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Overcoming Creative Chaos

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The start of a story

This summer, I started writing a new novel, a process that is always equal parts exciting and terrifying. The idea of writing a new book fills me with anticipation. My imagination starts asking, ‘what if?’ and I begin scribbling notes on the backs of envelopes and scratch paper and on my shiny new yellow legal pad. My brain leaps and swirls from idea to even bigger idea and I run along behind trying to capture them before they flit away again.

But after a while, the carefree possibility stage winds down as I gradually run out of story ideas. Then I get antsy to start putting words on the page.

That’s when the anxiety kicks in. I look around at the piles of notes and bits of dialogue and character sketches and I get overwhelmed. It’s complete chaos. How on earth will a cohesive story emerge from this mess?

The start of a story

The start of a story

To quiet the anxiety, I start entering things into the computer, but that brings more good news/bad news.

Because to conquer the chaos, I have to make decisions. Lots of decisions.

Which scenes goes where? If I follow this plot trail, I can’t go down this other one. Which one should I choose?

And so I find myself paralyzed by indecision, overwhelmed by the utter chaos of the creative process.

There is a knot in my belly and my hands sometimes shake, but I’ve finally learned that if I sit still long enough, I will find what I’m looking for.

Not neatly typed up in A-Z format, unfortunately, but a piece at a time. A paragraph, a scene at a time.

Stephen King has said, “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

I believe the Great Creator gives us those stories to uncover, but it’s our job to do the work of bringing them into the light.

It takes time.

And it requires sitting with the chaos. Letting all that scary uncertainty swirl around in our brain until slowly, slowly clarity emerges.

If you’re struggling with that creative chaos today, I encourage you to sit with it. To simply be still and let it churn for a while. As you sit and listen, the next step will slowly emerge.

Don’t just listen with your brain; pay attention to your belly, too. Your gut will send a warning if you’re headed in the wrong direction. But unless we sit still, we can’t hear.

I don’t know that I’ll ever completely embrace this process, but I’m learning to sit with creative chaos. And I’m learning to listen.

How do you overcome creative chaos?

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    The Conversation

  1. I find that when I find myself in creative chaos and indecision, the best thing for me to do is to wait for a bit. If I step away from the computer (or my paper and pencil) and do something else, my mind will work on the problem even while I do something else. When I come back to the chaos, my choices often become clearly.

  2. Jan Jackson says:

    Don’t laugh at me, but I MUST have a title before I can start to write. The other thing you need to know about me is that my Grandma Nettie McMicken was an English teacher with a Master’s Degree. Every paper I ever wrote was shredded and covered in red ink. You know what’s coming next, right? I MUST have an outline of some kind. It works for me. Doesn’t have to be a synopsis, but I like to have an idea of where the story is going. And yes, it will change. I start with a premise (thank you to Deb Dixon and GMC) and then one thing leads to another. I agree that you have to let the story “marinate”. The shower works well for me if I’m stuck somewhere. I get my best ideas there. Write on, Connie!

    • Connie Mann says:

      I’m so glad you know exactly what works for you, Jan! That’s half the battle, isn’t it? And letting the creative soup simmer is essential, if frustrating, at least for me. I’m a big believer in ‘creative napping,’ though. 🙂

  3. debianne says:

    Did you sneak in and peek at my craft room? I think there are no less than 5 projects laid out in various stages of completion!
    Keep listening…

  4. Oh, Connie, this sounds very familiar! When I’m stuck, I go for a drive. For some reason, things become clear when I’m thinking and driving (not in town, though. No one can think then LOL. I drive in the country.) Perhaps it’s my mind knowing I can’t possibly take notes at the time.

    • Connie Mann says:

      Love that idea, Barbara! I think you’re right. Often, we get the answers we need when we’re physically doing something else and our mind can puzzle it out in its own time.

  5. Connie — I agree with you. It takes a while. I look at writing books the way I approach making soup or stew. I get all the ingredients together (meats, veggies, etc — characters, ideas and setting)
    start preparing them (chopping — creating character sketches and the semblance of a plot)
    spice it up (challenges, plot twists)
    and then let it simmer in my head.
    Somehow it all just seems to blend together eventually, even if some soups take more care. Finally I find I have a completed book on my hands. Sometimes it takes longer and sometimes it comes together quickly. (oh, and sometimes I burn it and have to throw it all out)

    • Connie Mann says:

      What a great analogy, Rebecca! I love making soups and stews in my crock pot–though I wish they’d cook at the speed of a microwave. There’s that pesky waiting, again…

  6. Great advice, Connie. I completely agree. I’ve learned that when I’m overwhelmed, whether it be the entire book or just where to go next, that if I force myself not to write, just let it stew around in my brain for a few days, the answers usually reveal themselves.

  7. Great blog post! I’m in the chaos zone right now. I’m working on Chapter Ten of a new novel and realized I got off the main plot road and I’m either on a dirt road or in a ditch. I went to my woodworking shop to varnish some wood for a project and just “think” the storyline forward while I do a mundane chore. I’m so glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has this problem.

    • Connie Mann says:

      Judy, you are NOT alone, by any means! I think we all struggle with this at one time or another in every project. I like your approach! Here’s hoping the answer turns up soon!

  8. Marlow says:

    Thanks Connie, as writing is such an isolating task we forget that others struggle with the same problems and fears. I have been in the creative chaos of my current novel for months. I want to leave the story be and move on, but I can’t, my characters won’t let me go. I think I’ll take your advice and sit with it. Hopefully my characters will decide what to do next.

  9. cj bahr says:

    Great advice. I’m working on two novels at the same time. When I get stuck, I jump to the other, and so on. I’ve found myself doing a lot of “jumping” but no writing. Maybe I’ll try sitting quiet! Thanks for sharing your work method.