Creatives, You Need to Slow Down

Why taking a step back can make you a better creator

Holly Lyn Walrath
Apr 16, 2020 · 6 min read
Image courtesy Pixabay

We’re all being forced to slow down right now, and some of us are better at it than others. But I’ve noticed that writers, and creatives in general, are really, really bad at this.

The other day I posted about a Medium publication I run, Interstellar Flight Press, in a thread of people looking for outlets to pitch. A writer immediately replied, “This isn’t a Medium publication.” (We are, but the writer didn’t take the time to read or open the link I posted.) In another publication I manage, I get writers submitting drafts only to remove them a day later before I can read them.

I just got done reading something like 200+ novellas and poetry books from our recent submission call. There were a lot of promising works, but the biggest problem with most of them was a lack of care on the part of the submitter. The writer maybe didn’t follow the submission guidelines, or submitted something that isn’t our vibe (submitting literary fiction when we’re a SFF venue), or the manuscript just wasn’t ready for publication yet.

How could I tell it wasn’t ready? Well, there’s this lovely thing that happens when you read a really good book. It’s similar to when you look at a fantastic piece of art. You sort of fall into it. Maybe you’re captivated by the colors or the characters. There’s an indelible quality to good art. It sticks with you.

So why are we trying to rush it?

It sucks when this happens, because as an editor, I just want to see writers succeed. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I forget to take the time to step back and really evaluate my work. Submitting and writing is hard. I have to cram it into other parts of my day, in-between cooking dinner and feeding the dogs and doing bills.

The biggest advice I can give creatives right now is to slow the f down.

We’ve just been given a big break by the universe. Publishers are pushing books back, so they probably won’t be buying a lot of books right now. Museums and galleries are closed. We’re all working from home or hardly working. It’s tempting to look at this time and go, “This is my chance to shine. I need to jump on this, NOW.”

The rest of the world is learning how to work from home, how to deal with having more space in the day, and we’re a culture that likes our time filled. So we’re being creative about how to fill that empty space. Maybe some of us are job hunting or scrambling to make ends meet. It’s a stressful time for a lot of people right now.

When the shutdown first started, I saw a lot of creatives mention how they were going to finish that one project that they just needed more time to work on. Now, I see people struggling to make that happen.

The reality is, we’ve been trained to think that being creative should result in, well, a result.

Image courtesy Cottonbro

Creating Outside of Time

The problem with “creating content” is that it’s so focused on what’s timely. But art isn’t content. The best art is timeless. We look at the Mona Lisa today and even though there is so much history behind that smile, in the end, we’re still just wondering, “what is she smiling about?”

The trouble with devices, as much as they may be helpful to creating, is that they eat up a lot of the white space of our days. Instead of thinking, of using the brains we have, we’re scrolling like the undead. I love how technology can help us in unexpected ways. But sometimes, I think we lose connection to our inner selves by diving into these empty, fizzing caverns of data.

What if you sat down to write today and didn’t think about time? Didn’t set an alarm or worry about when you’re going to submit the thing in front of you? What if you put a blank canvas in front of yourself and just said, “Okay, now breathe.”

I think you’d be surprised by the results.

Image courtesy eberhard grossgasteiger

Meditational Imagination

Last year I took up yoga. I started to realize that when I write, I often put on ambient and meditative music. It helps me to fall into the music and be completely there in that moment. One of my favorite musicians to listen to is Yo Yo Ma. In-between the notes, you can hear the whispering of the bow. You can also hear the cellist breathing. It’s a terribly strange and sensual sound, as if the cello is an extension of his body. Even though the notes are fast, the breathing is slow and timeless.

When we approach creating as a meditative process, it opens us up to why we create. I write because it brings something hidden out in me. Creating is literally making something out of nothing. It’s magic.

But any good magician knows you can’t rush spellwork.

Creators are hungry. There’s the term “starving artist.” It applies to not only how little valued creative work is, but also how artists are often desperate to connect. It’s a beautiful fantasy to hope that enough people will appreciate your work that one day you’ll be able to live off of it.

And maybe this is possible without being connected to your work in a deeper way. But I don’t think it is. The best creators — writers, musicians, artists — find a way to put a little piece of their souls into their work. They transcend the work. And as a result, people take notice.

A Balancing Act

The truth is, we can’t afford to let our work be devalued as artists. I want to tell people to slow down because very often the result of haste is loss. If you’re quick to submit to a publication you don’t know, you may miss that they don’t pay for work. Artists often regret selling their work because they needed the money. We have to make hard choices as creators; we’re often stuck between money and our values.

The artist Xu Bing spent three years creating his work, “Book of Heaven.” It’s a series of small wood blocks carved with characters that resemble Chinese characters, but cannot be read. Using the pieces of kanji, Xu Bing created a language that cannot be read or understood, even by the artist. I’ve seen Xu Bing’s work exhibited, and it is beautiful, if a bit esoteric.

You can feel the weight of such a heavy work when you walk into the room. Your eye searches for meaning, but there is none to find. I think it’s a bit like the creative process. We don’t know if we’re working in our own language, in a world made up of our own colors. We don’t know if anyone is going to get it. And maybe they won’t. And maybe — well, what if that’s not the point?

The best work I’ve done as a writer came from a place that surprised me. And I was even more surprised when I found that other people wanted to read my work. But I also have pieces that I’ve never submitted or shown to anyone. Those works have just as much value to me.

I think if we can just slow down, we can figure out which pieces have the potential to reach someone else. We can enter that weird, liminal place of creativity.

What about you. Why do you create?

Does it come from inside you? Do you want to prove a point or do you have goals for your work? Why or why not? I want to know. Leave me a comment to tell me what drives you.

Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.

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