Taste Your Food

By Jean Fortunet (Own work) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The last time I made a post here, I set myself a goal of writing a chunk of this every week. It was probably foolish to start right before the holidays and a vacation, but I figured I’d find time, that finding time would be part of the fun.

Best laid plans, right?

But the plans didn’t go awry for lack of time. I managed to sit down at the keyboard several times, even managed to get some words down. It felt like work, but it is work, right? It can’t always be fun. The words were no good, but it’s supposed to be a Shitty First Draft, right? You can’t polish something that doesn’t exist, right? I tried to push through, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Right?

You’re all nodding sagely. “Ah yes,” you’re saying. “Writer’s block.”

What does that mean, though?

All I know is that every time I sat with my fingers on the keys nothing came. I knew there had been something in there, once, but it’s like when you’re trying to get the last drop of water so you tilt the bottle all the way up and then wait, and nothing comes and you’re sitting there with an empty bottle against your lips feeling like an idiot (and looking like one too).

So I quit.

Just before Christmas, when I should have been gearing up to write every day and get my first 1500 words of a fun pulpy story up on the left pillar1, I quit.

And then I sat and thought about it. This is a project for Adventures in Storytelling, and goddammit I was going to learn something.

It’s like that water bottle — I was trying to pour but nothing was coming. I kept coming back to that. I didn’t feel like I was blocked, the way I always figured writer’s block would feel. I felt like there was nothing to block. I felt empty.

So, you’re thirsty and your water bottle is empty. What do you do? Assuming it’s possible, you fill it. And what do you fill a storyteller with?

Stories, of course.

I had been so focused on creating that I hadn’t given myself any time to consume. I had the foresight to set aside time to write during the brutal month of December, but I didn’t give myself time to read. My writing suffered for it.

I think — and I would be interested to hear if you agree — that the mind is like a machine. Obviously that’s physically true: we need calories to run our physical bits, brain included.2 But I think it’s creatively and spiritually true as well. We need creative fuel as much as we need physical fuel. Inspiration, muse, whatever you want to call it, if you don’t have anything to sustain the fire, the fire can’t keep burning. If you don’t eat, you can’t work.

Ira Glass talks about the taste gap3, and I think it’s very important and very true. It’s the idea that we started doing our creative work, whatever it is, because we loved other creative works, but that in the beginning we’re not skilled enough to create things as good as the things we love. Glass’s solution is to “do a huge volume of work”. He’s right, of course, but I think what he leaves out is that we should never stop consuming things that do have that special quality we wish our own work had. Things that are as good as our ambitions.

I walked away from the keyboard and picked up a book4. And I think it was good for me — it reminded me what a good story looks like, what a good story feels like. It illuminated some of my bad writing habits, habits that were solidifying every day that I consumed nothing but my own work. Most importantly, I remembered why I started.

I’m back now, or almost back. I’m rolling into my project5 and I plan to start posting there very soon6.

Now, I’m no expert. And I’ve heard of some writers who don’t read fiction while they write, or worse, don’t read fiction at all. That’s obviously never going to work for me (the mere idea hollows me out), but does it work for you? Am I off the mark here with this idea of creative fuel?

  1. Honestly, this is a fun project that I took on for fun. I know this post makes it sound not-fun, but read on.

  2. “writing while hungry” is a post for another day

  3. Please click through, if you haven’t heard this already. It’s worth hearing.

  4. This one was the first. It was really very good, a perfect vacation book.

  5. 2500 words into my first 1500 word segment, whoops. Guess I need to re-read the Spider Robinson story.

  6. ”Wait a second,” you’re saying. “Was this whole post actually just an excuse?”

5 thoughts on “Taste Your Food”

  1. Amanda, I want to let you know, I did click through, and I’m really glad I did. I’ve never heard of the taste-gap before, but it makes me feel a whole lot better about what I’m making. I know that feeling exactly! I’m looking at what I wrote, and I’m thinking, “In my head, this was so much better.” What happened between my mind and the page when my fingers were click-clacking away on the keyboard?

    I don’t think I could ever stop reading, especially reading what I like. I know it influences what I do, which can be tricky, but quite frankly I don’t care. A lot of my best ideas come from several different inspirations mashing together.

    Finally—shout out to Spider Robinson ;-} Sage advice for the ages…

  2. What this about Spider Robinson? 😉

    I’m in total agreement with the whole “you need to consume to create” thing. I do find it useful to mix up my habits sometimes, though. I’ve spent a lot of the last two years reading fantasy, for example, and although its been pretty great, I’m worried that such laser focus on one genre risks making it feel stale – which is especially troubling when I consider my role in writing a fantasy story.

    Two things to consider: first, inspiration doesn’t just come from what I’m reading. There’s real live human interaction (a rarity, but swear it happens sometimes!), dumb askreddit threads, movies, games, TV… I know there are only so many hours in a day for entertainment, but its fun to justify it all as research.

    Second, I actively try to shake things up. Sure, I’ve read a lot of fantasy over the last two years, but I’ve made a conscious effort to break up the wizards and armies of undead with some stuff that is so far outside my comfort zone I’m not even sure I could plot it on a map. Mostly the dreaded non-fiction… outside of schoolwork, prior to the completion of my master’s program four-ish years ago, I could count the number of non-fiction books I’d chosen to read on one hand, and I wouldn’t even need all my fingers. Turns out there are wildly entertaining books about things that *really happened* out there. Who knew? Getting passionate about that stuff can inform my work in interesting and unique ways, too!

    1. Second: nonfiction! Yes! I too started reading nonfiction in the last two years, despite having previously avoided any nonfiction that wasn’t specifically assigned to me (and even then…). I wonder if our schools do us a disservice by selling fiction as “fun” and nonfiction as “learning.” On the other hand, maybe this is something we need to learn for ourselves? Or it’s something we need to be pretty far outside of school to appreciate?

      Either way, I’d love some recommendations (is there an Adventures in Storytelling Recommends thread going on somewhere?).

      First: I hadn’t actually thought of human interaction “counting” towards an inspiration diet, but it totally does. In fact, it might be just as important as reading–experiencing real people reacting and existing in the world.

      1. Surprisingly, I haven’t written a contrarian article about how “write what you know” is overly simple or reductive advice yet, but that might be because I’m actually pretty okay with this old bit of writing advice. We’ve all seen somebody on the subway sketching passengers (hell, there’s a whole subway sketch exhibit thing in the trains of Toronto right now!), writers can totally do the same thing. Microfiction is a bit of a dumb word, but writing short vignettes that fictionalise (or just accurately capture) an true event can be pretty fun, and are probably a great exercise for writers. Actually, let me just take this opportunity to plug journaling. Keep a diary, whether you write or not. Sometimes you’re surprised by what comes out, and it can be really helpful when you’re creating. There’s an article in that, I’m sure.

      2. “Adventures in Storytelling Recommends”—that’s a great idea! Let me ponder this, Amanda. I’ve wanted to read more non-fic myself, but know it will have to be the best of the best (or I just won’t be able to commit my attention; I know how my brain works).

        I’ll second the “keep a journal” advice from James. He talked me into it, and within a couple of days of starting I was able to use it to parse through my thoughts and figure out my emotions (you know, what I was feeling and more importantly why). Highly recommend it!

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