February 23rd, 2015

5 Ways to Weather a Creative Winter

Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine into Gold

KathrynCraftThe waiting was over. My agent called last Tuesday with word about my submission for novel number three: my publisher had passed.

(Read paragraph break as needed time for truth of this to sink in.)

We strategized. Then my agent said, “Okay Kathryn, well, I’d better go get a little rest and then head to the hospital to have my baby.”

Life. Its unpredictability never ceases to amaze.

My agent had hoped to be negotiating my deal on the way into the delivery room. She loved the characters and their story. I had my own reasons for wanting this book deal.

My second novel, The Far End of Happy, was the culmination of a seventeen-year calling to write about my first husband’s suicide, a goal that had led me up a mountain of healing and self-awareness—and completing it felt a bit like stepping off that mountain and into the void. I honestly don’t know who I’ll be beyond this book release, but if I had another book deal, at least I’d still be an employed novelist. With a running leap, maybe I could jump from one mountaintop right to the next and skip the void altogether.

Yet here in the void I now find myself floating, so I look around. It feels familiar. I’ve been here before, right after the suicide, when I had to deal with the horrific black hole my husband’s loss had torn in our lives.

Back then, the void taught me that when you can’t see where you’re going, it’s not a time to be running or leaping anywhere. You must take time to reorient to the new reality, as any heroine would at the start of a new tale.

I begin by accepting my situation and seeking its wisdom. A break could well be a blessing—less stress as I promote for the next few months. But to ensure that the break will be as short as possible, I intend to get back in touch: both with myself and a love of story that extends well beyond the topic of suicide. I could write about anything! What will it be?

Here are some of the strategies I plan to employ:

1. Commune with my bookcase.

Of the books I’ve read: why did I decide to keep them? Of the books I haven’t yet read: what drew me to them? The answers will reconnect me to the type of stories I love and the writing I hope to emulate. I look forward to this.

2. Re-enter the world for a spell.

While writing on contract last year I learned that to finish on time I had to remain driven and sequestered. While out in the world doing all I can to promote the new book, I hope to take a little time to make cogent observations about life that will fuel my writing.

3. Reconnect with friends and family.

While feeling unmoored after my husband’s suicide, I called friends who knew me back when my dreams were forming, and when the characteristics that would shape me were just starting to bloom. One friend said, “Tell me one time when you really wanted to do something in your life and you were unable to achieve it.” That kind of perspective is a lifeline when you are flailing in the waters of self-doubt.

4. Feed simpler passions.

The void itself doesn’t offer up a whole lot of material. I need to rediscover the richness of my own inner landscape, one step at a time. Where did I put that harmonica and learn-to-play book I was gifted a few years ago? With concerted effort I could introduce my next reading with a bit of mouth organ blues. I miss exploring new places on foot, too. So does my body. The fresh air will reinvigorate me inside and out. And where better to people watch?

5. Ramp up my developmental editing.

A practical concern on one hand, as I don’t have an advance on the horizon. Yet a life affirming decision as well: when you aren’t sure where you’re headed, it’s always a great idea to extend to others the experience of which you are confident.

The writing life experiences seasons of change like any other. This year, my creative winter just happened to sync with Mother Nature. There is no need to fear it if you use it. Experience has taught me: when you step out into the void, in faith, some pretty amazing things can happen.

How does the concept of “seasons of change” relate to your writing life, and what have you done to reinvigorate during your creative winters? Please share! Then go tweet congratulations to @AgentShea on the arrival of little Lucas.

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About Kathryn

10685420_966056250089360_8232949837407332697_nKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy, out May 5.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Website: http://www.kathryncraft.com/

33 comments to 5 Ways to Weather a Creative Winter

  • Kathryn, this post was so timely for me. I am within a week of finishing the book I’ve had in my mind, and been waiting to write, because I wasn’t good enough, when the idea first came to me, four years ago. It isn’t autobiographical, but it’s my sister’s story, just the same (she died at 32 of cancer). Also, I put off a contracted book to write this non-contracted one.

    When I look to what lies beyond finishing, it’s a black hole. Oh yes, I know I have more stories to write, but this one was so close to my bones, and I’ve lived in it so long, I feel like I’ll be done after this one.

    Your wisdom helped me today. Thank you.

    • Laura it sure helps to know we’re not alone, doesn’t it? And wow, putting off a contracted book to write this one was a major decision, one that smacks of “the urge to push”—guess your story said, “You’re ready and I’m ready—let’s do this.” What a powerful sensation! But then—yeah, the void to deal with and it’s inevitable re-exploration of self. An extra big hug for you when we meet at September’s WFWA retreat!

  • Lisa

    Beautiful post, Kathryn! Great advice and perspective. Also, I added The Far End of Happy to my wishlist to read when it comes out!

    • Thanks Lisa. You have just considerably brightened my day! Having books out, and interacting with readers about them, is absolutely a benefit of this “void” over the last. Like adding stars to the night. 🙂

  • Kathryn, first of all, I’m so sorry your publisher is passing on your book. After all your hard work, and heart work, that must have been a blow indeed. I felt it myself during that paragraph break and had to reread it to be sure my eyes didn’t deceive me.

    But I love that your agent cared so much about your characters and story that she fought for it, right up until her delivery! That is pretty fantastic.

    Your advice for surviving and thriving during a creative winter feel so appropriate to me, and not just because of the weather! I’ve been in a creative winter myself for the past handful of years since my first child was born, and I feel like I’m just beginning to climb out now.

    I wish you the best of luck during this in between, and I look forward to reading your post about finding your creative spring.

    • Dana you poured love into every single sentence of this comment, exhibiting the generosity, empathy, optimism, and faith necessary to navigate the career of an author. I’m pretty sure I spent all my early mothering years in the void (author Joan Borysenko has interesting theories on this in her book A Woman’s Book of Life: The Biology, Psychology, and Spirituality of the Feminine Life Cycle). Maybe since I’ve been here before my stay will be shorter? Will happy happy to climb out side by side!

  • If there’s one thing this business teaches, it’s that nothing is certain, and having Plans B, C, and D in place is a must. Look at what happened to authors at Musa recently. But my question as I read this post was why only one publisher? Is it part of a series, so no other publisher would pick it up? Or, what I hope, is that once your agent gets through the baby thing, she’ll be sending your book everywhere there’s a remote chance it’ll be published while you’re doing everything you’ve set up in this post. (As well as writing another book, I hope.) And, your options now include indie publishing, so it’s only one closed door. There are lots of other ones.

    • Hi Terry nice to hear from you! Great questions. My plan B is to come up with a new book idea to pitch to my current publisher. Here’s why:
      1) I’ve been very happy at Sourcebooks because they get my writing and support it in every way.
      2) They expressed interest in continuing to work with me but they did not think this book was a step up in brand (just learning my brand!). Truth is, I didn’t necessarily think of this book as a step up—it is simply another story I thought I could tell well. I’m thinking it may be smart to thing “step up.”
      3) The marketing dept didn’t think it had a strong enough hook. If they think they can’t market it competitively, why do I think I could? It is a more complex project that isn’t easily distilled into a one line pitch, and apparently doesn’t evoke the “Man I have to read this one!” response.
      4) As for indie publishing, even if I did have ideas as to how to market it, I’d have to take the time to write it, and budget-wise, I need an advance. But definitely an option for some time down the road when I can afford to invest the up-front time to write it.
      5) My agent did offer to shop it around elsewhere.That’s still an option when she comes back from maternity leave, but I do feel differently about this book. I HAD to write the first two—this one I COULD write.
      6) I don’t feel I’m out of ideas or options, by any means. The project that was just turned down, although much improved, was the first I ever conceived. After giving birth to two projects that had long been part of my soul, rather than look back, maybe it’s time to look around and re-assess where I am now. You know, now that I have a brand. 😉

  • Stephanie Claypool

    Thanks for your honesty. You advice is useful for all pursuits in life. I wonder though, since you and your agent love the book, have you considered self-publishing?

    • Hi Stephanie, nice to see you here. See my answer to Terry on this above! I’m thinking no, for now, but can always revisit this decision. The beauty of owning intellectual property!

  • Holly Robinson

    Ah Kathryn, I’m so sorry that the publisher passed on your book–but your attitude is one that I hope I can emulate when it’s my turn. I’m at the end of a two-book contract and working on a new synopsis, and I have NO IDEA if my editor will want the book I’m working on now. What I do know is that almost all writers go through these creative winters for various reasons, and it is so important to keep ourselves grounded during that time, so that we can produce new work. That’s the name of the game, isn’t it? Picking ourselves up after we fall is key to success in publishing. Your advice is wonderful here, and I think your reasons for wanting to stay with your current publisher despite them turning down this particular book idea are very sound. Best of luck!

  • This is a thought-provoking post, Kathryn. A few months before the WU UnCon, I went through a creative winter (ironically in midsummer). I’d received feedback on book one of the epic fantasy trilogy that I’d been working on for many years. My gut told me that it needed yet another rewrite, but I just wasn’t feeling up to it. I felt like I needed to get some distance in order to gain the perspective, and the spiritual fuel, to attempt it.

    Meanwhile, I had another manuscript set in the same world, featuring different characters. A few writing friends read it and thought it worthy of continuing development. I dove into a major rewrite last August, and just finished a draft a few weeks ago. I’m doing a polishing read-through right now. There have been days when I’ve wondered if working on this fourth book was just an elaborate dodge, spurred by fear. Sometimes I feel like the work is a high-wire act. I’m enjoying storytelling again, and I really love the characters. But if I get too caught up in the application of the lessons I’ve learned in the past year, I sort of freeze up. So I try not to get bogged down. It’s led to some ups and downs… And all the while, nothing is happening with the trilogy (which has gotten some great feedback, as well – I know it’s worthy of my attention… at some point).

    On one of the “wintry days” last week, I talking to a wise mutual friend of ours last week (with the initials of T.W.). She reminded me that I’m finding my center as an artist (we’d talked about being centered prior). And then she said something that’s heartened me in the days since. She said that all this work has been “moving my creative center forward.” My gut tells me she’s right. There is growth. I already knew the principle that there are no wasted words, but this concept of keeping centered and nudging forth in progress has really lifted my spirits.

    Anyway, sorry about the project change. Remember to stay true to your center, and know that, if we’re earnest (and I know you are) that it’s moving in progress. Thanks for sharing, and all the best to you and @Agent Shea!

    • Thanks for sharing your story too, Vaughn. Love your phrase “spiritual fuel.” As for “elaborate” dodge, therefore, who’s to say that it isn’t a “necessary” dodge? Even our own process is sometimes a mystery!

      Not knowing which direction to move forward in is nothing less than deviling in a pursuit where writing a novel will take a year or more! Hard to face “losing” that time, thus “T.W.’s” sage advice to stay true to yourself—that way at least you have moved forward.

      I guess the way I’ve moved forward is that now even I can accept that maybe this wasn’t the best next step for me to take. I honored that project and took it as far as I could.

      As for the craft tripping you up and slowing you at times, here’s my thought on that: every writer is a work in progress. There will be craft you assimilate over time, and new craft that you’ll always have to apply more consciously. But that’s what revision’s for! No point slathering on extra coats of craft if that part of the story might not make the final cut, right? Plow ahead to the finish line with what you’ve already internalized. Then you’ll have the whole lovely story to play with, and at that point, all craft applied will be well worth the time—even if that means restructuring.

      • Thanks for the reminder that we’re all works in progress as writers, and the great advice! It’s funny, looking back over it, how much has been internalized in this most recent draft. Hence my gut telling me that T is right about the progress. Here’s to staying true to ourselves!

  • You wrote “…at least I’d still e an employed novelist.” But you are still employed writing novels, aren’t you? Just without a contract at the moment. I’m sorry SourceBooks passed on this one, but your ideas on how to spend the time you now have are great. Sometimes life gives us the space to just be, whether we asked for it or not. I’m not usually grateful for those unasked for gifts, but they do fuel our writing AND our souls. Looks like you’re paying attention to that! I look forward to seeing you out in the world, Kathryn, on foot or otherwise, observing and refueling. Glad we’re “neighbors.”

    • Hmm…this is an interesting distinction, Linda! Until April I won’t have seen my first earnings from The Art of Falling, and since I finished The Far End of Happy but it is not yet earning, I’m in the hole on that one. A weird profession where you get paid twice a year. But while I may yet earn royalties from book already written, without a contract, I do not feel “employed” to write a novel, no.

      “Space to just be”—yes, whether I wanted it or not (love your “unasked for gifts”), that’s what I’ve got! Might as well make the best of it.

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    As always, Kathryn, your outlook and no-nonsense approach is inspiring!

    My creative winter happened during the infant year for WFWA. I found it hard to put aside those demands and focus on my own writing, especially when that wasn’t looking overly encouraging. Somewhere along the way, I started keeping a “done list” in addition to my to-do list (what can I say, I’m a lister). When I felt myself wallowing in all the things that weren’t happening, I’d flip through the done list for the previous days.

    When the sun finally broke on that storm, I wasn’t where I thought I’d be. And that’s okay because I’ve learned what I’m capable of. You’re right, when you step into the void, amazing things do happen.

    • Orly, I knew there were unexplored reasons I feel close to you! I too am a lister, and as you know, I gave years of my time to supporting the writing community through my volunteerism. Believe me, you are building a platform that will be difficult for other WF authors to rival while protecting the future of our chosen genre. All good things will come back to you for this service, and you know darn well you’ve been learning about the craft and the business of publishing all the while. All this to say—there is no one right path, and amazing things are already happening in your writing life.

  • Kathryn … your stories cut to the bone and that is not an easy task. Nature retreats during the dark, cold days of winter. Her roots dig deep into the soil to find warmth and nourishment … only to rise again in the spring. You will rise with her and blossom.

    It can’t be all bad to take a break. Sorry it had to come to you this way. I have no doubt that you will be posting us of your new blossoms. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Florence this is such a beautifully written comment, thank you! I’m sure there are many people who will look at my “creativity starter” list above and be jealous that I am taking this time—I agree, it’s not a bad thing at all. Don’t feel sorry for me. I just zigged where I thought I’d be zagging. I have faith that I have plenty of zigzagging (and even tail wagging) left in me!

  • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist)

    Kathryn, I appreciate you sharing this post. This is always the hard news to share, but it is so valuable when we share it because it’s so easy to believe we are alone in these kinds of situations. I’m sorry about the pass from your publisher – and maybe it will still find a home one way or another in the future. That doesn’t make it any easier right now, but cheers and admiration to you for finding the way to adapt.

    • Thanks Janet! In THE ART OF FALLING, when a certain situation looks bleak, Penny asks Kandelbaum how he can still hold out hope. He says, “Because hope feels better than despair.” Works for me!

  • I have such admiration for those who can take a personal hit, then turn around and offer generosity and wisdom to others from their experience. Thanks so much, Kathryn! I had a less-than-stellar day, so this was perfect timing. May life bring you joy and many fulfilled dreams!

  • Kathryn, it’s so kind of you to share these ups and downs with others. I’ve had a grand time reading these comments. 🙂

    I had my creative winter in the years surrounding my pregnancy. It was a very difficult, high-risk sort of thing that sucked up every bit of energy and creativity I had. I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever write again. Plus my MIL passed. And we moved.

    But I read one chapter a day of Julia Cameron’s “The Sound of Paper.” Just one chapter. And I thought about writing, but it all felt scary.

    Then I started blogging, and that turned the key for everything. Blogging helped me discover my writing voice, and gave me the confidence to get back to my fiction, and to pursue a freelance career. God bless Kristen Lamb and the gals here at WITS – I don’t know where I’d be without all of them!

    • We all need our support staff and interesting hear Kristen Lamb offered that to you, Jenny—she’ll be at my hometown writing conference (The Write Stuff in Bethlehem, PA) in March this year. I too benefitted from Cameron—her chapters in The Artist’s Way seemed to appear exactly as I needed them. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the Zen saying “When the student is ready the teacher will appear” because seekers are finished with feeling bad. It isn’t working for them anymore, so they WILL find answers.

      But our trials are great fodder for our stories. If we haven’t experienced deep conflict, how can we ever write of it convincingly?

  • I’ve had “winters” that mostly occurred because of military moves or changes in family relationships, and I love your list of strategies. I used several of them myself. I haven’t really hit a writing winter yet, mostly because I’m new at the full-time, this-is-my-focus aspect of it, but I especially love your advice to “take time to reorient to the new reality.” Priceless counsel for any type of winter.

    • Talk about reorienting to the new reality, Jennifer! Everything you take for granted—where to buy groceries, how to get there—suddenly takes new creative energy when you move. It’s a great metaphor for what reorienting means when other types of unanticipated course changes occur. Thank you!

  • We hunger for writing that comes from the soul and touches our hearts. There are too many stories of reaching for the book on the shelf that contains the words that offer the strength needed to take another breath and go on. Your writing is like that. I’m sorry that Sourcebooks decided to pass. It is their loss. Your story will find its home.

  • Thanks, Kathryn for sharing the highs and the lows in this business. I thought once I broke through and had my first book published that I would never again experience rejection. I would have ‘Arrived.’ Sadly, this is not the case. I received word from my agent yesterday that a publisher had passed on a manuscript and that old bee-sting of pain unexpectedly pierced my heart for a moment. Okay. several moments. 🙂 I’ve known even a best selling writer experience rejection and go through a period with no contracts. I appreciate the strategies and reframing options you listed.

    Best of luck in your future endeavors!

  • […] Jami Gold asks: What scares you about writing or publishing? One fear is being unable to sell your next book. Kathryn Craft tackles that fear in 5 ways to weather a creative winter. […]