When I’m working on a book really intensely, I’m probably not reading a lot, because I’m trying to spend every single moment on output. But when I’m not working on a book…that’s when I read a ton…I think that there are seasons in creative work and I think that people need to be comfortable with knowing that sometimes you’re going to be super productive and sometimes you’re not. You just kind of have to stay in there and let the season pass. – Austin Kleon, The Portfolio Life Podcast with Jeff Goins, Episode 099 (6:30)
Once in a while someone will ask me if I have trouble reading when I’m working on a book. Some writers find reading other authors while writing a book to be intrusive, because they don’t want the style of the writing to interfere with their own.
This doesn’t happen to me, but last fall when I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time, I had an experience that put the concept of input and output into perspective.
Before starting this feverish month of writing, I read House of Leaves, which while a brilliant piece of work was without a doubt the most dense book I have ever read, more than certain 19th century Russian novels. At the beginning of the month, my well started out full.
As the month progressed and I was averaging two thousand words per day, my well was running lower and lower every day. I was reading a Jennifer Weiner novel, and while it was a good story, it wasn’t as enriching as I needed it to be. I picked up Sometimes a Great Notion and submerged into Ken Kesey’s rich and dense language, and my well was filling up again.
It became clearer to me that artists have reserves, and if those reserves are running low, then we can’t do our work.
For Austin Kleon, the methods are different, but the concept is the same. He scarfs down books until he starts writing one of his own, so he can harvest his imagination during a fertile season of writing.
But there’s more to it than that, and it has to do with what’s going on in our inner world.
When our inner world is tidy and peaceful, when we can keep it in order and make it our refuge, then we are capable of our best output.
But when our inner world is a mess or in turmoil or in disarray, when we don’t take care of it, then it can’t take care of us.
The notion of creative seasons became clearer to me in the spring, when I went through a major break up. For the first month my inner world was a hurricane followed by a tornado followed by a drought with earthquakes every hour. I was flooded with grief, shame, anger, and heartache.
The urge to create never went away. I felt the same hunger I had always felt to get up every morning and do what I always do. But my inner life was a wreck. Day to day life was exhausting, and it was hard enough to eat and shower and put clothes on, nevermind writing.
There was no way I was going to get through this without being a mess, so I let myself be a mess. I was experiencing a season of storms, and I had to let the storms pass.
I let myself be a mess for as long as it took to move out of my old apartment, sort my life out, and start over in a new town, and I set a deadline to tidy up my inner world. The deadline came and went, and while I was working on fiction, I wasn’t writing blog posts. My inner world was still a wreck but not too much of a wreck to comprehend that nobody wanted to read the crap that was coming out of me at the time.
I kept taking care of myself and my inner world, reading, meditating, running, eating ice cream sandwiches, and paging through the vibrant colors and textures of fashion magazines.
I wrote what was in my head, constantly clearing my mind of the shit storm, and gradually it became more clear, and as my inner world healed, I held space for ideas again.
Some days my inner world is all sorted out. I can get lost in my current project, and I’m focused and disciplined.
Other days are Fuck It Days. My inner world is wrecked like a little prairie town after a tornado, and all I want to do is eat an ice cream sandwich and fall asleep to an episode of The Good Wife. I wrote whatever was in my head, clearing out the shit storms.
Then one day, I’m standing at the meat counter at the market, waiting for the guy to wrap up some chicken legs, when I spot it. Chicken liver.
It hypnotizes me. Its rich, brown-red color is comforting, and light gleams off of its smooth surface. My mind soaks in its colors and textures, and I think, How have I never noticed chicken liver before? The part of my brain that hungers for this kind of input was making its way back to me.
Our methods for creative input take care of us during those stormy or dry or inhospitable seasons.
I am as much of a TV junkie as the next person and often turn to it to decompress. At the end of the day, I am tired of using my brain: using it to create, to talk to people, to troubleshoot technical problems, to balance tasks in my head, to take rapid fire food orders, to talk to people, to motivate myself to exercise at the end of that long day, to create more, to talk to more people, and to do the things an adult needs to do to stay “healthy” and “functional”. I watch TV, so I can shut off my brain.
But watching TV for input is not as nourishing as reading a book. Its the difference between eating a spinach salad and eating a plate of onion rings. The spinach salad is definitely better for you, and while eating a plate of onion rings sounds like a great idea, you inevitably hate yourself for it afterwards. I’ve learned a lot about story and character from watching quality television, but regardless of my creative season, it will never fill my well the way reading a good book does.
What do you do for creative input? How do you know when you need time for input? Share by commenting below.