The Writing Process

Empty-Nest Syndrome: Coping with the End of a Long-Term Project

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After nearly 4 months, I finally finished the piece I was working on.  Now that it’s complete, I’m nagged by that dreaded inevitable question: “what’s next?”

This feeling is familiar to most writers.  We work untold hours diligently, dedicatedly, even obsessively on a project, completely absorbed in an idea only to finally finish and feel a sort of sadness.  This project, this idea had been the epicenter of our lives, the nucleus around which our whole existence circulated: without it, we feel lost like a dog that’s strayed one block too far from home.  While immersed in this assignment, an unplanned afternoon was a welcome respite. “Yes!” we rejoiced, “we can finally write!”  Now-without an idea to focus our attention-a few hour reprieve usually consists of us unsuccessfully deciding what to do with ourselves.

I like to think of each creative project as a baby.  There is the initial conception when we glimpse an idea that enraptures our imagination.  Then there’s the months, even years of gestation when that idea develops into a fully formed piece.  There are moments when we go into labor and expressing our vision is acutely, excruciatingly painful.  But once the project is birthed, once our darling little idea has matured into a novel or movie or book, we’re like woeful mothers suffering from empty-nest syndrome.  Now that the kids are all grown up, what are we going to do?  Do we rush head first into the next thing?  Or we do wait patiently until the next project calls to us?

As with most things, perhaps the answer is a little bit of both.  On one hand, it would be stupid to hurry on to the next project just to fill the void of our lost child.  Whenever we write, our subject should beg, demand, to be brought into the world.  We should never embark on a project simply to escape inertia.  On the other hand, it’s equally dangerous to just wait for an idea to “call” to us.  If we wait until that magic moment when the idea miraculously finds us, we’ll be waiting a long time.

So what are we writers to do?  First, we must learn to sit with the quiet lulls between periods of frenzied activity.  Dawdling, moodling, puttering: all are part of the creative process.  Once we finish a long-term project, we should take time to rejoice in our accomplishment before moving onto the next thing.  After months and months of intense labor, perhaps it’s time for more leisurely reflection: what idea, what topic can we not stop thinking about?  What fascinates, puzzles, excites us?  What compels us to the page?  

While we shouldn’t rush to embark on our next creative venture for fear of standing still, we must not expect our next idea to just “come” to us either.  We must, as Jack London once wisely advised, hunt down ideas with a bear club.  This is the time to reflect, to ponder, to research, to read, to question, to examine.  This is the time to search and to seek.  This is the time to take a safari of the soul.  

So if you are feeling discouraged or empty since completing a big project, remember: with exploration and effort, you can uncover the next idea that demands to be brought into the world.

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