As writers, we pour ourselves out onto the page on a regular basis. While writing can be invigorating, cathartic, and even energizing, continual creative output can eventually lead to writer’s block and burnout. So how do we avoid this? By maintaining an In-Out Creative Balance, intentionally pouring inspiration back in to replenish your creative energy.
Here are a few ways to do this:
One of the most common pieces of advice given by established authors to new writers is this: READ. Read books in your genre. Read books outside your genre. Read newspapers, billboards, flyers; read everything you can.
Shortlist produced a list of 40 famous authors’ quotes about reading. One of my favorites from this list came from William Faulkner:
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”
While simply reading doesn’t necessarily make you a good writer, it can go a very long way toward giving you a general sense of how good writing functions, as well as what makes for bad writing and what to avoid. And in the bigger picture, switching your mind from outward exertion into relaxed input mode gives your brain a rest, while reading the “good” stuff – books you love, top-sellers in your genre, and classics – can pour in loads of inspiration and ideas for how to make your own writing better.
Inspiration for writing doesn’t only come from books. In fact, some of the most inspirational experiences I’ve had as a writer actually came from watching movies. Movies, like books, tell stories. And even better, they do so in a multi-sensory experience that can reach new corners of your imagination and perhaps ignite something that wouldn’t otherwise have been reached. There are two ways to approach movie watching: as a viewer, and as a writer. I suggest doing both at different times, depending on the level of energy you have and how familiar you are with the movie.
Watching as a viewer. This is simple creative intake, where you watch the movie simply to relax and enjoy it. If you are watching a movie for the first time, I recommend this approach. While it seems very passive, your brain can benefit greatly from the entertainment and stimulation of simply watching a movie, especially if it’s one you find particularly moving.
Watching as a writer. This approach takes more energy, but it is extremely beneficial, and it works especially well for movies you have seen before. I recently came across a fantastic book called Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder. It is the second installment of Save the Cat, a series of books for aspiring screenwriters. In this book, Snyder shows how all — yes, all – movies break down into just a few general plot categories, and how every movie follows a basic structure. Just like novels, movies function within a framework that artfully builds connection and emotional impact for the audience. Successful movies are structured a particular way because that’s what works. And this structure works because it is based on how the human brain works. Which is the same reason story structure is so important in fiction. I highly recommend Snyder’s book, as it will change the way you see movies, and possibly the way you write as well. But even if you don’t read his book, try watching movies as a writer from time to time. Look for the plot elements, the structure, the framework on which all the emotional impact hangs. This process can produce new, innovative ideas for how to approach your own writing.
3. Art and Music
Creative energy doesn’t only come in forms that contain words. Exposure to art and music – whether with lyrics or purely instrumental – can boost your creativity and provide new inspiration for your writing. Set up some Pandora channels for different moods or that match up with different writing projects, characters, settings, etc. Visit an art museum. Go to a concert. Go see a musical or a stage performance. Allow yourself to appreciate others’ creative talents and expressions and be inspired in turn.
Oddly enough, producing art and music can also replenish creativity and refuel the writer’s mind. Although art and music are technically output when you do them yourself, they offer variation from the act of writing and provide alternative creative expression that can recharge your energy for tackling your next writing session. These creative acts can also provide valuable input by tapping into other aspects of your creative ability and helping you to see your ideas in a new way.
Like art and music, nature has a wordless beauty that can inspire more deeply than perhaps anything else on the planet. Many human creative expressions were inspired by nature to begin with, and going back to the source can be very helpful to a writer’s creative mind. If you are able, take a trip to the beach or mountains, a hike through the woods, a camping trip, or even a visit to a local park or nature reserve. If you’re limited on time or unable to make a trip, don’t worry. Simply taking a short walk outside can make a huge difference in mood and energy level, help you to see your ideas in a new light (sometimes literally!) and provide fresh inspiration for your writing. Even if you live in the city, there is still plenty of nature outside to inspire you: clouds and sky, sun (or moon or rain), plants, and possibly even a few birds. Take just a 5-minute walk in your neighborhood. You might be surprised it helps to break through mental exhaustion.
Also in this category is interaction with animals. As an animal lover and animal trainer, I have always been inspired by the time I spend with animals, the wilder the better (though interacting with pets can be great, too). If you don’t have hands-on access to animals, try visiting a zoo or simply getting outdoors at a park or in your neighborhood to observe or interact with birds, squirrels, lizards, even bugs. There’s something about animal interaction that shifts my mind into a new gear and fills me with fresh inspiration.
While not every writer is religious, for me, time in spiritual thought and time in prayer with God is a huge help to my writing. It helps to center me, remind me why I’m pursuing whatever particular project I’m working on, and grounds me in something bigger than myself and my own thoughts. When I’m feeling stuck, frustrated, or burnt out, it can bring peace and renewal.
Family and friends can be a huge inspiration for writing, and giving yourself time away from the page to just be with them and enjoy them can help fuel future creative output. Writing can be a very isolating endeavor, but your relationships can provide a depth of experience and emotion that will help you to frame your characters and enrich your story. As a mom, I try to limit my writing to times when my kids are napping or engaged in other things, because I find myself at my best creatively whenever my heart is full from a life well-lived, and living well for me means having plenty of time with my family. Sometimes replenishing also means cutting relationships, making the decision to distance yourself from people who discourage you or who aren’t like-minded in their goals or their approach to life. Find people who inspire you, who lift you up and who encourage you to be the best you and to give your best in your writing. Surround yourself with these people. They will be a support when things get tough and your cheering section when they go well… and in all the times in-between, your interactions with them will pour energy into you, both as a person and a writer.
This one is perhaps the most obvious, but can still be overlooked. If you are experiencing burnout as a writer, it might be time to set your writing aside (just for a while!) and simply live. Focus on other responsibilities, run some errands, eat something, even wash the dishes. Go to work, spend time with your family, and go about your daily routine. Doing regular day-to-day activities can help ground you – especially if you’ve been stuck in the creative abyss of your mind for a while – and push your brain into a different gear that can give your writer’s mind a much-needed rest. Sometimes, you might need to take several days off from writing (though I don’t recommend taking too long of a break, as a daily writing habit is very important to improving as a writer), just to simply be. To live, in the real world, as the real person that you are. And then you can return to your writing, renewed and reminded of why you fell in love with writing in the first place (and not just because it is so much better than laundry).
Writing is extremely rewarding, but writing endlessly can come at the price of mental exhaustion. Take the time to find that In-Out Balance by intentionally pouring inspiration back in to replenish your creative stores.
*Theater performances can also be hugely beneficial, for the same reasons as movies. (I love musicals and they often inspire me!) And like movies, you can choose to watch theater performances as a viewer or as a writer, or – preferably – watch them more than once so you can do both.