Issue 3: Figuring out your creative metabolism
5 min read

Issue 3: Figuring out your creative metabolism

So much has happened in the last two weeks. There have been widespread anti-racism protests, many of which have been organized by Black teen girls. Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed after falling asleep at a Wendy’s drive-through. 15,000 people marched for Black Trans Lives and the Supreme Court ruled that all LGBTQ people are protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton were murdered. There has been a drastic change in public opinion, especially towards movements like police abolition. Breonna Taylor’s killers still haven’t been arrested, even though the law named after her banning no-knock warrants has been passed. Many companies are reckoning with the disparity between the values they espouse and the actual treatment of their Black employees.

Through the torrent of information, I am trying to remember that we owe much of the change that’s happening to the scholarship, activism, and outspokenness of many people who have been doing the work for far longer than the last two weeks. I want to learn about how we got here and where we go from here. I want to sit with stories long enough even when the media cycle moves so quickly. It’s been a lot to digest.

Now, more than ever, I think about the novelist Mary H.K. Choi’s concept of a “creative metabolism,” how I’ve developed my own, and how to sustain it when so much is happening in the world:

I believe in a creative metabolism working in a way where I have ingestion periods. Then, I have gestation periods. Then, I have output periods. I feel like these three things are really, really important, and they work hand-in-hand, but they have to be discreet from one another. I’m not good at multitasking, and I’m certainly not good at consuming and ejecting at the same time. I know a lot of people are. I’m not saying it’s unnatural, and I really admire people who can do it. I just can’t.

Full disclaimer: I have long periods where my creative metabolism is just plain halted — and that’s okay. Rest periods are crucial. Creative writing also includes writing that you only do for yourself. Some things I will read, process, and never write about. But increasingly, as I think more about treating writing as a career as well as an artistic practice, I’ve realized that in order to build a body of work, I need to loosen my idea of perfect writing conditions and just fucking write. For a long time, I hesitated to call myself a writer. Though getting published or paid for my writing helped boost my confidence, what ultimately changed my mind was realizing that I must do the verb—write. Nothing has taught me that better than writing challenges.

These are my output periods, when I keep Jane Smiley’s quote in my head that “all the first draft has to do is exist.” I’ve done two 100 Day Projects (in 2015 and 2018) and last year, I did half of National Novel Writing Month. In the last two weeks, I completed #1000wordsofsummer, a writing challenge started by the novelist Jami Attenberg where we write at least 1000 words every day for two weeks. My goal was 14,000 words and I ended up writing 18,207 words of a new novel idea I’d been sitting on for a few months. I’d been thinking about the topics and themes for the last few years, but hadn’t known how to write about them until now.

I think if I’d gone into #1000wordsofsummer without having done those other writing challenges first, I wouldn’t have completed it. In a way, these have all just been building the muscle of writing—making space and time for it, pulling my focus in, and writing even when it feels difficult. Some days have been more challenging than others, but as many of the encouraging letters I received in my inbox from #1000wordsofsummer have said, it’s helpful to focus on your curiosity, to give yourself the gift of taking yourself seriously, and to make writing foundational, not a luxury.

If the first step is figuring out what your creative metabolism looks like, the next step is to iterate on how you approach, in Choi’s words, “ingestion, gestation, and output.” The ways I approach each creative metabolic period have changed over the years. Where I used to share excerpts of my work-in-progress because the social accountability was useful, I now feel comfortable only sharing a word count update and nothing else. Where I used to feel like throwing away drafts was a personal injury, I now feel more confident discarding work because writing it still taught me something about myself. Maybe one day, I’ll finally develop a more regular writing routine that doesn’t require these bursts of output.

Everyone’s creative metabolism is different. Right now might be your time of intake or output. Read and listen. Sit with things. What is the hardest thing for you to write? What do you care about? What do you keep coming back to? Turn them over in your head. And when you’re ready, write. In whatever way you can.

SpongeBob looking at two pages of a book with a distressed look, one is labeled "staying informed" and the other is labeled "staying off social media to preserve my mental health."

Creative resources

Recent reads

I loved Jenny Zhang’s poetry collection My Baby First Birthday. The poems are fierce and aching, exploring how we do not choose to be born and what it means to be born into a white, capitalistic, exploitative, patriarchal society that feeds on women’s pain and oppressed voices. The language Zhang uses reminds me of Cathy Park Hong’s essay in Minor Feelings about “Bad English”:

Once a source of shame, but I now say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.

This week, I encourage you to purchase any two books by Black writers in support of the #BlackPublishingPower initiative. The goal is to Blackout bestseller lists with Black voices. Consider buying them from Black-owned bookstores. I bought Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler and Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo from Semicolon Bookstore, Chicago’s only Black woman-owned bookstore and gallery space.

I also devoured The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, a fun workplace enemies-to-lovers romance novel. I finished rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is now finally on Netflix, and started Normal People on Hulu. I rented the very enjoyable Lucky Grandma which follows a gambling Chinese grandma on her quest for independence as she gets entangled with local gangs.

~ meme myself and i ~

I love all of the Avatar TikToks. We love to see a ripped Uncle Iroh. Move over, Cabbage Merchant, this guy is the best background character. Drink lots of water. Imagine taking Zuko’s Starbucks order!

Two screenshots from Avatar the Last Airbender where Sokka advises villagers they can repay them with supplies and money. A Tumblr user comments that this interaction is like calling essential workers heroes during the pandemic while they work for minimum wage.