What to Do When You Run Out of Creative Steam
Here’s the thing about creative energy: it can dry up.
Writing is an amazing act of courage and creation, and it takes a lot out of us. All too often, we run out of steam, and usually at the worst possible moments—when we have a deadline, a story to finish, a publisher breathing down our necks, or even just our own internal editor’s demands.
The good news: it happens to us all.
The better news: there’s a way out. Read on.
Why Our Creative Energy Dries Up
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a crazy, hectic week filled with crazy-makers, weird health-bugs, and schedule conflicts all at once, and while I survived (to my husband’s great praise), it left me—and him—out of creative energy.
I need my creative energy. I have a master’s degree to earn. I have a book to produce by December. I have responsibilities at Becoming Writer. To paraphrase one of my favorite internet memes, I don’t have time for this.
So what’s a flustered writer to do? Whether you find yourself running out of steam, running into writer’s block, or just running slowly with writer’s exhaustion, the problem is often a matter of needing to rejuvenate yourself.
It’s time to refill your creative rain barrel.
How to Refill Your Creative Rain Barrel
Think of creativity as a rain barrel. As we walk through life, rain falls and fills that barrel with emotions, observations, and experiences—which is why there are times when pouring your heart out on the page is really like somebody poked a hole in a dam.
But it’s exhausting. Life is exhausting, and that barrel can run dry. So how do you do refill it?
Read. Don’t stop reading.
Read your genre and other genres. Read books you don’t like and ones you do. Read books about topics you’d never write about in a million years. No matter what, keep reading.
“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
― William Faulkner
Reading will give you ideas. It will enlighten you on what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly of all, it will remind you of the joy of writing, which is why you got into this crazy job to begin with.
Renewed joy always leads to better writing.
This means applying yourself to a hobby that isn’t reading or writing.
(I can hear your horrified gasps from here.)
This other hobby has one major purpose: getting you out of your chair and into a different head-space. Photography, cooking, exercising, animal care, volunteering, gardening, painting, music-making, cross-stitching—there are a billion options. Show up at a soup-kitchen. Get really good at painting that shed out back.
Just make sure this hobby is completely disconnected from writing. You’re giving your brain a rest. Just like your body won’t recover from the day if you don’t sleep, your creativity cannot reset unless you do this.
But not the way you think. “Relax” is scary because it means this: Give yourself permission to suck.
It means letting go of your perfectionism.
I know this is hard. You most likely got into writing because you love good books. Stories touched you in some way, and you want to write something that touches others, too. The problem is that as we learn to create, there’s a gap between the level we know our writing should be, and the level we’re actually producing.
This. Is. Normal.
Watch this video by Ira Glass. I know you’re busy; you can afford one minute and fifty-four seconds.
To put it another way, let go of the horrendous pressure on yourself to write perfectly, and you’ll write better.
YA author Maureen Johnson says it like this in her own particular, witty style:
“Dare to suck. […] When you are learning to write, you are going to suck. You’re going to suck a lot. you’re just going to keep sucking for a while, and you’re going to feel like you’re sucking, and that’s’ a sign you’re on the right path, because when you are learning things, you will suck at them.”
Scary, isn’t it? I know. I want to write like Neil Gaiman, and seriously, I’m nowhere close. But if I don’t give myself permission to write what I think is terrible writing, I won’t hone my craft like he has over decades. I won’t write anything to edit and make readable. In fact, I won’t write at all because I’ll be too busy comparing the water in my rain barrel to someone else’s—and that just doesn’t work.
“I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”
― Nora Roberts
For the record, this doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can be fun.
- Take your characters and put them in an absurd situation, like commenting on a movie Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style.
- Change their positions, giving them a weird day in an alternate universe (corporate millionaire stuck in the body of a cute, fuzzy kitten? CHECK).
- Eschew story consistency, and instead have your big, bad, evil antagonist sing about making bacon pancakes while making bacon pancakes.
- You can get crazy. Swap their genders, or their continent, or have them meet aliens. Write your hardened lizard-alien commander waking up with an irresistible craving for Italian cannolis (whether or not cannolis have been invented yet and regardless if your world contains an Italy).
Have fun with it. Let yourself write nonsense that doesn’t have to be perfect. You’ll smile, your characters will show you sides of themselves you’ve never seen, and you’ll find your creative barrel refilled.
This is the scariest one of all: stop writing and walk away.
Whoa, there. Put the fire extinguisher down. I’m not asking you to stop writing for long. But there are times when the barrel is empty, and yet we’re so desperate to write at this moment that we keep scraping the bottom, bodily blocking the rain from getting in, and growing more desperate as our creativity comes up dry.
Stop writing and walk away.
There’s a principle in competitive sports called rest and recovery. It means that while training competitively, the human body requires a certain amount of not training competitively.
Most athletes know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance, but many still over train and feel guilty when they take a day off. The body repairs and strengthens itself in the time between workouts, and continuous training can actually weaken the strongest athletes.
Rest days are critical to sports performance[.]
— Elizabeth Quinn
Both your body and your mind need to rest. You have to rest. That means putting down the writing and walking away.
This one is scary because it feels like maybe you won’t be able to pick it up again. I promise you that isn’t true. You will write again, and when you do, you’ll find it’s easier than it was—that your writing muscles are strengthened.
Refill Your Creative Energy
- Read. Read everything.
- Reset. Choose a hobby that isn’t reading or writing.
- Relax. Let go of perfectionism and give yourself permission to suck.
- Rest. For at least a day, put your writing down and walk away.
Don’t be afraid. Everyone runs out of creative energy; everyone’s rain barrel needs refilling. If you take these steps, you will find yourself recovering from even the worst drought.
You can beat that writer’s block and that creative exhaustion.
Now go and refill your well.
How about you? Do you struggle with creative exhaustion? Let us know in the comments section.
Today, let’s practice relaxing. Your challenge is to put away the tension of perfectionism and simply write—to give yourself permission to suck.