Long before COVID-19 brought its new and grim reality, I was already struggling with what it meant to be a writer who wasn’t writing. So maybe that’s why I haven’t experienced the kind of acute anxiety many of my fellow creators are experiencing now. For the majority of the past year and a half, I have been picking away at a manuscript, but not feeling as if I’ve been making any sort of true progress. What was strange was that I didn’t feel much (if any) distress about it. I could easily go weeks without looking at the story. When I did open the file, while I pretty much liked what I had written so far, knew the rough shape of where the story needed to go, believed in the story, I had absolutely no urgency to do the work to get it there.
In the seventeen years since I started writing my first novel, I never anticipated there would come a time where I wouldn’t be upset by not being able to write. (That’s quite the convoluted sentence!) But here I am. Not writing.
And because I have to worry about something, I am concerned that I’m not concerned. Does that mean I’m fine with never writing a story again? Have I run out of stories to tell? Am I really depressed but not aware of it? Does my subconscious mind think this story is worthless?
When I examine those questions, the answers are no, no, no, and no. But for right now, my creativity is taking me down different paths and that’s okay.
What I’ve come to understand is that being a writer is only a small part of being a creative soul. Words may be the main way I express myself, but they are only one way. I am also a potter, a gardener, a fiber artist, and a cook. Each of these fulfills a need in my life both to create and to nurture. I get the same pleasure from a friend using a bowl I’ve thrown that I do harvesting and turning peaches into jars of peach butter, knitting a sweater for my husband, or making a meal for a neighbor that I get from a good review or a letter from a reader.
The difference is that I’ve monetized my writing. And turning a creative pursuit into a business changes things.
After finishing the fifth and final book of my Halcyone Space series, I hit a wall. I had been working continuously telling these stories for over five years and my sense of wellbeing and creative self-worth became conflated with their commercial success. That metric can all too easily be a never-fulfilled hunger. No matter how many books you sell, there is always someone selling better, winning awards, getting rave reviews, and more.
I think it took me until now to fully understand how much my process and my expectations had changed when I shifted from writing stories to being an author. The past year and a half has taught me that I need to practice creativity without expectation of the outcome. Or rather, to let the process guide me in at least some kind of creative exploration. Which has led me to focus on pottery, knitting and crocheting, canning jams, and making bread.
I give away far more pottery than I sell. I rarely take commissions and only if the specific commission is something I want to challenge myself to learn. If I make enough money to defray some of my kiln firing costs, that’s great. But I have no desire to set myself up as a production potter. It’s the same with my homemade jams. I enjoy giving them to people. To scale up to the point of a viable business would take the joy out of something that is inordinately time consuming and operates on impossible margins. And no one in their right mind would pay me enough to make it worth my time and materials cost to knit or crochet a bespoke sweater. Nor would I want to.
Living in a society so intensely focused on profit makes pursuing a creative life difficult. Not only are the basics of providing oneself and loved ones food, shelter, and clothing a challenge, but creative work is terribly undervalued. Add to that the external pressures of marketing oneself and one’s output for mere pennies in return. Add to that, a global crisis, and it’s no wonder so many of us are struggling.
But here’s the thing: we crave beauty in our lives. We need stories and music and art as much as we need anything else. Humans have been hungry for creativity since there have been humans. (We have been decorating our everyday use items since forever – just do an internet search for ancient Greek pottery.)
The tension between what we think we value and what we truly value is at the heart of our society’s struggles.
And while I can’t change the external world, I can focus on my personal choices. I suspect my subconscious knew I needed to step away from the work of writing for a little while. This hiatus is a way to reconfigure my internal sense of worth and the value of what I create. Until I can recapture with my writing the same joy I get turning a lump of wet clay into a finished piece of ware, this story will remain unformed.
In the meanwhile, I am concentrating on finding wonder in the small moments. And baking a lot of bread.
I hope you are all well, safe, and healthy. And that you hold to the creative activities that add beauty to your days.
What other creative outlets to you explore when you’re not writing? What do you truly value about the creative process?
About Lisa Janice Cohen
LJ Cohen is a Boston area novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, LJ now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. Her most recent book, Dreadnought and Shuttle, (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space) represents her sixth published novel. Derelict, the first novel in the series, was chosen as a Library Journal Self-e Select title and book of the year in 2016. LJ is active in IPNE (The Independent Publishers of New England), SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), and Broad Universe and blogs about publishing, general geekery, and other ephemera on her website.