One Weird Trick to Unlock Your Creativity

It’s kind of inconvenient. But I swear it works.

Amy Shearn
5 min readMay 30, 2023
See you there? (The Bunkhouse at the Red Clover Ranch)

In the interest of not burying the lede! » This fall, I hope you’ll join me and Sarah McColl in the dreamy Driftless region of Wisconsin for the first-ever Red Clover Writing Retreat. If you’re feeling stuck in your writing process, stalled on your fiction or memoir project, hungry for creative community, or just ready for a revitalizing break, this long weekend is for you. For more info about the retreat, or the gorgeous Red Clover Ranch, check out the site.

I’ve heard people say writing is lonely, though to be honest I don’t really relate to that content. When writing is going well, I find it to be ecstatically unlonely. After all, I write novels, and novels are full of people! I mean, I made them up in my imagination but still! You say “maladaptive daydreaming,” I say, “fiction writing.”

In fact, writers need alone time, often a lot of alone time, can be driven batty by lack of alone time. Personally, sometimes I’ve had to peace out of the city altogether in order to get ENOUGH solitude to work.

It’s when the writing isn’t going well when it starts to feel lonely in a bad way, which then can be enervating and discouraging. I mean, let’s face it: the whole enterprise of writing is pretty goofy. When the pretend people are misbehaving? When you realize you’ve been moving the same paragraph around a page for hours, trying to figure out where it fits, like a twisted form of Tetris? Looks like a game, feels like torture (please sing that in your head to the tune of the 1980s Easy Spirit commercial jingle).

I know that when I’m stalled in a project, or suffering a wobble in the cheerfully deranged faith in myself that allows me to work on a book for years at a time, that’s when I need to seek out the comfort of — sigh, yes, I’m sorry to say it, my introvert friends — people. Staring at your document and thinking about how pointless your writing is, how pointless writing in general is, how pointless LANGUAGE ITSELF IS… it’s what the professionals call “unhelpful.”

Those stuck, glimmerless moments are when writing community really comes in clutch. And I don’t mean, exactly, literary community — the bookish types you encounter at a monthly reading series or a book festival are great, and often very hot, don’t get me wrong. What I mean here is specifically other writers who are in the same stage of writing as you are. People who get it. People who can remind you why you write. It’s not even that someone will be able to untangle your plot points for you — although sometimes that does happen. It’s more that it simply helps to be around other creative people. You really never know what will be shaken loose by an interesting conversation with a poet over a cocktail, or while taking a long walk with short story writer. Even just the commiseration is priceless.

It extra helps if you can remove yourself from your day-to-day life. I know because I’ve been there.

Once, in the woods of Connecticut, Dasha Zibrova sketched me and Courtney chatting whilst ponchoed

Nearly seven (!!) years ago, I was feeling extremely creatively parched. I had little kids and a [redacted] marriage and a time-consuming job; I was stalled on revisions of my third book, which I thought I’d never be able to finish, let alone publish; in self-pitying moments I decided my writing career was totally over for like ever.

Then I heard Courtney Maum was starting an interdisciplinary retreat called The Cabins, and on a whim I applied.

As I drove from Brooklyn to rural Connecticut that sunny September weekend, I berated myself. This was such a stupid thing to do! Who even were these other people! Why, if I was feeling frustrated that I wasn’t writing, was I going somewhere to be around people, when obviously I should just, if I was going to set aside time and money for this, be alone and WRITING, like a good little creation machine? I was probably not going to get any writing done at all! It felt unforgivably inefficient.

But guess what? It was not a stupid thing to do. Courtney, first of all, in addition to being a terrific writer, is an incredible and indeed magical host. She had gathered a remarkable group of writers, artists, and filmmakers in a beautiful place. That first night, we had a dinner party full of great food, flowing wine, sparkling conversation, and a Jonathan-athon (you had to be there), and I remember thinking afterwards, now *that* is what I thought the writing life would be like.

After a few days of fresh air, fresh landscapes, fresh ideas from the other artists, and — very significantly, as it turned out — a fresh perspective on myself, I felt like a writer again, not just a tired and overwhelmed mom. Driving back home I un-berated myself. I hadn’t gotten many words down on paper, true, but now I would be able to. Now I was un-parched. Un-overwhelmed. Whelmed?

Anyway, I finished the novel. And then I wrote another and another. I’m not saying my weekend retreat was the only thing that made me able to re-inhabit my creative life, but it really, really helped.

Could you use a break from your everyday?

Would you like it to look like this? →

Photo couresy of Red Clover Ranch

This is why Sarah McColl and I wanted to start the Red Clover Writing retreat. We’re both busy, working moms who know how existentially bad it feels to lose track of one’s creative spirit. And we want to get writers together in a beautiful place and eat delicious things and gather around a fire pit to gossip. I mean, talk craft.

So! I hope you’ll join us — or forward this to a friend who really needs a creative reset. And even if this particular weekend in this particular Wisconsin doesn’t work for you, I hope you’ll find a way to connect with other writers and come away feeling restored.

Because you know what? We aren’t actually meant to be creation machines. We’re human animals. If we want to be able to make things, we have to feed ourselves. (Preferably delicious meals made by somebody else.)

Exercise: Think about a person in your life who always makes you feel restored and full of possibility. Write a letter to them. You don’t have to send it, but you can if you want to.

As always! If you have a writing project you want support on, or a manuscript that needs an edit, or if you’re looking for a regular writing coach or accountability partner, head to my website and book some time to chat. I’m currently booking new clients for September.

This essay was originally published in my monthly Substack newsletter. Subscribe here — it’s free!



Amy Shearn

Formerly: Editor of Creators Hub, Human Parts // Ongoingly: Novelist, Essayist, Person