Over the weekend I sat down and began writing a few times, but never finished any of it. The weather was sunny, warm, and beautiful, and getting outdoors seemed much more appealing.

The rowing club had a canoe race on Saturday against some members of the canoe club across the river. My husband got in the canoe, but I opted to watch from the shore, which turned out to be a wise decision when the canoe overturned in the middle of the river. No harm done to anything but the rowers’ pride, but I was glad to have stayed dry.

Then I got “Margaritaville” stuck in my head for most of Sunday, which was apparently my subconscious mind’s snarky answer to whatever thoughts I had about being more diligent with my writing.

When I went to bed, I tried to reboot my brain and get ready for a more creative week by listening to ocean sounds on my clock radio and trying to visualize an insightful younger self with a helpful life lesson to ponder. But instead, all that came to mind was an image of Fannie, my 119-year-old future self, sitting in a lively beachfront bar that looked like something out of Star Wars and smiling at me while holding up—yeah, you guessed it—a margarita.

At least there was no Jabba the Hutt anywhere to be seen, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for small mercies. I don’t know the reason I’ve been goofy all season, but I know it’s nobody’s fault. Or maybe, well, it could be my fault…

I got outdoors a lot over the long weekend—rowing and bicycling, and the hot weather was just right for the swimming pool. My daughter and her husband came down from Cleveland to visit. Their Labradoodle puppy still hasn’t quite figured out how to walk up the pool steps, but at least he has discovered that he can stand on the bottom step and leap out of the pool.

There wasn’t really much time for blogging, which was okay until an annoying self-critical part of my subconscious began to draw unfavorable comparisons to my creative output in the past. Maybe you’ve lost your mojo, it suggested nastily. You haven’t written much in months. What happened to the days when stories just popped into your head all the time, no matter how busy you were?

At first I tried to dismiss the voice, but then I started wondering—did I really have that much more creative energy in the past? Maybe this was just selective memory playing tricks on me, highlighting times when my younger self bubbled over with new stories, while skipping over the mundane stuff. How would I know?

Then it occurred to me that an imaginary visit with one of my younger selves might help me find an answer to that question. I decided to call her Butterfly because there was a time, many years ago, when I pictured one as my animal spirit guide, carefree and flitting easily from one place to another.

I tried to construct a mental image of this younger self sitting comfortably with a pen and notepad in hand, busily scribbling away. She had her own ideas about that, however. The comfy chair stayed empty; and when Butterfly finally showed up in my mindspace, she was pedaling cheerfully along on a three-speed bike from the 1970s, with her bell-bottom jeans rolled up so they wouldn’t catch and rip on the chain.

I was riding next to her in the same workout clothes I wore on Sunday in the park, on my Made-in-the-USA fifteen-speed Huffy bicycle from 1994. It still works just fine, as does my husband’s matching bike. (Over the weekend he upgraded both bikes with nice modern carbon-fiber water bottle holders, which, needless to say, is the only bit of carbon fiber to be found anywhere on them—but, at least now they’re not 100% ancient.)

Photo of Meg Evans on an old Huffy bicycle

“Hello,” I said to my younger self, as we rode slowly along a quiet, shaded path in the park. The fast-paced real world seemed very far away.

“Hi,” replied Butterfly in a distracted tone, just before stopping her bike in the grass beside the path and exclaiming, “Ooh, look at the pretty flowers!”

I stopped next to her, and yes, the flowers were pretty—wild roses and honeysuckle all tangled together like a bright, living curtain that swayed gently in the breeze.

“If I had my phone with me,” I said, talking more to myself than to my companion, “and this was a real place, I’d take a picture of these flowers for a blog post.”

Butterfly turned to face me, frowning slightly, as if she thought I’d said something very peculiar indeed. She inquired, “Don’t you ever do anything just to do it?”

Now it was my turn to feel perplexed. “Well, of course I do. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors this spring. But lately I’ve been feeling like I haven’t had as much creative energy as usual—so, I thought I’d ask you about that. How do you manage distractions and stay creative?”

“Manage distractions?” she repeated blankly, as if I’d been speaking in a foreign language. Then, apparently losing interest in the flowers, she hopped back on her bike and pedaled briskly away, leaving me to catch up with her.

Wondering what I’d said to confuse her, I tried rephrasing the question. “I meant, how do you stay creative when you have a lot of things happening that distract you?”

“Well, usually they’re all different things, aren’t they?” Slowing down for a moment as we rode through a bumpy spot of dried mud, Butterfly raised her left hand in a vague gesture that seemed to include trees, grass, a squirrel, and some cottonwood fluff drifting softly to the ground. “And creativity has to do with fitting a lot of different things together in ways that make sense in the story, right? So, distractions should never be a problem, in themselves. If they aren’t naturally coming together into stories that make sense, then maybe the question to ask is: What other random thoughts have been wandering into the picture?”

After we rounded a curve, a straight, level pathway stretched before us, cool and pleasant in the shade of the overhanging trees. All I could hear was the chirping of the birds and the humming of our wheels.

“You know,” I said finally, “that way of looking at it does kind of make some sense.”

Butterfly, whose attention now seemed to be focused mainly on a woodchuck munching clover on the other side of the path, didn’t answer; but I thought I saw a little smile forming as she glanced away from me.

I’ve found myself running low on creative energy during the dark winter months, especially this year. Blog posts and stories don’t come to mind as easily; or, if they do, I haven’t felt motivated to actually write them. Although I know that this is not at all uncommon, it still goes in the category of frustrating stuff that leaves me feeling stuck and pointlessly ruminating on what went wrong.

So I decided to look at it as an opportunity to apply my New Year’s resolution of gratitude for the not-fun lessons. I asked myself: What is good about these days when I don’t feel like writing? First of all there’s the Internet and blogging in general, allowing me to read and comment on others’ posts and feel a sense of connection, regardless of whether I post a blog entry myself on a particular day. Next up on the gratitude list is simply that my blog exists and has been around for a while (its five-year anniversary is coming up next month). Whether or not I feel like writing, the site is always there, giving me a platform to build on.

Another good thing is that even though the winter days are cloudy and dark, they haven’t been particularly cold this year. Birds were chirping merrily outside my front door on Sunday morning. When I stepped outside, I saw little green shoots of crocuses and hyacinths already coming up. Although that likely won’t be good for the flowers if it turns much colder, it makes my garden look more cheerful, anyway.

Green shoots of spring bulbs coming up in January.

I felt a bit more energetic today, just enough to turn that list into a blog post. The moral of the story—to the extent there is one—is that even when we’re feeling stuck, there are always bright little spots of new growth coming up somewhere. We just have to look around and find them!

About five years ago, when I contributed a post to a group blog, I had a brief email conversation with its administrator on the subject of satire. Most of the blog’s entries were thoughtful, reflective essays, but a few of them had a satirical tone. I asked how often he preferred to mix those posts in with the more serious stuff. He replied that he didn’t have such a plan because satire just showed up whenever it had a mind to; it generally didn’t take well to being put on a schedule.

The following year I started this blog, which I envisioned as having a reflective tone with a focus on exploring cultural narratives. Other topics came up as well, such as writing and creativity, decluttering, and positivity. Until now, though, it hadn’t occurred to me that there are no satirical posts on this blog. I wasn’t intentionally avoiding such entries; they just didn’t come to mind, although I had written satire on occasion in the past. I briefly wondered if I’d lost my ability to write with an eye for the absurd.

Eye decorated to resemble a bird's head.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

I decided that wasn’t the case because I do have some rather fanciful posts here. Although they are not in the realm of satire, perhaps that’s because I have made more of an effort to avoid being overly judgmental in recent years. Satire necessarily involves some amount of judgment as to whatever is being satirized; and it’s all too easy to cross the line into mean-spirited snark and leave readers on the defensive, feeling that their beliefs and their culture have been unfairly attacked.

That’s not to say the genre always should be avoided. On the contrary, satire often serves a valuable function in pointing out what’s ridiculous about our cultural assumptions. But it also tends to make people uncomfortable because it holds up such an unflattering mirror. Because I wanted to create a blog where readers would always feel safe and welcomed, maybe I’ve been subconsciously steering clear of satire and other types of writing that might cause discomfort.

If so, I wouldn’t characterize that as either good or bad in itself. It’s just a reflection of where I happen to be at the moment. And who knows, maybe there will come a day when a satirical post just shows up and insists on being written, no matter what other plans I might have!

Over the weekend my husband spent a lot of time doing homeowner stuff. He cut the grass on Saturday and power-washed the deck on Sunday. It all looks good now, though we still have to wait for the wood to dry out before staining the deck, and there was some rain yesterday.

My backyard after the grass was cut and the deck power-washed. 

Meanwhile, I was lazy and sat on the couch reading a sci-fi novel, The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s about an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars when his crewmates mistakenly think he was killed in an accident, and then he has to figure out how he’s going to survive until he can be rescued.

The author is such an uber-geek that he actually wrote a program to calculate the orbital dynamics for his fictional spaceship’s paths. But readers don’t need any particular knowledge of math and science to enjoy the story because it’s written in a chatty, wisecracking style that is easy to follow. While I don’t have a hard science background myself, I do appreciate a meticulously plotted novel.

I felt some little twinges of guilt about not having done much writing myself recently. Then I thought, well, I’m just being silly. After all, I write my blog and stories for fun, and to share that fun (and cheerful positive energy) with others. There’s no money involved, and certainly no need to impose a regular production schedule on myself.

In fact, with fun as the metric, I believe it’s fair to say that the more fun I have in life generally, the more successful my blog is likely to be!

I wrote this post in draft with my favorite pen, on the first sheet of a new notepad on a cool, damp morning. That seemed appropriate after a week when I hadn’t felt at all like writing, or indeed doing much of anything on the computer.

First two sentences of handwritten draft on a lined notepad. 

Instead of trying to force the muse to get busy when she was nowhere to be found, I decided to reflect quietly on what benefits, if any, there might be in days without writing. At first the very idea that there might be something positive going on seemed a bit of a stretch; it was hard to wrap my mind around it. After all, in our culture, anyone who is audacious enough to claim the identity of “writer” is expected to scribble away daily and produce enough material to be worthy. Bursts of inspiration should appear regularly; and if not, we must go forth on a brave quest to slay the evil dragon of writer’s block.

The underlying fear seems to be that if a day goes by without feeling motivated to do any writing, many more will follow, and soon the dragon will be found gleefully gnawing on the poor failed writer’s bones. That’s a silly fear, of course—for those of us who process our experiences mainly through written words, putting down our words on paper (or the computer) is as natural as breathing. Sometimes we may get so busy with other things that we lack sufficient processing capacity, but it always gets freed up after a while.

Coming back around to my original question, then, a day without writing would be a day when the subconscious mind requires more mental CPU space to process other things; and the benefits, in general, would consist of a better understanding of whatever else is being processed. So, after meditating on it for a while, I concluded that “writer’s block” is not really an evil dragon to be feared—it’s a perfectly normal response to the human need to make sense of our experiences, in one way or another.

I had a phone conversation with my dad earlier this week and mentioned that I enjoy blogging. He asked whether I’d been trying to find a literary agent and get my writing published. I said no, and then the conversation moved on to other topics. But I was surprised by the intensity of my gut reaction, which was along the lines of, “No, I don’t need to beg any agents or publishers to validate my writing. I am so totally over that!”

Given that I hadn’t actually submitted any manuscripts to literary agents in a very long time, and not much even then, I wondered why such feelings had popped up all of a sudden. Way back when the Internet Age began, I got involved with online creative writing groups and posted stories to their lists. Many of their members dreamed of being traditionally successful published authors, and they polished their works with great care before submitting to agents.

One guy sold a novel and was thrilled—until the publisher chopped up the story beyond recognition in the editing, while randomly adding the word “Sex” to the title. After he had a few local book-signing appearances, his poor abused novel mercifully expired, going to its literary graveyard with no second printing.

Graveyard with green grass and flowers around a fresh grave.

(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)

After that I didn’t give much thought to conventional book publishing—well, at least not consciously. Something must have been going on beneath the surface, though, or I wouldn’t have reacted to my dad’s question as I did. I ruminated for a while over what it might have been, and finally I put it in the general category of sorting the what-comes-next uncertainty.

That is to say, like many of us, I’ve had my job for years and it is well suited to my temperament and skills; but in today’s fast-paced world, people don’t expect to keep the same job forever. As a result, we’re left feeling unsettled about not having a better idea of what comes next. A lot of subconscious processing goes on as we try to work through all the complicated factors involved, which include cultural views of success.

So, I’d guess that my “so totally over that” reaction meant I had been subconsciously considering whether I might want to be a traditionally published author in the future—or, perhaps, whether I still had much interest in conventional notions of success carried over from many years ago, in general. Apparently, without even being aware of it, I already had answered that question in the negative. I’ll take that as the voice of my intuition offering wise guidance!

Today I commented on a blog entry about the complexity of negative thoughts, as contrasted with the simplicity of feeling good. Negative self-talk can easily get out of control and spiral into persistent nasty thought loops; but when life is going well, people often don’t have much to say about it. In my comment, I suggested a writing exercise for the blog author—imagine that a problem she worries about has gone away, and write at least 750 words about how good everything feels now.

Then it occurred to me that I could benefit from the same exercise, as I’d been guilty of negative self-talk about my writing earlier this week. I started writing a blog post on Tuesday, decided that it totally sucked, and deleted it. Then I had a different idea for a post on Wednesday, but after writing one paragraph I wasn’t sure how to continue, so I saved it for another day. Meanwhile, I had another topic rattling around in my head, but never got started on it.

Of course, I know that’s just the way everyone’s writing goes sometimes, and there is no point in worrying about it. Still, I have to admit that I felt frustrated this week even though I knew better. So I decided that instead of just telling another blogger how to focus her energy on positive thoughts, it was only fair that I should take my own advice and compose a 750-word essay on the subject of feeling good about my writing. As the old saying goes, “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

Mated pair of Canada geese in green water.

(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)

A GREAT DAY: Today was a great day for blogging. I had lots of creative energy. When I sat down to write this post, the words all flowed easily and organized themselves neatly into paragraphs, with very little effort. Finding an illustration for the post was quick and easy, too. It only took a moment to decide that a photo of geese would look good before this paragraph, and I found an image right away when I searched for one.

I felt comfortable taking a break from my writing because I knew that there was no need to hurry. I had complete confidence that after getting up and walking around, I’d still be able to finish the post just as easily when I got back to it. I did not give any thought to how much time had passed. Nothing else needed my attention in the moment; there would be plenty of time for the to-dos and chores later. A holiday clock chimed a happy Christmas song, and I felt cheerful.

When I imagined other bloggers reading my post and gaining more confidence in their own writing, I felt strong and inspired. I was secure in the certainty that I have the personal power to bring about change in the world, and that I have gained some understanding of how to use that power responsibly. Although I make mistakes just like everyone else, I know that I generally can correct them before they turn into anything major, as long as I take the time to reflect on my actions and consider their potential effects.

Before I started writing the post, while I was still in the process of getting my thoughts organized, I ran four miles on the indoor track at the Recreation Center. It was cold here today—the temperature never got above freezing—but that was okay because the only time I spent outside was to walk through the parking lot. Getting exercise is much easier when it’s part of a regular routine, and staying fit goes a long way toward keeping up both physical and mental energy.

I ate a healthy snack of dried dates while sitting at the desk because I know that staying well-nourished makes everything that I do much easier, including my blog posts and other writing. Taking proper care of my body will help to make sure that I have both the health and the creative inspiration to keep this blog going for many years. Also, I made sure to sit up straight; after all, feeling comfortable when I type my blog entries has a lot to do with paying attention to good posture.

After looking at the monitor for a while, I closed my eyes to rest them for a few minutes and thought about the good fortune of living in modern times. I felt grateful for the technology that allows me to share my writing so easily with friends across the world, while visiting other blogs and gaining insight into many diverse perspectives. I appreciated how wonderful it is to have a blog where I can enjoy social visits, get my thoughts better organized, improve both my writing skills and my understanding of life in general, and just have some good creative fun!

Not being perfect, I did notice the occasional self-doubting thought creeping into my head when I got closer to the end of this post, along the lines of whether I’d be able to get it all finished today or whether I might be running out of steam. But then I told myself that it really didn’t matter what day I got finished—the point of this exercise was simply to feel good about my writing, and that shouldn’t have anything to do with the day when a particular entry might happen to get posted.

I believe it’s fair to say that I accomplished what I set out to do—that is, collecting my good feelings about blogging in this entry to demonstrate (mainly to myself) that these good feelings have plenty of weight and complexity. Whatever worries I might have about finishing my entries promptly and staying on a regular posting schedule are insignificant by comparison. I’m pretty sure that my readers are not overly critical on the subject, nor are they likely to be.

Even though it may sometimes seem as if negative feelings are more powerful and complex than good feelings, that’s not necessarily true. It all comes down to the question of where we choose to focus our thoughts in the here and now.

I spent some time on Tuesday reading old stories and blog posts that I wrote years ago, along with other people’s writings on a website I once enjoyed that is no longer active. Maybe it was the damp, chilly feel of a dark November afternoon that put me into this reflective mood, gathering fragments of past selves like autumn leaves fallen from bare branches.

Bush with bare branches in front of a brick wall. 

I’ve had similar feelings in the past as winter drew near; but this year they seemed different, more peaceful and natural somehow. Rather than worrying that I had lost my creative spark, moping about the loss of online friends who had found other interests, or trying to force myself to work on current projects, I quietly acknowledged the feelings while knowing that they soon would pass. I didn’t judge the merits of my current writing by comparison with my past efforts, nor did I turn a critical eye on my previous work. All that happened, simply put, was that I spent a little time visiting with myself.

When I started composing this post, I wrote the word “melancholy” in the first paragraph instead of “reflective” to describe these feelings because that was how I thought of them in past years. I suspected they might be unhealthy—perhaps a symptom of seasonal depression? I didn’t know where they came from, what purpose they served, or why they might be showing up at this particular time of year.

Then I edited the post because I don’t believe that anymore. On the contrary, it seems likely that some of the stress I felt in past years was a consequence of not taking enough time to pause and reflect. Because our culture pushes us so hard to be active and productive at all times, it can feel unsettling to step aside from all those to-dos and spend more than a few minutes looking back on past experiences. But now, on these short, dark days when my inner voice speaks of quiet reflection, I trust that it has its reasons.

Once upon a time when I wasn’t so concerned about whether I should be doing more important things instead, I wrote goofy stories in response to challenges posted on creative writers’ lists. You know, stuff like “Write a story where the main character’s lines come from the lyrics of a popular song.” But I got busy with other things and didn’t write much fiction for a while. After that, I found it wasn’t flowing as easily as it once did, but instead felt more like a slow stream lazily meandering through mossy rocks.

Stream flowing through mossy rocks.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Then I was reminded of how much I once liked challenge stories when the author of the cheerful blog Nuggets of Gold recently invited her readers to post ideas for story topics in the comments, and she would find something to do with them! So I’ve decided to give my creative writing a boost by joining in the fun with a new weekly feature, Tuesday’s Tales. Even if I end up with a lot of silliness, at least it’ll keep me from taking myself and my writing too seriously.

Readers, please feel free to post challenge topics here. What would you like to see a story about?