Charting Your Creative Doldrums


Tags Creativity

One thing I’ve learned is that creative highs and lows are difficult to control. I’m not even sure they can be controlled. Maybe for some people, but not for me.

I’ve concluded vacillating from the high (“This project is great!”) to the low (“This is the worst thing ever and I should quit now.”) is normal for people with really active creative minds. I’ve established my creative mood will always be in flux and there isn’t much to do but ride it out and keep working.

Keep writing, coding, drawing, whatever. Just keep doing it. It’s harder said than done, but I’ve accepted my high-energy, high-output periods have to be paid for in some way, and apparently this is how my brain chooses to pay for it–by systematically destroying every shred of confidence I have in my work.

One thing that helps me more than anything is to chart my creative mood. Including the lows. Especially the lows. Because when you’re in a slump, it often feels like you’ve been that way forever. I always underestimate my productivity after the fact. It’s extraordinarily helpful to be able to look at my journal or spreadsheet and realize only a week ago I was at the high end of the scale and things were going well. This is one of the reasons why word tracking is so important for serious writers (I define “serious writer” as someone who is actively learning, honing their craft, and seeking to improve. You have to train your body as well as your mind.). Our brains play tricks; it’s good to look back and see how much we’ve accomplished.

If I could go back a couple of decades and give Younger Me some advice, it would simply be that creative mood swings don’t go away and all you can do is be aware of the process and understand how to push back productively. Your work isn’t terrible. You shouldn’t give up. You’re just in the low part of the cycle. It sucks, but surround yourself with good things–well-written stories, inspiring games, great films–and keep doing what you’re doing.

I cannot understate how important a word count spreadsheet is. A writing journal or notes are important, because a spreadsheet full of numbers only reports your output and doesn’t reflect the state of mind, but it is essential that you know how much you are producing and that you distinguish between fiction, journaling, etc. The reason for this is two-fold.

  1. Producing actual words is the hard part. Sometimes writers convince themselves they’ve done work by drafting an outline or dabbling in world-building or skim-editing. Work is words–good, quality words. You may have spent untold hours preparing for those words with research, outlines, and brainstorming, but the resulting words are the actual concrete work.
  2. You must understand your output to know how to push yourself and set proper goals. I know that I am capable of producing 1,000 new words of fiction a day, and that I can produce 500 new words of fiction indefinitely without burning out. When I am working, the output can vary from 200 to 2,000 a day, but if I’m working well it tends to average at 1,000 words a day. By understanding this I am able to set up an effective writing program, and that is essential for any long-term project.