Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is here on the blog all week, talking about her new book, Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café. Today, Tilia shares a fantastic guest post, then on Wednesday she’ll be sharing an exciting excerpt from her book, and on Friday we’ll get to see some quick quotes from the novel. Plus, you have a chance to win a $25 gift voucher so keep reading!
Working the Creativity
by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs
Creativity, my writing teacher often says, is a muscle: you have to work it to keep it strong. It’s an excellent analogy, and part of what I like about it is that it puts both creativity and a degree of physical fitness within reach. The muse and the Fitness Fairy will both enter my life, but not unbidden and not if I kid myself about wearing out my welcome with either one of them. With both my workouts and my writing life, I’ve come up with a model that works well for me: I’m realistic but rigorous about my expectations.
I’ve often heard writers say that in order to succeed, one must read at least three hours a day and write four or five hours a day. Not being one to criticize success, all I can say is, if that works for you, rock on. My issue with it is that it’s unlikely to work for anyone else. Consider the workout analogy: I belong to a gym that I go to several times a week. The only time it’s crowded is the beginning of January, when eager New Year’s Resolvers hog the treadmills while assuring themselves that this is the year. They will come every day and tread and lift and sweat and suffer to get back into their skinny jeans. But they don’t, and by February we’re back to our usual attendance levels.
Like the injunction to spend eight hours of every day reading and writing—and one does wonder how such people hold down a job, shop for groceries, and sleep—it’s not a sustainable model. You might be able to do this for a short time, such as National Novel-Writing Month, but over the long haul you’re setting yourself up for failure. The gym rat wannabe misses one workout and gives up in despair; the writer who ignores the rest of her life in order to write is likely to be doomed to failure.
This doesn’t mean that the aspiring writer isn’t dedicated to writing. It’s just that all-or-nothing models don’t generally work. Instead, rigorous sustainability is the name of the game.
I don’t go to the gym every day. I also don’t write every day. But I have a schedule for both, and I stick to them just as I would for a paid job. I don’t schedule doctor’s appointments for my writing time, and I don’t fold laundry during gym time. Several times a week I go to the gym, and several times a week I write. I’m committed to these blocks of time, but they haven’t taken over the rest of my life.
Furthermore, I don’t expect perfection every time, either from my workouts or my writing times. Here again the analogy is useful, because I love working out and I love writing, and both make me feel really good, especially when they go well; but I’m also happy to confess that plenty of times I just don’t feel like doing it. Maybe I slept poorly and I feel too tired to lift, never mind run. Maybe my brain is buzzing with a zillion unhappy details of quotidian life and I feel no connection to the evocative passage I’m trying to write. But I do it anyway. (Sometimes chocolate is involved.) And in both cases, I get something out of it. Maybe it’s small and imperfect, downright deformed, even, but it’s something.
Sometimes workouts are wonderful. The endorphins kick in, and you can swear you can hear the fat burning and the muscle building. It’s exhilarating.
Other times, not so much. You push yourself through the motions, knowing it’s a mediocre workout but knowing also that some benefit will accrue. This is when the regulars at my gym often have the following conversation:
“How’s your workout going?”
“Not so great. But I’m here, right?”
“That’s right.” (Encouraging grin, possible fist bump.)
This is part of what makes the model sustainable: we’re not expecting perfection every time. But we also know that a great workout won’t happen unless we show up and do the work, and a bad workout beats no workout at all.
Similarly, writing a little, even if it’s cruddy, beats writing nothing out of fear it won’t be perfect. If your writing time is 4:00 to 6:00 on Wednesdays when the kids are in Hebrew school (ahem), then by golly you have a date with a keyboard from 4:00 to 6:00 on Wednesdays. You get some words on the page. They compare unfavorably with Tolstoy. So what? You can rewrite a terrible first draft into something great, but you can’t rewrite a blank page into anything. So get some words down on paper, because as with most things in life, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be done.
And here’s the wonder of it all. Sometimes the best workouts happen when you’re too tired or too preoccupied to go to the gym (or the hiking trail, or the skating rink—whatever) but you go anyway. Sometimes the Fitness Fairy shows up utterly unexpectedly and you find you can lift or run or walk or dance better than you ever knew, and certainly better than you ever expected to on such a blah day. And sometimes magical moments happen in the midst of a seemingly colorless and uninspired writing session: a lyrical phrase pops onto the page, or a searing line of dialogue reveals everything your lead character has been trying to hide from you for the past thirty thousand words.
It happens. But neither the Fitness Fairy nor the muse will enter unbidden. Happily, all you have to do is open the door to them on a regular basis, and the chances are good they will make themselves frequent and joyful visitors.
On Wednesday, Tilia will be sharing an excerpt from Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café!
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School. When Tilia is not writing she is teaching (aka “getting paid for bossing people around.”) She has taught middle school, high school, and college; currently she teaches writing to prison inmates, and is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition in San Francisco. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published to critical acclaim. Tilia lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and two standard poodles. Website Facebook Twitter
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What a great blog – it resonated with me because my blog this week was so similar. I do like the idea of sitting down for a “date” with my books. If it comes, great. Sometimes it does, and if I can’t get the words down, I might pull up a different novel, or short story, and edit it. I know the muse will come eventually.
Thank you so much for stopping by, Elyse! Fantastic that you were both on such a similar wavelength this week!
This is so great to hear! I really do thing routine is essential, and I’m glad it works for you too. I know one writer who wrote her book every morning between 3:00 and 7:00 after she was done taking care of her ill grandma and before she went to her college classes. Talk about making the most of your time.