As I drove my car back to Portland, Oregon after a job interview, I wrestled with a decision. At each turn of the road, tall trees and high mountains swept by the windows. I would normally drink it all in, but my thoughts strayed.
I’d always dreamed about writing. Now, I had the possible opportunity to come on staff and write for a magazine. The offer would involve moving to a new town with beautiful and dramatic scenery, but I'd leave behind the young man I’d recently met.
Faith, Hope and Charity: The volcanic "Three Sisters" in the area where I interviewed for a job.
In the days following, I had no idea if I’d receive the phone call with a job offer, but of course I couldn’t help thinking about it. If they did ask me to become a staff member, would I say yes?
At the time, I worked in a college library and loved the type of work I did. I also knew I could love the young man.
To my surprise, I received an offer to join the staff of the magazine, but...as Jane Eyre would say, “Reader, I married him.”
Soon, Peter and I did move to a new and very different place—Berkeley, California. I took on a job at a graduate school library at the university there. I loved the career I found.
Honestly, in looking back, I would not have thrived with the creative pressure at a fast-moving magazine. I’m not a fast writer! I need time to dream, to let the words grow, and also experiment with ideas without anyone looking over my shoulder or saying it has to get done now.
Writing deadlines are deadly for my creative process, aren’t they?
At least I thought so at the time.
Now that I’ve completed the circle and my dream is being fulfilled—I'm writing again these days—I still face that old dilemma of creative pressure. How much is good? How much holds us back?
If I have no pressure, I wind up editing forever. I never feel satisfied, especially with my opening line and that first chapter! As an Indie author with no outside deadline, avoiding the launching of my novels becomes too easy. That’s not good for my dream of writing a mystery series.
My first book, Mystery Shores, is available now, and I want to make the sequel a reality as soon as I can. And yet, if I put heavy pressure on myself, I feel as if I’ve eaten frozen yogurt too fast and my imagination is in a state of brain freeze. I just don’t function well, especially with fiction writing. I’ve fallen behind writing my second book, and the disappointment I’ve had in myself keeps the unhealthy pressure coming.
What is the balance? How do we break the hold of discouraging creative pressure?
If I think, “I’ve got to get two chapters done this week” my mind skitters around. It doesn’t have anything to hold on to, and I wind up frustrated and feeling as if I can’t write like everyone else who seems to bring out books so effortlessly!
I’ve recently found something that helps me. Instead of putting pressure on myself to finish up an indistinct chapter or write a thousand words at one sitting (I keep going to the word count to see how many I’ve written), I write in forty minute bursts of scenes.
In this way, I’m not taking on a whole chapter (or book) as I sit down to write. I set up in my mind the next scene, then let it unfold for forty minutes. That’s all I need to do.
I have a timer, which I thought would distract me as I wait for the alarm to go off. I've discovered that’s not the case. Forty minutes gives me the time to get into the scene and yet it isn’t overwhelming. I can do forty minutes. It’s also healthy to get up and move around for a bit.
I often stay a little longer to finish out a thought. I’m trying to get away from my usual “all or nothing” thinking—feeling trapped in legalistic task-making. The forty minute guideline is helpful, but like creative pressure, it doesn’t have to stifle me.
On my breaks, I do a set of stretches, ride my formerly neglected exercise bike or I just walk outside on my deck. I decompress, then think about what my characters are going to do next from my rough outline.
When I come back to my computer, I set the timer for the next forty minutes and let the adventures unfold for my characters (Melina Karyotakis and Christie Edwards are currently at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, searching for Melina’s missing father).
I do have a word count goal in mind, but by concentrating on writing during the 40-minute bursts, I find I don't keep checking it. At the end of a writing day, I go ahead and look to see if I'm in the range of my goal for that day. It's helped me to get away from the thought: “I'm writing a WHOLE book.” That's overwhelming.
And yet, I have goals that keep me from “always editing, but never finishing.” I’ve broken up with creative pressure, but I’m still keeping it as a friend.
It can be hard to face a blank page. For more writing encouragement, click on the image below:
Linda Borromeo is the author of Mystery Shores, a novel of secrets taking place on a remote lighthouse island. Linda lives with her husband in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, the setting of her book.