I felt like my panel on what to write next, with John, Dave, and Ty, went pretty well on Saturday. The audience seemed engaged, and there was plenty to say. So much to say, in fact, that here I am with the next thing: I feel like the panel focused a fair amount on market considerations. I feel like it focused a fair amount on choosing among ideas that you already have.
And sometimes that’s great. Sometimes those ideas have been pushing and shoving to get out, and now it’s their turn. Pick one through some means: choosing a project that’s very different from what you’ve just written, following through on a prior success, consulting someone who knows a lot about the market, hurrah. Whatever works.
What about the other times? What do you do when you’re staring at your fingers and muttering, “What now?” Well, here are some ideas.
Rest. Seriously, rest and then rest and then rest some more. Rest is underrated in our culture. Lately I have heard people talking about how they don’t have time to rest, acting as though taking a break would be a failure. Rest is a human necessity, not a failure. One of our most prevalent cultural attitudes is that if you work 50 hours in a week, you will get 25% more done than if you work 40, but in fact this is only sometimes true. Quite often you will get 5% more done, or 1%, or if you’ve been doing it enough weeks in a row, 25% less. So when you finish a big project, at least consider that napping, playing with the dog, going for a walk, watching Netflix, are the things that are getting you to the point of being productive with the next big thing.
Change inputs. My friend Mary, a poet and fiction writer, talks about filling the word bucket. Read something different, read something very different, read a bunch of things on a theme. Read a bunch of things on a non-obvious theme. Especially if you’re trying to make political art: a lot of the best ideas for art get sparked by combinations of things that are not linearly related, directly next to each other. Reading about pigments or manatees or Tlingit art is not something that automatically says, “From this will come the great protest literature of our time, the cry my heart needs to make.” It gives your brain not only space to breathe but space to make nonlinear connections, to think thoughts that are relevant to the current situation but not identical to the thoughts everyone else is thinking.
Change media. Art museums. Online stuff. Wandering around looking at public art in cities smart enough to have it. Reading is not the only way to refill the bucket. Hell, change to something that isn’t a medium at all but a natural phenomenon. What kind of stories does this landscape produce. What do people who live here learn from it.
Don’t be afraid to be too small or too big. There is no wrong size of canvas. Short-shorts can teach discipline. Giant multi-volume series can too, but not in the same way. Distill your ideas into tiny vials of concentrate. Let them swoop out all over everything. You are not too ambitious to listen to. You are not too trifling to bother with. If it sounds like it might be nifty, give it a whirl, and then do something else if it doesn’t work. Do something else if it does.
Surround yourself with people who believe in the work. Gentle people. Fierce people. People who ask you dozens of intelligent questions. People who leave you the hell alone and make mashed yams and let you work. People who have read all the same things as you so they know what you’re doing here. People who have read totally different things than you so they can see your blind spots. People who want to get technical. People who see the big picture. Your big picture. Your shared big picture. Your own big picture, just yours.
Ask yourself specific questions about what you need to do this work, about what work you need to do. Sometimes you will end up with vague answers. Keep going. The specific is our friend.
Like the man said, say what you mean, bear witness, iterate. You can interrogate all three of those when you’re figuring out what to write. Is this what I mean? What do I mean? Maybe I need an entire short story to figure out what I mean. Maybe I won’t know at the end of a trilogy. What can I bear witness to? What do I need to bear witness to? What do I see in the world that needs to be framed, noticed, seen? And for the sake of all I love, iterate, iterate, iterate. The world is not what it was a week ago. You are not who you were a week ago. Think it through. Try again. Try tenderly, try roughly, change perspective, change form. Get parallax.
I can’t tell you whether you’ve got this. Maybe you don’t. Maybe I don’t. But trying is a virtue. Trying is what we have. Don’t ever apologize for putting the best of your mind and your heart and your body into trying to make something wonderful in the world that wasn’t there before.