[Remember, keep sending in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. Warning: I will certainly make decades-old pop culture references as if I genuinely believe they are fresh to death.]
Let me just thank you upfront for the years of encouragement, guidance, and entertainment I've gotten out of your website/Facebook page. I don't believe in muses, but you're the closest thing I've seen to one in real life. So here's my question:
For the past five years, I've been a semi-professional playwright, which, in my case, means getting plays produced by professional theaters and getting paid, but mainly living off the money from writing classes I teach part time. I write every day. I'm pretty sure I've hit 10,000 hours by now. I don't know if I'll ever get to a point where I can pay my bills with writing and I don't care; the act is its own reward, or so I've told myself for a long time now. But in the past year, I've started to feel less and less enjoyment in what I'm doing. Moments of intellectual or emotional stimulation are becoming increasingly rare. I seldom excite myself, and I flat-out cannot make myself laugh anymore (which is unenviable when your writing typically falls into the category of comedy). I've always been willing to slog through the more laborious parts of the process for these occasional moments of joy they yield, but I feel like I'm experiencing those moments far less than I used to. In particular, the last play I wrote was just a total grind. Audiences and critics seemed to enjoy it, but I didn't, and now I'm wondering what the fuck is wrong with me? Am I an addict who has overused his drug to the point of total desensitization? Am I in a marriage that's lost its spark? Is this just temporary burnout, or will it pass? There's a voice in my head that says "if you don't enjoy writing, no one's making you keep going. You could try your hand at one of the billion other, less difficult, ways to live." But if I just didn't have the passion for it, how did I get this far in the first place? I have to believe there's some way to restore whatever it is I've lost here, but I don't know what that is. Any ideas?
Me? A muse? That is SPECTACULAR! I've always wanted to be a muse. Well, minus having Zeus for a father, of course. THAT sounds like a special kind of hell. But I never actually talked to my father, so that part doesn't really have to change. And I could probably hook up way more action if I were technically a demigod.
This has all gone so very wrong.
Image: Muse (the band).
I can really sympathize with the "magic" being gone. People who love writing when the inspiration strikes and stop writing when it goes away may not ever get much published, be famous, make money, etc, but they do get to live in a magical land of unicorn rainbow jizz where they believe it will feel like that forever. For those of us pulling down a paycheck, it's work. And we can love our jobs, but some days we'd rather be doing almost anything else.
Now there's part of me that's always going to be very Kung Fu Master Po about this because no one can tell you how you feel, Grasshopper. But since you're writing me, I'm guessing there's some conflict and confusion and I can at least offer you some signposts to guide you on your own journey.
Drugs and marriage might be better metaphors than you intended, although drugs is going to be making me do my best super stretchy yoga poses by the end, as you'll see. Both suggest that you start out "high" or in the throes of "new energy," but after a while, writing can begin to feel normal and comfortable, even banal at times, and may not give you the exhilaration that it did at first. Oh, you still need it to feel normal and will go into "withdrawal" without it, but some days can begin to feel like work. Worth it maybe, but still work. You settle into a more comfortable groove. You have moments but they are far apart and sometimes require more emotional labor to get there than just showing up or sending a nude selfie of your O face.
What to do when you've lost that loving feeling for writing, though? Well...honestly it's not that much different than the marriage gone stale.
So let's just fucking do this thing ALL THE WAY. Let's make it weird.
I've looked up half a dozen or so real marriage articles, created a composite list of a few different actual heteropatriarchal, gender essentialist and not a little bit sexist listicles to come up with 15 Ways to Spice Up Your
- Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder- Unlike a real marriage, if you "take a break" that isn't code for one of you is TOTALLY cheating, and you're not ready to admit how over things are yet. Have you tried taking some time off? Maybe a week or more? Do you miss it when it's gone or is it a sick relief? If you miss it think hard about WHAT has become a grind about your current writing. Maybe it's the deadlines and not the writing itself. Or the content. Or responsibility.
- Maintain a Family Calendar- You and your writing have a relationship that is going to work best when everything else is taken care of. If you're cramming it in because of a feeling of obligation, it's going to feel like an obligation.
- Make Little Gestures- Add things into your writing that really make it feel special. If it doesn't make you laugh, think about what does and try adding that or something like it to your writing.
- Do Unexpected Things- Have you tried writing something that wasn't what was on the agenda? Maybe a short story or a poem. Try writing for yourself instead of your work. Just do some free writing for fun. Journal. Start a blog. But still put 110% into it.
- Take a Snow (or Rain) Day- Spend a day when you would normally write doing something else, at the very least not your normal work writing. Break out from your chore-like routine. You may even find by relaxing, you find some new ideas.
- Adjust Your Mindset. Make Sex a Priority in Your Mindset- Uh.....well....um. Okay, DON'T have sex with your writing (unless that's your thing––I don't want to kink-shame). Um....but what you can do is to....uh....forget about everything else and just write one scene that's been in your mind. Write the one moment you're dying to write. Learn to kind of make love to the words again. Yeah, that's the ticket.
- Take a Week Without the Kids- What kind of privileged ass fuckery is....? Who gets to actually DO this? Okay, okay. I'm cool. I can make this work. By "kids," of course, we mean all the obligations that have come out of your love of writing that make it more obligationy and less running-through-the-fields-in-slow-motion-towards-each-other-y. Try taking a break from those obligations. In your case, Brendon, maybe stop writing plays for a week or so.
- Create Intimate Moments- A lot of our feeling of the magic being gone isn't because anything is objectively different, and it's not because (like drugs) we actually develop a physical tolerance. It's because we start taking the good shit for granted. ("Oh ho hum. I wrote for two hours straight. Big whooptie dealio.") Take a moment when you're on a tear and see if you really feel dead inside or if you feel pretty darn good and you've just gotten used to how that feels.
- Try Hotel Sex- Uh......oh no wait, I got this. YES! A change of scene is really good especially if you are trying to break your routine. Go someplace new. You might even try pounding out some love in public if you're feeling daring. Um.....anywho. "Hotel" might be a metaphor for a coffee shop, library, just out on a park bench, or any change of pace or scenery, but the change could do you good.
- Never Stop Courting Each Other- You can probably make words do what you want them to pretty easily without much effort. But give writing some effort. Bring your A game. Give it the ol razzle-dazzle. Try extra hard, and when you really fucking NAIL it (uh...your wordsmithing, I mean), you will probably feel some of that old energy come back.
- Focus on the Rights, Not the Wrongs- Take a moment and think about the good things writing is providing you. Sometimes reframing is just as easy as realizing what you've got BEFORE they pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
- Try a new position- Uh.....maybe it might help if you wrote in a new chair or standing (or sitting if you normally stand) or in bed. Or doggystyle where you're pulling your writing's hair and giving it that smack in the ass that sends it right over the edge...um....*clears throat.* Or on an exercise ball! Or rather than just the position of your body, try a new position of writing. What would your play be like from someone else's perspective? What's something you haven't written about before? If you don't need the money, maybe try something completely different, like writing a novel.
- Try Something New- Remember the end of The Nightmare Before Christmas when Jack has all these new ideas for how to be scary because of having experienced Christmas. He was in this shitty rut and then found out that all he really needed was to see snow or some shit. Well, without seeming like I'm endorsing incredibly harmful appropriation of another culture and the inevitable fallout and redemption arc, that's noooooooot a bad idea. Get out of your head. Completely fuck your routine for a bit. Go see someone else's funny play. Watch some theater from another culture completely. Watch some films. Check out some other art. Go freshen up the landscape of your brain with some new fodder for ideas. Preferably while on a break. ("What's this? What's this? This blogger's making jokes! What's this? He's entertaining folks. What's this? I can't believe my eyes he's kind of pervy. Wake up, me. My inspiration stokes. What's this?")
- Remain on the Same Team- Erm....so if you are working AGAINST your writing, you're going to feel that in a loss of catharsis, pleasure, and joy. Take a moment to realize that your writing is only a thing you should do if you want to do it. It's not going to make 99.999% of us rich or famous. The only reason most of us do it is because even the worst days writing are better than the best days without. If writing no longer makes you happy, you shouldn't struggle against that. (But be brutally honest with yourself about getting nothing from it because there are always going to be tough periods.) There's something called The Sunk Cost fallacy––where you don't give up on something because of how much you've already put in. (Like how you totally won't hang up on customer service, even after three hours of a robot telling you how important your call is.) Maybe you shouldn't be writing so much, so often, for money, or possibly at all for a while, or possibly at all permanently. Here's the beauty of it: unlike most people with relationships, you decide your level of involvement and you can try doing it less or taking a break without having to go ride-or-die. In relationships, the other person usually has a few opinions about such things. But it's really okay not to write.
- Give It a Full Body Sensual Massage With a Happy Ending- I can't. I'm sorry. I can't do this one. Maybe I could have worked with just the "happy ending" for fiction, but come ON! COME OOOON!!!!
Brendon, I know that losing the spark is hard, and I've slogged for longer periods than one year, but I didn't doubt that it would come roaring back, and it seems like you do. So it's kind of hard to tell someone else for sure if they should stick with it or maybe take a break....or a slowdown.....or shift gears to something more fun. If I knew more details about what's going on in your life and what writing isn't fulfilling, I could maybe make better armchair pop-psyche recommendations, but in your case I think just doing some real soul searching and keeping in mind that writing absolutely IS like a relationship that you can take for granted and just sort of exist in (rather than appreciating and enjoying) may help your decisions going forth––or not––to at least be deliberate and considered.
And here's the best part Brendon. Doing this with drugs would be ill-advised. And doing it with a relationship would be selfish, manipulative, and a little bit abusive if a partner ever put up with it at all. But with writing...you can leave it, discover you miss it, and come trotting back. Perhaps you'll be a little rusty with your craft, if you've taken months or years off, but you can blow the cobwebs off and get back the sparkle. The point is, writing isn't a person who will go marry and have kids with someone else if you reject it. It'll be RIGHT. THERE. WAITING. FOR. YOU.
Just where you left it.