Laura Gibson on Finding and Keeping Creative Success
Recently, I drove by a neighbor’s open garage and saw one whole wall inside the space plastered with running race bibs, a collection of bright numbers on white papers, each about the size of a license plate. That wall told a years-long story of effort and hope, though I wasn’t close enough to see if the garage narrative included finishing times or ribbons, personal bests. In the front garden, a short, fit woman with long silver hair knelt, dividing hostas. I waved and kept driving, wishing I’d thought to display my rejection slips as proudly, proof I’ve been game enough to aim high. If I’d saved them, they’d cover more than a few walls of my garage.
I’ve always written, but leaving a full-time teaching job ten years ago gave me the time and emotional energy to write with tenacity and purpose. My first publication was in the Readers Write section of The Sun that same year. I quietly began to think of myself as a writer. Owning it out loud came much later, once I had a few more publications and was writing most days. Now, my papered bibs—rejections and acceptances—tell a story similar to my neighbor’s. Years of effort, of hope, and sometimes, of success in the publication way.
In a workshop I took with Dorothy Allison once, she talked about writing with purpose. For her, entering creative space meant dipping down into “the well of souls” to see what arose, clinging, to fledge as a story. That way of thinking has resonated with me ever since. To that, I’d add these techniques I use to get and stay in the zone:
Carry the story with you.
World-making takes concerted effort; it’s like juggling; if you lose momentum or un-focus your attention, you drop the flaming batons. Carrying the story means literally carrying pieces of it. Ideas, scenes, and research scratched in a notebook, on edges of newspaper, bits of napkins, emails to myself. Sometimes, a word map. Other times, a minor character’s playlist of 10 best songs, or what a protagonist yearns for most but can’t have in 20 words or less.
I write most days, though not at the same time or in the same spot. One constant in my routine is to begin by gathering up these bits I’ve carried to see if there’s a nugget amongst them. There often is.
Let it germinate.
When I began writing longer stories, in order to survive what seemed an overwhelming task, I drafted them largely by binging. In retrospect, I think muscling through drafts was rooted in fear that if I set down my fictive ecosystem, the whole thing would fall to pieces, the mojo gone.
I’ve learned to work with smaller windows of time, and to allow stories the space to germinate subconsciously, behind the scenes, while I’m engaged in other mundane activities like vacuuming and driving. I love the way these sidelong tasks can become a kind of meditative state that breaths inspiration into story.
When I’m stuck, I don’t always crack the code when I want to—sometimes germination takes months—but I almost always figure out how to un-pickle characters or keep the engine of a plot running when I’m at work doing something else. The key for me has been learning to carry a story with me by letting it go.
Make breadcrumbs: Write yourself a note before you get up from the chair.
I end creative sessions by writing notes to myself: what I think will happen next, what pieces might not gel with others, what to research, what to question.
This method has the dual effect of closure and a launching pad for next time. It’s made my work time much more efficient. As a tool for success, it’s served me well.
My race bibs include some satisfying wins: several publications in journals, a few writer-in-residence stints, a Pushcart nomination. Earlier this year, Carve published “Depth Perception,” and that publication led to an email from an agent, an amazing gift of an opportunity.
Now, I’ve got the tender unwieldy first draft of a novel in my hands and on my mind, and carrying the story with me is vital to its existence.
Some days the best I can say about my creative effort is that I made a lot of words. But I carry the story with me beyond the page. I remember to believe in it and in myself. Tomorrow, when I sit down to write, shards of inspiration scrawled in a notebook and the breadcrumbs of today’s session there to greet me, I have a place to begin again.
Laura M. Gibson lives in Idaho, where she wrangles a menagerie of pets on a small urban farm, seeks dark nights, and works with kids in gardens, classrooms, and online. She offers manuscript consultation services at www.lauramgibson.com, and also writes there about nature, family, and books.
Her fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Carve, Blue Earth Review, Passages North, Word Riot, and Canteen.