Creativity Corner #6 — Creative despair

I was so psyched for Thanksgiving weekend. Not just for the turkey and stuffing, but for the FOUR DAYS of unscheduled time, most of which I planned to spend with this personal project I’ve been working on. And then I fell into the Pit. You know which pit I mean: creative despair. Nearly 350 years ago, writer John Bunyan called it the Slough of Despond. When a man falls into it, Bunyan wrote,

“there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

Yes, this Thanksgiving in addition to turkey and stuffing I had a triple-helping of “fears, doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” about my writing. I’m sure Bunyan had them too, which is how he knew so much about the Slough of Despond—but he climbed out of it and published a book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has been in print continuously since the first edition in the 1670s. If you thought your work would have even half that long a life, you’d climb out of the pit and get back to work, wouldn’t you?

cover of Austin Kleon's book Keep GoingIf only it were that easy. I tried all the tricks I know: I called a writer friend and requested a pep talk. She reassured me and then we talked through what had thrown me in the Pit. I grabbed a book that’s been sitting on my shelf since its publication last spring—Austin Kleon’s Keep Going, excellent medicine for what ailed me. I turned to Dale Trumbore’s inspiring book about creation and anxiety, Staying Composed. I also went to movies and walked the dog and watched Law & Order: SVU marathons, and knitted.

And I wrote. For 15 minutes every single day, even when I definitely did not want to. Even if it was crap—which it mostly was. Even though every phrase I wrote seemed to say, in that taunting schoolyard lilt, “You’ll never solve your PROB-lem. You’ll never solve your PROB-lem.”

And then I did. I wrote something, partially inspired by my writer-friend’s pep talk, and I took it to my writing group and they agreed: it solved my PROB-lem. And I was out of the Pit and making progress once more.

I hate the Pit, but I know you can’t get to creativity without some creative despair. It’s inevitable. Climbing back out of the Pit is not inevitable, but only because so many people give up once they fall in. I knew that as long as I kept writing, I had a chance at getting out. And so do you.

Keep Going. It’s not just a good book, it’s great advice.

I’m beginning to hate writing. What do I do? — Frequent Questions

Q: I’m beginning to hate writing. What do I do?
A: Keep writing, of course.

One of my writers got frustrated the other day. We’re past the halfway mark in the Bennett Ink 90-day Writing Challenge and finding something to write about for 15 minutes every day was becoming a slog.

I congratulated her.

Congratulated?

Yes, because she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be as she establishes her daily writing practice. As Seth Godin reminds us in his brief but wise book The Dip, everyone who tries to do something different goes through a rough patch. Those who persevere will eventually climb out of it; those who don’t get stuck.

Godin isn’t the first person to articulate that concept of the Dip. Writer John Bunyan wrote about it in his famous Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. Wikipedia tells us that the book, written in 1678, “has never been out of print”—quite a publishing feat. Bunyan called his version of the Dip “the Slough of Despond.”

hate writing? keep writing
The Slough of Despond, in the last third of the first panel. See? Fixed borders. From an 1821 edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Public Domain

So just what is this “miry” place, the Slough (rhymes with “cow”) of Despond?

“…it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

I added the emphasis there. Does that feel like anyplace you’ve ever been?

Now, Bunyan was talking about Christians’ doubts about their faith—marketing to his niche audience, if you will. But Godin argues—and (big surprise) I agree—that everyone trying something new travels through that dark, discouraging place. The trick is to keep traveling. That’s what Bunyan’s Pilgrim did. And that’s what we need to do too.

Hate writing? Keep writing

So you enjoy writing enough to want to do it every day. Maybe for your own enjoyment, maybe to meet a business objective. You start out full of enthusiasm and then, little by little, you realize the joy has disappeared. Some people will give up.

Other people may get confused: “Didn’t I use to like doing this?” Their memories of past enjoyment may keep them slogging through a little longer. But when the “fears, doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” stick around, they might just give in and give up.

The trick is to know that the Slough of Despond has fixed borders. Keep plowing through and you will get to the other side. Eventually. I promise.

You just have to keep doing whatever it is that landed you in the Slough to begin with. If that’s going to yoga classes every day, then get out of the damn bed and grab your mat. If it’s writing every day, then—love it or hate it—you write every day.

And celebrate the heck out of it when you do.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.