going to make any money at this, anyway, so we don’t take the task of promotion seriously. In fact, most of us would probably do a better job promoting the lemonade than we would the art that we have poured our blood and souls into.

It’s crucial to realize that if you want to make a career out of your art, then you have gone into businesswith yourself. I am now the CEO of Nancy Stohlman, Inc., and my product is my work. If no one knows about my product, they can’t buy it. And then I am out of business.

But as long as we are stoking the starving artist story, then we’re going into the game already defeated. If we believe we cannot make a living out of our art…then we probably won’t.

2. The Overnight Success Story: “Once I’m famous someone else will do this.”

This is the story of the mythical artist who is catapulted into fame from obscurity with no promotional effort of their own. While this mythology is exciting, and the media loves to dangle it as some warped version of the American Dream, it’s also a bit like expecting to win the Powerball.

This overnight success story is a darling of artists and runs deep in our culture. But if you look carefully behind most successes, you will usually find a different story. Madonna made hundreds of demos with her own money and personally brought them to every DJ in New York City; Truman Capote sat for 8 hours a day in the lobby of the publisher who refused to see him. Even Rosa Parks, our favorite little old lady who wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus and thus triggered the Civil Rights Movement, was actually a veteran activist for 15 years when she was finally delivered to the right place at the right time.

Because that’s what it comes down to: “It’s not enough to be at the right place at the right time—you have to be the right person at the right place at the right time,” says musical agent Justin Sudds in his interview for “Take Your Talent to the Bank”. The truth of the overnight success story is that it is usually not overnight at all.

But what’s most problematic about the Overnight Success Story is that it is ultimately disempowering because it takes the responsibility for our careers out of our hands. Our careers become like playing roulette, and we feel powerless to affect real change. And I like playing roulette, but only with what I am prepared to lose.

3. “It’s Not Polite To Brag.” This country is still influenced by our Puritan roots, and so this story is the one that often paralyzes us into non-action.

Here’s the truth: Will some people be annoyed by your promotional efforts? Yes. But usually the ones who are annoyed, offended, or otherwise triggered by your efforts are the ones who have not yet embraced their own self-promotion. So it’s important to remember that their support or non-support for you and your work really has little to do with you and much more to do with where they are on their own path. It’s pretty hard to jump on someone else’s bandwagon when your own bandwagon is rusting in the garage. It’s pretty hard to muster up zest and enthusiasm for someone else when you haven’t put your own work out there in a big way, yet. So when you encounter this kind of resistance—and it can come from the most surprising places—be kind, and remember this quote: “Those who have abandoned their dreams will always discourage yours.”

But the rest of the people won’t care, and in fact they will be happy that you’ve made it so easy for them to support you and your work. It is said that a person needs to hear about something five times (yes, five!) before it sticks, and most people are happy for the reminders.

Self-promotion is not bragging. It’s asking for the support we need to make the careers we want.

In this Puritan society we are told that “it’s better to give than receive,” so we give, we give, we give…but most of us have a hard time receiving. And most of us have an even harder time asking for the support we need with clarity and confidence. If I want people to read my latest story—I have to ask. If I want people to come to my my website, my lecture, or buy my latest book—I have to ask. “Hey, I’d love it if you checked out my work and passed it along.”

In our everyone-for-himself society we have attached a stigma to asking for help. In order to get over this stigma, we have to remember that artists must exist in community, and in order to create and sustain a community, you have to put yourself out there with honesty and authenticity. Self-promotion is truly about asking for the support we need, and building relationships with those who are excited about us and our work. It’s the greatest thing you can do for the promotion of art outside of creating the art itself.

So when self-promotion starts to feel like self-prostitution, remember: We promote our work because we aren’t okay with the mythology of the starving artist; we respect our work enough to take control of its dissemination, not leaving it to the agent fairies to rescue us; we have both the confidence and humility required to put it out there in the world and ask for support.

Many of us don’t promote because we would rather fail privately than publicly  We fear rejection and ridicule; we retreat into craft instead. And yes, it’s true that Emily Dickinson did no promotion. But then again, she never got to enjoy the rewards, respect, and recognition of her work while she was alive.

I want more for myself and my art.

And I want more for you, too.