If you’re a creative writer looking to feel inspired and nurture your creativity, you’ll find all kinds of advice out there, with Write every day at the top of the list. A close second is Read voraciously, within your own genre and outside it.
The idea is that when you sit down to work on your manuscript, your imagination has been fed by all that reading, primed by that daily writing practice. We hope to reach a state of mind where we’re dreaming the scene, where images, dialogues, entire scenes come effortlessly. An altered state of consciousness. Flow.
But sometimes you just feel drained. Reading seems like a chore, and writing every day is like squeezing blood from a stone.
How do you achieve flow when the well has run dry?
I was at that point this past summer, and here are some things that helped me.
What I especially love about these is that they don’t involve reading and writing. They engage your senses—touch, hearing, taste, sight—and feed you as an artist.
1. Light Up
I’m talking about candles. What did you think I meant?
I got out of the habit of using candles after we started adopting cats, terrified that one would get too close to a flame and singe her whiskers. Finally I said to myself, “Self, there are tall glass candleholders. There are tiny tea lights that can sit way at the bottom, well beyond a cat’s reach. You can do this.”
Sit quietly for a few minutes with the flame, that small glowing thing that needs oxygen, that converts fuel to energy, just like you do. No need to stare at it. It draws your attention without effort, leaving you both relaxed and focused—basically the definition of what it feels like to be in flow.
If possible, keep the lit candle near you while you write.
This doesn’t have to be expensive. A wide-mouthed canning jar will do fine, and you can buy a metal thingy to clip on the side and hold a tea light for under three dollars.
2. Look, Don’t Think
My next suggestion: art books, or any heavily illustrated book with images that you enjoy.
Remember, we’re not reading. Don’t read the text, no matter how interesting, at least not when you’re just trying to fill the well.
Turn off your critical mind, the part that creates a running commentary. Page through the book, taking in the images. Just be there, in the presence of a different kind of art than what you’re creating with words on a page.
Recently I did this with Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, from a truly memorable exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After that, I delved into an Edward Gorey compilation my cousin Gwen sent me.
The images don’t have to relate to what you’re writing. The experience doesn’t have to result in a specific piece of writing inspired by an image (although that can easily happen).
Granted, exhibition catalogs are pricey. But library books, and library cards, are free. I guarantee you there are art books on the shelves at your local library, and they can acquire others for you through interlibrary loan.
3. Put It Together
Next up: jigsaw puzzles.
Okay, hear me out.
There’s something amazingly comforting in knowing that hundreds of disparate pieces will fit together into a coherent whole.
Yes, it’s hard. Where’s the fun in doing something easy?
But it’s another surefire way to get into the flow. When you settle into a puzzle, you’re both relaxed and focused (remember how you felt with the candle?). Time flies by. You’ll get to a stage where you reach out and grab a piece that’s in your peripheral vision and without looking too closely, put it exactly where it belongs. That’s because you had seen that piece already and you understood how it related to the others without any conscious thought.
And the next time you sit down to write, things that you couldn’t figure out before—a plot development, a character’s next action—are suddenly clear. Your subconscious was working on them back at the puzzle table.
A typical price of a 1,000-piece puzzle is $18 or $20. But book sales at libraries often include inexpensive ones that patrons have donated; also you can exchange with other puzzle lovers. Fun fact: if people know you like puzzles, they also give them to you as gifts.
4. Close Your Eyes and Listen
Another thing I recommend is listening to fairy tales in audiobook format.
This is less like reading and more like absorbing. Don’t try to take notes (you can go back later and do that, with audio or text). Don’t try to analyze what you’re hearing. Just let the stories wash over you, one after another.
So then, why fairy tales? Why not just any great book in audio format?
For one thing, tales were meant to be told aloud. For another, it’s fun to revel in the outlandish coincidences, gloriously enigmatic characters, and colorful turns of phrase (“It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so”).
In fairy tales, it’s all off-kilter and yet exactly right.
And then there’s the simple pleasure of being told a darn good story.
You can download audiobooks for free from your library’s website, and find great discounts from audiobook publishers. I bought the entire compilation of Grimms’ fairy tales on Audible for five dollars, and 100 Russian Folktales for $4.90.
5. Play the Music of the Cosmos
“All you have to do,” my friend Donna said, “is search for the phrase ‘healing music’ on YouTube. Trust me.”
I picked one of the first items that came up, mostly because it lasts six hours and features a big purple-and-pink lotus. The music meandered around, gentle and unobtrusive, with no melody and no beat. Instead of being annoying, it was incredibly relaxing and energizing at the same time.
Turns out, music tuned at the frequency of 432 hz is … well, admittedly I don’t understand the theory behind it. It’s in tune with the earth, somehow.
All I know is, when it’s playing quietly in the background, somehow my brain works better.
Really, Rosalie? Cosmic music? What’s next, incense and crystals?
Glad you asked.
6. Get Down to Earth
I’m an earth sign. I love stones in their natural state. Small chunks of rose quartz, moonstone, tumbled ruby—all kinds of unfinished crystals have a home on my bookshelves.
Don’t worry about figuring out which stone has which properties. There are endless interpretations out there. Pick something that resonates with you on whatever level. If you think it’s pretty, that’s reason enough. Take it home and set it next to you, alongside the candle and whatever device is playing the healing music.
I learned the rudiments of jewelry making so I could order the stones I like in bead form and make simple bracelets. One of the first ones I made was of small polished chips of black obsidian, on three intertwined strands.
For me, a black stone means the protective, warm embrace of our mother Earth. It also stands for that place you go when you’re dreaming the scene, when you’re in the flow. It stands for the mystery.
When I put on that triple-stranded obsidian bracelet, it’s like magic. The words come, the scenes come, the pieces of the story fall into place.
Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy if you like. What matters to me is, it works.
You can find rough crystals and simple gemstone bracelets in New Age-y stores, at arts fairs and farmers’ markets, or go to Etsy and search for “raw emerald crystals,” “rose quartz bracelet,” etc. You think emeralds are expensive? Here are half-inch unpolished pieces for $1.30, and look how pretty they are.
7. Give Yourself a Treat
Dark chocolate is brain food. That’s just science.
Last year my friend Alice sent me a gift of chocolate-covered dried cherries from a company called Chukar Cherries, and now I’m addicted. Just my luck, they’re on the other side of the country from me, and the only time shipping costs are reasonable is winter. Did I mention winter is my favorite season?
Admittedly, these are pricey. You can find less expensive chocolates. You could be admirably healthy and have a sliced apple or some dried cranberries.
The point is that you’ll associate your writing time with something sweet and enjoyable—something to look forward to.
Put a few chocolates in a little dish close to hand, near your candle, your phone playing healing music, your gemstones. Now open up your journal or your laptop or whatever random scrap of paper floats your way—and write!
Rosalie Morales Kearns, a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, is the author of the novel Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis, 2017), about a female Roman Catholic priest in a slightly alternate near-future. She’s also the author of the magic-realist story collection Virgins & Tricksters (Aqueous, 2012) and the founder of Shade Mountain Press.