Monday, 7 December 2015

That Elusive Creative Spark (Sue Jeffrey)

Amber, my own petulant cat,
and resident 'mews'.
I recently read through a wonderful series of mystery/crime thrillers by Canadian author, Louise Penny. Her Chief Inspector Gamache books are unusual in that the main character isn’t full of angst. He doesn’t drink to excess, smoke or sabotage every relationship he comes across. In fact he’s well adjusted, loves his wife and recites poetry, although this doesn’t stop his whole world from collapsing on occasion. The books are fabulous. But I digress.
I read three of the series while scrambling to complete NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) the goal of which is to write 50 000 words in one month. Now Nano (as it’s affectionately called) doesn't tend to allow time for reading. Usually the pile of books beside the bed, or in my case the line up on my Kindle, grows or at least remains static, as every ounce of energy is pressed into writing copious amounts of prose. 
But … I was stuck.
I’d spent the lead-up to Nano on another project. I had a vague idea in mind and thought I’d try out the pantser rather then the plotter approach. I began okay. I wrote a few thousand words but then they dried up. I felt as if I was writing rubbish and I hated it. I tried starting in a different point of the narrative. Yes, I could write pretty prose but my sense of story had deserted me. I panicked and jumped into another project and it flowed for a few thousand words but again my inspiration vanished. Throw in a flare of a chronic illness and I was not a happy writer.
My muse had deserted me – rotten thing – just when I needed it most.
Now I don’t personally think that The Muses, in the classical form of nine Greek goddesses, inspire the arts and sciences. As a Christian I believe that my ultimate muse is the Holy Spirit and he never leaves me. But for whatever reason my creative spark had been extinguished and I couldn’t figure out how to reignite the pilot light.
Now each time I’ve attempted Nano, it’s been more about my writing process than completing a usable novel in the time period. I’ve learned a lot about what helps and hinders my creative process. This time was no exception.
One friend suggested that I should think of my muse as a petulant cat. You can’t make a cat do anything. You have to cajole them and rub them around the ears and tickle their tummy. Then they might comply. So I tried to relax, put my feet up, do a bit of reading, which happened to include Louise Penny’s, The Long Way Home.
Essentially the plot follows a search for an artist, Peter Morrow, who is missing. As the detectives, Peter’s wife, and some friends look for him it becomes apparent that he has been on a quest in search of his muse, the creative spark that will set his work apart.
I won’t tell you the ending as it would spoil it and I highly recommend you read the whole series from the beginning as knowing the people (um, I mean the characters) well adds depth to the story. But the book made me think about my creative process. Peter was searching for a way out of his stuck-ness and essentially that involved deconstructing his perfectionist technique and finding the heart and emotion in his work.
I certainly struggle with perfectionism in my writing. I have an overactive inner editor who wants me to ‘get it right’ or not do it at all. I find it difficult to embrace the freedom that allows me to write a chaotic, messy first draft. But I believe it’s important to find that freedom. In fact I think it’s mandatory if our writing is to have the creative flair that sets it apart from a thousand other well-written stories.
This, for me, is the value of NaNoWriMo. You can try things you wouldn't normally try. 
In the midst of my stuck-ness I found that I had 8000 words to write and two days to go. I thought it was impossible.
‘Can’t do it,’ the inner editor said. ‘Just watch the cricket and be done with it.’
But something happened. I locked the fiend in a soundproofed cage and wrote. Even if I thought it was rubbish, I wrote. The result was a new approach to a story and a much more original main character. And I made the words easily. Whodathunk?
NaNoWriMo might not be your thing but I’d like to know how you tame your inner editor. What strategies do you use to silence her/him when writing a first draft? How do you ignite that elusive creative spark?

Sue Jeffrey was born in Scotland but moved to Brisbane, Australia with her family when she was just a wee lass. After a childhood spent reading, drawing and accumulating stray animals, Sue studied veterinary science and later moved to Adelaide where she worked as both a vet and a pastor. After a sojourn of several years in the Australian Capital Territory, Sue returned to Adelaide with two dogs, a very nice husband, and a deep desire to write. Sue has a MA in creative writing and her short stories and poems have appeared in several anthologies including Tales of the Upper Room, and Something in the Blood: Vampire Stories With a Christian Bite. Her e-book Ruthless The Killer: A Short Story is available on Sue also paints animal portraits.


  1. Great post Sue - Well done for persevering to the end - and finding that petulant ca...ah creative spark :) I think I'll have to check out Louise Perry detective series.

    I'm good at compartmentalising - so I've learnt to menatally shut the door on my internal editor with the promise that she can have a look later :) Also, I find writing fast helps - especially if I put the timer on (for half an hour or an hour) because then I'm in a race against the clock. It's amazing how the words can begin to flow. But having a rough plan - and also plenty of time to mull over my plots and character & to letting them play it out in my head - all helps. (I sometimes 'write' my stories several times in my head and then usually have to cut out bits as a ongoing saga can have more in it than a novel. Yet it all helps with understanding my characters and their backstory.)

    1. Thanks, Jeanette. Yes I think the imposed nano deadline can have both a positive and negative effect on our creativity. I agree that good planning and mulling helps ��. And... I hope you do enjoy the Louise Penny books. The characters are so well drawn.

  2. Hi Sue,
    I love the petulant cat analogy. Very apt, since it's so hard to force them to do anything at all.
    I just shut my door on the creative chamber while I'm writing, maybe even with a 'Shut Up' or 'Go away, you'll have your turn later.' I've found it's the only way to get anything done.

    1. Yes. Maybe, using the animal analogy, we give it set feeding times. Train it to go away and sleep in the sun until it's time to feed on our chaotic but inspired prose :)

  3. Great post, Sue. Sorry, can't say that I have sucessfully tamed the fiendish inner editor, via NaNo or anything else. And 7 days out of NaNo I cant bring myself to take the next step to finishing the novel, either. Might need a desert island!

  4. One writer I know personified her inner editor into a sarcastic if well-meaning (and slightly eccentric) aunt. She actually wrote a piece with interspersions by aunt which was hilarious. I'd say send your inner critic to the desert (or tropical) island with assurances that you do love her, she is very vital but she is so overworked, she really does need a short break. Never know - might just work.

    (PS The irony that I just deleted my post because of the atrocious typos is not lost on me lol)

  5. Hehe. I call mine Barbara. Not because the Barbaras in my life are critical but that's the name that came to me when someone suggested I should name my inner critic. She is very useful to have around but she needs to know her boundaries.

  6. Very interesting post Sue - and well done for writing despite your inner editor trying to sabotage your efforts. I am blessed in that I don't usually get bothered by that inner editor when writing my first draft. I have to add though that writing a first draft is hard work - especially if I write fiction which is not my 'thing'.

    I do love editing and refining my work so I'm a pretty contented writer once that first draft is done and dusted. :)

  7. Great post Sue. Good on you for silencing that inner editor and pushing through. When I get stuck at a particular point, I sometimes start at a different spot (e.g. an easier scene) and work my way back. The only problem is that if you do that all the time, you're left with all the hard bits!! The other thing I do is just try something different - write a poem, blog, devotion, short story or even do a creative writing exercise. Sometimes that just gets the creative juices flowing again and I can get back to my main project. And I'll check out those books you mentioned. Thanks for sharing.