Proceed With Caution, by Chris Tebbetts

Before my actual blog entry, here’s a little relevant but blatant self-promotion, on this month’s topic of productivity. The workshop that I teach with Erin Dionne at Highlights Foundation, “Getting Your Middle Grade or Young Adult Novel Unstuck” is now available as an on-demand online course, through Highlights’ website. This packaged version includes recorded lectures and hands-on writing workshops; access to to discussion boards; monthly “office hours”; and one-on-one Zoom consultations with Erin or me. You can read all about the workshop here and/or feel free to post questions for me in the comments below.  
And meanwhile….


About a year ago, I started focusing more on a particular part of my creative process: the uncomfortable part. By that, I mean the “wandering in the wilderness” part; the not-knowing-what-to-write part; the part where I’m sitting for long stretches at my computer with a big “I don’t know” thought bubble over my head. 

Put another way, I’ve been trying to learn how to get more comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing how to proceed with a given story. Which is, after all, a huge part of the way I spend my time.

Still, all that not-knowing can be a very uncreative space. It produces a lot of anxiety, and for me, that anxiety is like muse repellent. Those moments where I can’t see the road ahead are the ones where I most often want to walk away from the computer, or even worse, give up on my story altogether. I’m guessing the same is true for a lot of writers. 

Now, flash forward to 2020. Nobody quite knows where the COVID pandemic is headed, or how long it’s going to last, or even what’s going to happen next. A lot of people I know have said that living with all of those unknowns has been a distinctly challenging time for their own creativity. The writing is difficult to get to, and even then, it can feel trivial and all too easy to abandon. 

Sound familiar? 

It’s been interesting to see how something I was already grappling with on the creative side has now echoed its way into my life in general. In both cases, the question is the same: How do I stay productive and keep going in the face of the unknown? 

On the optimistic side, I feel as though these past several months have acted as a kind of de facto call for all of us to try and live as much in the present moment as possible, and to work harder than ever at not letting an indistinct future exert too much influence on our own well-being. That’s all easier said than done, of course, but the first step in that direction for me has always started with an awareness of the problem itself.

Mary Oliver has said that “scary events are practice for noticing what’s going on.” For me, that kind of noticing is like turning a red light into a yellow one. It doesn’t let me go full speed ahead, necessarily, but it does help me proceed with caution, which is everything when the alternative is shutting down completely.  

Same thing for my writing. If I'm not sure where the story is headed, can I just focus on the scene or chapter that's (figuratively) right in front of me? Or maybe not even that. Maybe it's just about, as Olive says, noticing what's going on--where do I feel energized in this story? Where do I feel shut down? Does it help to journal about those unknowns? Can I make a list of things I still need to figure out? Or a list of things that I do know need to happen in my problematic story? Anything that might help me keep moving forward, however tentatively, is always going to be more productive than spending that same time focused on being stuck.  

Another bit of advice that I like came to me from Peter Crone, when he was a guest on the “Commune” podcast. In that interview, he talked about trying to see “I don’t know” as a neutral statement when we're faced with the anxiety of an undefined future.

For instance, “I don’t know how to finish this story” can feel a whole lot like “I’m afraid this story will be impossible to finish" if I let it. Likewise, “I don’t know when my life will go back to normal” can feel a lot like “What if life never goes back to normal?”

But in both cases, the only real fact on the table is my own not-knowing. It's a nuanced kind of thing, but sometimes the goal doesn’t have to be about getting rid of the anxiety so much as it is about learning to manage it, and realizing that all "I don't know" really means is, "I don't know yet." No artificial optimism required. Not if we can strip down our anxiety and differentiate between what we know is wrong and what we're simply afraid might be wrong. 

I’ve been trying to apply that line of reasoning to my work for a while now, and it’s been interesting to see how, more recently, the same learning curve has presented itself in my non-work life as well. 

And why not? Writing always has something to teach me about life—and vice versa—life always has something to teach me about writing, too.


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