Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wells, Filled and Otherwise

Shauna posted recently about 'filling the well'. To be honest, it's a term I only started hearing a couple of years ago when I started spending time with writers.

The idea seems to be that creativity is a cool liquid, of which we drink deeply. Sometimes, a project can leave us feeling drained. Times like that, we need to stop drinking and let others' waters replenish our own.

At least, I think that's the idea. It's one of those things folks tend to talk about as though everyone else already knows. I've had to pick the metaphor up on the run.

I get the feeling writers expect to approach their new project with a well filled to the brim with sparkling ideas. With every day's work, the bucket has to dip just that little bit deeper. A few I know fear that one day they 'go to the well' and hear nothing but a dry thunk.

Me, I don't like this metaphor so much. It's so.....


If I have a well of ideas, its a bloody great artesian thing.

I'm a productive guy: I write a novel or two a year. Do maybe a dozen, two dozen paintings. Fill a couple of sketchbooks and occasionally bring a little extra spark to my gentle whoredom in the tattoo studio. I don't lower a bucket and hope to find something. For me, it's about not being knocked down by the spray.

So what do I do to stay creative?

1. Distrust Mood: I had the great good fortune to have the idea of a 'creative mood' drummed out of me early on. Stephen King puts it nicely in this article, where he suggests the muse is most likely to find you if you're already sitting there working.

2. Care for Your Tools: I keep my pencils sharp, my brushes soft, my pens inked, my typewriter oiled and my laptop clean. I also eat pretty well and stay in reasonable shape. I know painters who wouldn't dream of letting paint sludge dry on their brushes, but they do nothing to care for the hand and arm and brain doing the work.

3. Permission to Fail: By definition, every day cannot be our best. That's okay, no big deal. The more we practice our arts, the better we get. The better our 'average' becomes. I find it helpful to accept that today's work might suck, then get on with it.

4. Blood to Brain: Thinking burns glucose. It also requires oxygen, and the clearing of waste products. How does all that happen? Yup, blood flow.

When I feel blocked during a work session, I charge up the old heart. These days I have a heavy bag behind the house, and whaling on it feels great. Before the bag, I'd do pushups or situps. I'm often surprised at how a quick shock of activity like that will clear those blockages.

5. Sidestep: I like to jump around in different media. Even the ones I'm bad at. As long as it gives me a little bit of fun, what's the harm?

In fact, a sidestep was how I started writing in the first place. One of the reasons I started down this road was that I was doing an enormous amount of work-for-hire drawing comics. It was great fun, and I was forced to stretch my art in ways I never would have otherwise tried, but... I missed telling my own stories. Doing two comics at once was so time-consuming it was out of the question, so I sat down and wrote a novel. And another. And....

And lastly, COFFEE: I drink a lot of coffee. A lot.
Even when I'm going down a wrong turn, I get there quickly.


Shauna Roberts said...

All good points. I was hoping you'd have some tricks I hadn't come across, but unfortunately, I'm already doing all of yours except the caffeine (stomach won't tolerate it).

I interpret the well metaphor a little differently. I picture sources of ideas (having a variety of life experiences, reading widely, knowing strange and wacky people, whatever) and creativity supporters (eating healthfully, getting enough sleep) as adding to the well. As you work, you drain the well. So to continue to be creative, you must continue to refill it. You can't lock yourself in your room at age 21 and write for the rest of your life using what you've learned and experienced to that point. You'd run dry or recycle the same ideas over and over because you aren't replacing the used ideas with new ones.

Lana Gramlich said...

Great post! Side note about wells...To the Celts they were magical places of healing, where one could connect directly with Otherworldly spirits/deities. In that sense, I think the well metaphor works pretty well. I grok you on the spraying fountain, however.

Steve Malley said...

Y'know, Shaunna, you make it make sense!

And personally, I suspect your troubles do relate to the medical writing day job. Too many of the same mental muscles get fatigued, much the same way after I get home from the tattoo stuio the *last* thing I want to do is draw for pleasure!

And Lana, I did not know that either. I'm learning *SO* much today!

SzélsőFa said...

These are good points, Steve. I especially like that you consider writing as part of the physical world - and rightly so. Writers, are not composed entirely of brains. They have to take care of their other dimensions as well.

Lisa said...

The comments about the medical writing day job got me thinking about the hazards of working from home (which I also do). There are occasional periods (especially in the winter) when I tend to have minimal interaction with other real people and those are the times when I feel my "well" being depleted. Although I have a wealth of past experiences that often surface to provide the seeds for inspiration, my real interactions provide new seeds and the well is replenished (sorry to mangle the metaphor). As a telecommuter, I tend to have much more detailed conversations with complete strangers than maybe other people do. People I've met lately who have helped to fill the well included a window installer who used to be a ski stunt man in Hollywood and was in the opening sequence of one of the Bond movies, but had a crippling accident that ended his career in stunt skiing. I had a recent conversation with a Russian house cleaner who recently separated from her Russian husband, a man who killed their dog and hung it in the garage to show her what would happen to her if she was late again -- people are fascinating and they all have stories. Shauna, I'll bet the recent move has a lot to do with your feeling like the well is running dry.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've heard the well metaphor many times but I don't think I ever deeply considered it. Shauna makes good points here, as do you.

Very good points, gotta keep at least in some semblance of physical shape if you want to maximize your creativity. And, the muse tends to find you when you're already engaged with the work.

Very strong post.

Susan Miller said...

You are so brilliant. Thanks for all the great points. They made me nod and smile.

cs harris said...

Yes, I see the well in a similar way to Shauna. One could also picture creativity as a great conflagration that needs to be "stoked" by physical activity, laughing with friends and family, doing new things, thinking new thoughts, etc. But that image suggests that creativity is destructive, so I like the well image better. More peaceful. I also like the idea that the potential is all there within us--one need only dip into it.

Thank you for this: "Permission to Fail: By definition, every day cannot be our best. That's okay, no big deal." I've been upset because I've been turning out godawful prose all week. It helped.

Shauna Roberts said...

STEVE, I've cut back on my paying medical writing. If you're right, that should free up some creativity for my fiction.

LISA, the move certainly has taken up a lot of brain space for about nine months now. And before that, it was fixing up our house post-Katrina. And before that, it was Katrina and the long evacuation. And before that it was a series of deaths and illnesses among those close to me. And then before that . . . you get the picture.

I know all those interfere with my creativity. But, given that my life has rarely gone along smoothly and has usually been an obstacle course, I have to accept the boulders in my path as a given and find ways to get where I'm going anyway. Thus, my interest in the "creative well" and how other people fill it.