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Vintage WD: You Can Avoid that Dry Spell

In this article from 1940, editor and author Jane Littell advises writers on how to avoid running out of inspiration.

Writer’s Digest, May 1940

By Jane Littell

WD Vintage_1940 Littel

Are you continually filling up your reservoir of inspiration?

If not, then sooner or later will come the slump that all writers dread …

There are very few writers who have not had a story returned from an editor who always bought their stories, with a note that said:

“This isn’t up to your usual standard!”

Maybe you knew when you sent the story out that it wasn’t quite up to par. Maybe you sent it to another editor who had not your past performance to judge by, and that editor bought it. Maybe you said, “If Editor A won’t buy my stories, Editor B will,” and maybe Editor B does buy them. If Editor B stops buying after a while, then you had better examine yourself and your work and see what goes on.

Time, and a return to all the old activities that you have abandoned lately, cures slumps. Oh, yes, you’ll find that you have been so busy being an author that the whole pattern of your life has changed, and the trick is to change it back to what it was.

Are you filling up your reservoir of inspiration as fast as you deplete it? Our wells of inspiration must be refilled continually, and by that I mean the accumulation of experiences, emotions, pleasures, and pains that make us what we are.

You are writing out of a deep well of material that is composed mainly of things your conscious mind has forgotten. All your years of living have gone into the preparation of that material. Some writers burn up this backlog of material faster than others. Some—the ones who never hit a slump—replenish as fast as they use it.

I can explain better, probably, with personal experience. I had been turning out stories as fast as I could type for five or six years before I used up the accumulation of living. I had thirty-five years of living behind me when I started to write stories. I loved living and I loved people, and the people I met always got into my stories. Every new beau made a dozen stories. Every party meant the gain of a smart quip or a bit of dialogue. Every prank went into a story. Trips, cruises especially, were rich with story material. One of the editors I wrote for said that when I quit having fun, I’d stop writing. And she was just about right.

Four deaths in my family left me with no heart for fun. For two years I didn’t do anything but write. I was doing the best work of my life and a lot of it. And then one day, the well was dry.

You see, I had neglected to replace my sources of inspiration. I had been drawing on life, at first hand, for story material. When I stopped that, it was like ceasing to put money in the bank. It wasn’t long before I had drawn out all my balance.

I know now that I should have substituted some new source of inspiration. I should have seen new plays and movies, read all the new novels. I should have seen people and encouraged them to talk about their own affairs, even to tell me the stories of their lives. I should have kept my contact with excitement, even if it were vicarious excitement.

I couldn’t think of a plot to save my life, and when I finally did, I couldn’t give the story that power that sweeps a reader along to the end. I gave up trying and went to Hollywood because it was the most exciting place I could think of.

To get inside the studios, I registered for extra work, and finally got a job writing dialogue. I had some money saved, so I avoided one of the awful phases of a slump, but I made myself live on what I earned in pictures, because I was still in a panic of fear that I would never write another story.

I always urge writers to save money. Until they learn that dry spells can be avoided, and keep the intake of experience on a level with the outgo of source story material, there is always danger of a dry spell, and a little money in the bank means the difference between a quick comeback and a long spell of suffering. The one thing that you’ve got to do is get rid of the panic. If it doesn’t matter to your stomach or your landlord whether you write for a while or not, you’ll get back to writing that much sooner.

So there I was in Hollywood with a job and an urge to take the place apart and look at the pieces. I had a wealth of amazing experiences, and I forgot that I was a writer who couldn’t write anymore. That is an important part of the cure, too.

One day out of the blue came an idea for a serial. Did I chuck the studio job and write it? I did not! I said to the serial plot, “You stay in the back of my mind and get ripe. If I tried you now, you probably wouldn’t write, anyway. One of these days I’ll get around to you.”

But that serial wanted to be written and it gave me no peace. I kept making notes, bits of dialogue and plot incidents, and finally a sketchy outline. I still didn’t believe I would ever get it finished the Saturday morning I started it. By Sunday night I had forty pages written. In three weeks, working evenings and weekends, it was finished. Ten days after it was mailed, I had an acceptance by wire. A publisher in New York and another in England brought it out in book form. My slump was over. I had done a spell of living and filled up the reservoir with what it takes to write.

Need I add that I was on the first ship that sailed around through the Panama Canal, on my way back to New York and writing?

I had learned my lesson. If people were my inspiration, I would fill my life with people, but I have learned from talking to other writers that there can be substitute inspirations. Books, the theater, movies, the radio will bring you new thoughts, new ideas. It doesn’t matter where ideas and knowledge come from, as long as you are taking in something that your subconscious will digest and then give out.

And it is your subconscious that does your work for you. You’ll agree with that, won’t you? Planning a story is like putting a lot of raw foods into a pot. You turn on the heat and presently you have a stew. You give your characters to your subconscious and presently you have a conflict; i.e., a plot.

We do not know how to cooperate with our subconscious. I have heard writers claim that they know, that at bedtime they gave orders to the subconscious what things to have prepared to write in the morning—like telephoning a list to the grocery. Maybe it works for some people, but it never did work for me. My subconscious has its own system, which is secret to me. All I can do is take what it gives forth, with gratitude.

It takes a heap of living to make a writer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be physical action, either. It may be the lives other people have lived, close to you. But a steady flow of happenings, motives, emotions must pass through your mind into your subconscious, and must enter in a continuous stream to supply that certain something that lets you make stories real to the reader.

The important thing to remember is that your ability to write is like your bank account—you must keep putting in to have something there to take out.

Can you remember back to the beginning of your writing days? There seemed to be a story in every happening, every person you met. That was because you had that full well of experience to draw upon. You had something tucked away to color any happening. You remembered just the perfect incident to turn a plot.

Maybe you thought that well was bottomless. Would that it were! Maybe you were so thrilled with your newly discovered talent for writing stories that sold that you took the best of your hoarded material first, and poured it out in a fine frenzy, never realizing that a vacuum would occur, thanks to your spendthrift generosity. Maybe you were so busy being an author that you gave up golf and tennis, or fishing, or whatever it was that once you loved to do. You did? Well, my friend, hurry back to the amusement you once enjoyed. Fill every minute with living, except those hours you must set aside for work. Even let work go occasionally when something turns up that promises enjoyment.

How many writers have you heard brag that they could turn out three thousand or five thousand words every day? Don’t you try to do it, unless it is your natural pace. Find your pace and stick to it. There is a natural way for each of us to work, and the natural way is most likely to produce the best results. There is more to writing a good story than sitting at a typewriter a certain number of hours a day.

Health enters into it, and happiness and comfort, and a feeling of security.

There is a simple way to test the supply of inspiration on hand—the content of the well. Do you go to your desk gladly in the morning? Are you so filled with the story that you are about to write that you are impatient of anything that keeps you from getting started? Good! You’ve got the material to work with.

But woe unto you if you hate the thought of getting to work. You had better go out and do a spell of living and let the well fill up. You can force yourself to the desk just so long, but when your subconscious rebels because it no longer has any new material to work with, and you begin writing with your conscious mind, you’re headed for that dry spell that you were so sure would never be your portion.

So don’t forget to do a lot of living and listening and thinking in between those hours at the typewriter. And if that dry spell does arrive, just remember that you aren’t the first writer to know that particularly awful panic. You can do something about it.

Life as a writer can be difficult to sustain, especially if you don’t have the direction, organization, and support you need. Get a glimpse into the life of a professional writer and set realistic writing goals for yourself with this online workshop.

Life as a writer can be difficult to sustain, especially if you don’t have the direction, organization, and support you need. Get a glimpse into the life of a professional writer and set realistic writing goals for yourself with this online workshop.

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