Experiment with new genres to rediscover your creative joy.
By Christin Ditchfield
When did I start to dread writing? When did it become work – the kind you talk about with a groan or sigh? The kind that makes tackling a sink full of dirty dishes or a basket of laundry sound like an appealing alternative? Please, I’ll do anything… just don’t make me write!
I couldn’t believe it, when I found myself in this place a few years ago. Completely burned out. Growing up, I was the girl just like Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. When I wasn’t reading, I was writing. Pages and pages and pages. I absolutely loved it! I spent every free moment creating poems and plays and short stories, dreaming up characters to populate the novels I was sure I would write some day.
As a grown-up, after nearly ten years teaching preschool and elementary school, I was finally “living the dream” – actually making my living as a freelance writer. Being offered more assignments than I could possibly take on, in addition to the projects of my own inspiration. But somewhere along the way, I lost my love of writing. I lost my creative joy. I lost the excitement and the enthusiasm.
Maybe it was all that deadline pressure… Or the pressure to succeed – and keep on succeeding… Maybe I had too many irons in the fire… Maybe I took on too many projects that I wasn’t really passionate about. But you’ve gotta eat! There are bills to pay. When writing becomes your primary source of income, you almost have to say “Yes!” to everything. Exhibit A: I am the author of a book on dirt. Seriously. It’s called Soil. You can check it out in the children’s department at your local library. While you’re there, look up my book on wrestling. Again – seriously.
However it happened, when the thought of writing made me miserable – and the thought of doing dishes seemed a welcome escape – I knew something had to change. I finished up the projects I was working on and declared myself “on sabbatical” for the summer. I told my friends and family that for the first time in a long time, I was going to write something just for fun. Just for me. Just for the thrill of challenging myself to do something new and different.
After giving it some thought, I decided that – having written a lot of nonfiction for children and adults – I really wanted to try a picture book. I thought about the books I loved reading as a child, books I still love to this day. The books I loved reading to my preschool classes years ago. Yes, I want write something like that!
Just because you’ve learned to write (and even been published) in one genre doesn’t mean you know how to write in another. I realized there were some things I needed to learn. So I pored over how-to books, especially the classic Writing and Illustrating Children’s Book’s for Publication by Berthe Amoss and Eric Suben. Like a beginner – which in this genre, I was – I carefully noted the experts’ instructions and advice. I took the time to complete the recommended writing exercises. Then I started searching for a story.
One day I happened to catch the startled look on my nephew’s face when his grandfather (my dad) complimented him on his impressive cowlick. It got me thinking: If you had never heard the word “cowlick” before, what would you think it meant? Could it be evidence that a friendly cow had come to your bedside in the night to lick you? Slurrrpp!
With that, my picture book idea was born. I spent hours playing with the idea, playing with the words and images that came to me, the story and the characters. It was so much fun! I felt energized and excited again. I rediscovered my love for writing. And the icing on the cake: my creative experiment – Cowlick! -- was published by Random House in 2007. Since then, I’ve made it a regular part of my writing life to set aside some time to play – time to experiment with a new project, a new genre, a new adventure! Of course, most of these projects don’t end up being published, but some of them do. And even the ones that don’t still have value. Something good always comes from the process – a fresh perspective, some new ideas, even lessons learned. The old cliché is really true: You don’t know what you can do, until you try!
If you’re feeling burned out or stuck in a rut – or if you’ve hit a roadblock in your current project that you can’t seem to break through – switch genres. Try a different project just for fun. For the love of writing. For the joy of creating something new.
Here are some simple steps to get you started:
1. Brainstorm and come up with a list of genres you’d like to try. Spend a couple of hours wandering around your local bookstore with a cup of coffee in hand and see what catches your eye. Or browse your own bookshelves. There are so many possibilities! Which ones excite you? Which ones scare you? Which ones dare you?
2. Narrow it down. Choose one style or genre to experiment with this time, and save the rest for later.
3. Do your homework. As an introduction (or a refresher) read at least four or five other books – preferably bestsellers – in the genre you’ve chosen. Research how-to books and articles on writing in this genre. You can even glean information on the typical length and format by visiting publishers’ websites and reviewing their submissions guidelines. If this seems too much like “work” to you, if you think it will shut down your creativity, you can skip this step for now. I find that learning new things inspires me. This step gives me a place to start, something to do besides staring at a blank page, waiting for creativity to strike.
4. Keep an inspiration notebook. Jot down story ideas or subjects that interest you, especially those that might be a good fit for the genre you want to try. Have fun with this! Turn off your inner editor and think way outside the box. Include clippings from newspapers or magazines, photos, cartoons, and other images that inspire you.
5. Set some goals for yourself. Once you have an idea, decide how many hours a day or a week you want to devote to “playing around” with this project. (Let’s not call it work, although, in one sense, it is – meaningful work, restorative work.) If it helps you to follow through, you can be even more specific and decide how many words or chapters you’d like to have written by a particular date.
Then get to work – I mean play! Rediscover your love for writing today!
Christin Ditchfield is the author of hundreds of nonfiction columns, essays, and magazine articles, and sixty-six books – many of them for children and families, including Cowlick! (Random House, 2007) She is currently experimenting with her first YA fantasy novel.