Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Creative Habit": #10 Ruts and Grooves

"It's going to happen sometimes: Despite all the good habits your've developed, the preparation rituals, the organizational tools, the techniques for scratching out pre-ideas and actual ideas, there will come a time when your creativity fails you.  You start at the canvas, the screen, the keyboard, the empty room -- and it refuses to meet your eyes.  It looks away as if it's ashamed of you.  You may as well be painting on shards of broken glass.  Your screen shows nothing but wavy lines.  Your fingers slip off the keyboard, never getting traction.  The room turns dark and cold, and someone is locking the door behind you.  You are in a rut."

Sounds pretty scary, right? But I am sure you can relate. 

Ruts versus grooves.  Its the difference between moving forward and staying in place. 

Twyla goes on to explain that a rut "is not writer's block.  When you're in a rut, at least you know your motor is running.  Writer's block means your engine has shut down and the tank is empty.  Being blocked is most often a failure of nerve, with only one solution: do something -- anything."

"A rut is more like a false start.  The engine's kicked over, your've picked your destination, and you're moving.  A rut is the part of the journey where you're spinning your wheels, spitting out mud behind you and you're going nowhere."

So how do you deal with a rut when you are in one?

1)  First, you have to see the rut.  This is difficult for writers because we primarily work alone.  Therefore, we can be days or months into a project and realize that our manuscript is not going anywhere.  "Make a habit of reviewing your work along the way, seeing where you've been and where you are to make sure you're still heading in the right direction," says Twyla.  One big indicator is when pessimism turns to optimism.  The "I love this story" turns to "this is the worst thing I have ever written".  I can only speak as a picture book writer (as I do not work in the longer forms) but I do share my work with my critique groups often.  I get other eyes on it.  And I check in with myself as to how I feel about the manuscript: is this the story I want to tell?  And if the answer is "no"...

2)  Admit you're in a rut.  It requires an admission that you've made a mistake. Not easy.  But the sooner you admit it, the less you deepen your rut. 

This past summer I was making dinner and I was struck by creative lightning.  I dropped what I was doing and ran for the pad of paper and a pen.  I furiously wrote down the beginnings of a picture book story.  It was euphoric.  To this date, what I wrote in those moments is gold.  I have had many eyes on this piece and everyone says the same thing -- the beginning is sharp and witty and has wonderful rhythm.  But that's where it stops.  I have been struggling with the second half ever since.  I am in a rut -- even after several revisions and brainstorming.  What do I do?

3)  Get out of the rut. This is the hard part.  "Knowing and admitting a problem are not the same as solving it.  But executing a solution is also the fun part, because the solution saves you and gets you moving again," says Twyla.  Some people work their way out of it.  Some people take a rest.  It really depends on you and your rut.  Here are some suggestions:
  • Step away.  Sometimes a momentary stall as you try to get from one part to another during the day's work is what's needed.  Get out of the house.  Stare at the sky.  Go for a walk or run.  Tend your garden.  Grab lunch with a friend.  Take a shower.  "Do something that gets you out of the vehicle with the spinning wheels."
  • Create an agressive goal.  Set the timer and set a goal.  For me, it could be create 5 alternate endings to my story in one hour.  Its a tough goal, but it will help me start to get all of my ideas-- the good, the bad and the ridiculous -- down on paper.  Be your own tough manager. 
  • Shake it up.  Get creative in another way.  A novelist friend of mine recently told me that she is in a rut with her novel.  She is having trouble getting beyond a certain spot.  Therefore she is going to start writing her novel in non-linear episodes -- meaning she will write the scenes that are in her head and not worry about the problem area right now.  I think this is a wonderful way to work through a rut.   There are no rules.
  • Open the drawer.  And sometimes its just better to put the manuscript that is giving you problems into a drawer and move onto to something else.  For me, this not only helps free me from the problem manuscript, but it also allows me to focus on another project and prove to myself that I do have good ideas.  I am not dry.  It breaks the pessimism that ruts create.  Promise yourself that you will come back to it.  Know that this manuscript will always be sauteeing in the back of your mind, but release yourself from toiling over it.  Give it, and yourself, a rest.  And trust that you will know when it is time to open that drawer and try again. 
Which brings us to grooves -- our ultimate goal. 

"When you're in a groove, you're not spinning your whelles; you're moving forward in a straight and narrow path without pauses or hitches.  You're unwavering, undeviating, and unparalleled in your purpose.  A groove is the best place in the world.  Because when you are in it, you have the freedom to explore, where everything you question leads you to new avenues and new routes."

Some grooves last an hour.  You have that lightning and words just pour out of your pen.  Some last for days, weeks or if we're lucky months.  The key to being creative is not learning to avoid ruts and stay in the grooves.  Ruts are going to happen.  Grooves will too.  The key to the creative life is to be disciplined and passionate to work through them all.

"In the end, ruts and grooves are different sides of the same coin.  The work itself will tell you which side you're looking at.  Does it give you pleasure or pain? 

The call to a creative life is not supposed to be torture.  Yes, it's hard work and you have to make sacrifices.  But it's also supposed to be fun."

So I ask you, where are you today?  Rut or groove?  And whatcha gonna do about it?


  1. Right now, I'm more in a groove. Yay!

    I've tried all those methods to get out of a rut before; some worked better than others, depending on the kind of rut I was having.

  2. What a great post. Ruts and grooves - they happen. As a picture book writer, it's pretty simple to set a troublesome story aside and start something new. Walking away is my favorite way to get out of a rut.

  3. Step away? Sometimes it's more like crawling out!

  4. I have a terrible habit of walking away from everything I do and never coming back! Seeing and admitting this was definitely the hard part. To keep moving forward, I have put myself on a rotation. Jumping between manuscripts and switching to art on a regular schedule has been the way for me to build discipline. Thanks for these other great ideas.

  5. I think you have to have a goal sheet and a to do list where you write down what you are planning to do the next few weeks, so then at least you know when you are off plan. At least then you can identify your rut sooner than later!