A recent creative dry spell left me down in the dumps. Very fittingly, a bird took a dump on me the very day I started writing this piece. Life imitates art sometimes.
I’ve been in a creative slump for slightly longer than a month. That does not mean I’ve not been writing or editing. As a copywriter, it is inevitable that I do both almost every single day and I have also been preparing some features for this site. But I’ve not felt connected to my craft for a while: the pull to hunker down and create a piece of work that I genuinely care about.
Every other night, I would half-heartedly toggle between my incomplete drafts. I’d rearrange the paragraphs and add a line or two before getting distracted by less tedious tasks like watching old episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which somehow manages to stir up guilt in me, Look at the lengths that others go to for their art. After a considerable amount of hand-wringing, I decided to immerse myself in fictional worlds. I read twelve fantasy novels in five days in some kind of frenzy and was surprised to discover that I was not raring to go after the break.
The last personal essay I published was about giving up a job opportunity that was based overseas, which took over a month to complete. I caught Covid as I was working on it and was both unwilling — and unable — to think for a full week. But even before I fell ill, I did not write as fast as I would have liked to because it takes so much time for me to process my emotions and glean insights from my experiences. That essay depleted my energy and I knew I needed time and space before tackling the next.
While I was proud of the final product, I didn’t hawk it on social media. I tend to feel more self-conscious when it comes to my personal essays because they often showcase my vulnerability and ideas. Plus, I wasn’t sure how that specific essay would be received by my colleagues. That aside, I’ve been reluctant to promote wildchild articles on my personal accounts for a while now. To state the obvious, a writer on the internet will without a doubt benefit from cultivating an online presence — the concept of the writer-influencer has been discussed in recent years. But the thought of commodifying my life and personality in order to get more people interested in my work leaves me nauseated. I’m also painfully aware that being authentic online is a Sisyphean task; the fact of the matter is that even if we are not intentionally crafting a public persona, we exercise our discretion when we share parts of ourselves online. And I’m far too much of a neurotic overthinker to exist online without considerable effort. After years of navigating social media, I have come to value my privacy and eschew performing an avatar of myself. I’m hesitant to reveal more than I already do on the internet. After all, personal writing already entails unavoidable self-disclosure.
But as much as I would like to think that my motivation to write is primarily intrinsic, I suspect that I may have been more inspired to keep going if I had pulled out all the stops to publicize my last essay. Though I have to clarify that I’m not particularly bothered by the actual number of views, just haunted by how I could have obtained extra publicity for my site if I didn’t feel so conflicted about social media.
Since I don’t make a single cent from my work for wildchild, there is no monetary loss for not seizing every opportunity I have to milk all the attention I can get. But even so, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out or engaging in self-sabotage. Even though I try to distance myself from the capitalist imperative by not running ads i.e. selling my readers’ attention to brands, external incentives clearly still matter to me. Perhaps it is because I still harbor hopes of one day making a living through writing personal essays and cultural criticism, even though I presently can’t picture myself doing so in a way that does not compromise my values. The most ethical way to monetize my writing would be through paid subscriptions but my site’s readership is not large enough and with my current writing standard and experience, I don’t feel qualified to pitch to sites with such a model.
It is equal parts funny and foreboding that the mere prospect of monetizing my hobby is enough to suck the joy out of it. Still, the idea of being paid to write long-form articles is alluring because it will give my work legitimacy and also bring me a step closer to freeing myself from copywriting. I simply have to improve my skills and create work that I’m proud of, which is exactly what I am struggling with as a self-published writer who has yet to find her footing or direction.
I tried to explain my quandary to a fellow artist, a painter who is no stranger to creative blocks. I confessed that I actually could have devoted more time to writing and my failure to do so means that I must not want to hone my craft badly enough. At that time, I thought my statement was a logical deduction. But he saw it as self-flagellation and asked if it was something I would say to a friend. I realized that I wouldn’t. I didn’t.
Weeks ago, I spoke to an aspiring musician who was facing difficulty divorcing his self-worth from his creative output. He is a medical student with a hectic schedule and I thought the fact that taking a pause from making his own music troubled him spoke volumes about his dedication. As an outsider, even a latent desire to commit to an art form seemed to be worthy of commendation. I reminded him to not discount the time he took to practice, even if it didn’t culminate in a finished product.
Perhaps I am indeed kinder to other artists or hold myself to higher standards. But I suspect that part of why I would never suggest to somebody else that they are not trying hard enough is because it is impossible for me to know them the way I know myself. Only we understand the limits of our minds and bodies. No one else can assess if our rest was restorative or indulgent, though it is often difficult to discern between the two. Maybe we are our worst critics because we are the most qualified for the role, being the only authority who can see the distance between our work and what we envision it to be.
Sometimes it can be hard to remember that our creativity is intrinsic to us and like everything else in life, ebbs and flows. In The River of Consciousness, Dr. Oliver Sacks writes about how “creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well. This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own.” In fact, the most common advice offered by fellow creatives is to “trust the process” and believe that our craft will be all the better for the offbeats. While the notion of a gestation period (and the thought of my creative self as a tiny seedling in the dirt) ought to comfort me, I find it mildly unsettling that there is no guarantee that the subconscious mind is indeed laboring away.
Then I realized that writing, my favorite way to organize my thoughts and access my interiority, has given me so much agency that it has effectively obfuscated the fact I will never have full control over my creativity. Even if I force myself to clock in my hours every single day in the name of being disciplined, the rewards are not guaranteed and I may or may not come up with something worthwhile (whether I judge the work by my standards or by anyone else’s).
When I began writing this piece, my goal was simple. I hoped that conceptualizing and completing a shorter essay from start to end would give me more confidence to write through the block. So I ignored the low-grade anxiety that always surfaces whenever I fail to update my site within a week and resisted the urge to hit the ‘publish’ button as soon as I could. I followed my ideas wherever they led me and killed some darlings along the way. And I feared that when I was done with this essay, I’d be back to where I was before I started: mulling over my scattered ideas without being able to distill them into a story worth telling; unsure of which piece I ought to work on next; trying, always trying, to make my experiences something larger than themselves. But I kept writing anyway, because I will always be compelled to, as writer Ann Patchett puts it, “touch the hem of the gown that is art itself.”
Feature collage by Sherryl Cheong