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Today’s guest is H. M. Long! Her recently released Viking-inspired epic fantasy debut novel, Hall of Smoke, follows a warrior-priestess who is trying to set things right after having failed her goddess—and discovers there’s far more to her world and its deities than she’d been taught. A standalone sequel, Temple of No God, is scheduled for release in January 2022.

Hall of Smoke by H. M. Long - Book Cover Temple of No God by H. M. Long - Book Cover

Creativity in Crisis
Hannah (H. M.) Long

It’s March 2020. I’m hip-deep in drafting my second book on contract and editing my first. They’ve both been challenging but are still on track, thanks to long days alone and lots of time to focus. For a die-hard pantser I’m managing this whole outline thing well, I think, and I’m looking forward to starting a new project in June.

Of course, then the pandemic hit. All the sudden my husband and I were in lockdown with my parents, brother and his girlfriend — six adults in one house during a Canadian winter that stuck around until mid-May. All the ingredients I felt that I need for creativity (solitude, quiet, my own schedule) were chucked into the snow. New stresses and challenges came at me — at all of us — at every turn. Sure, I still had a better situation than many others, but I hit my limit.

My creativity died. Poof. No more sudden inspirations, sending me scrambling for a notebook. No more beautiful sentences pulling together in the back of my mind. No more vivid characters leaping onto the page. I didn’t even have the will to sit down at my computer, and when I did, everything I wrote felt strained. Wooden. Flat.

I floundered around for a while, battling for focus, let alone creativity. I lamented with my artsy friends, and found them saying similar things. There was simply too much going on, too much worry and noise, to create — at least not joyfully, or freely.

This got me thinking a lot on the nature of my creativity. What is it, to me? What does it need to grow and flourish? How could I bottle that up and protect it, contain it in a world suddenly turned on its head?

This is what I came up with, the things that got me through that I’m still relying on today. These aren’t great breakthroughs or lofty scientific discoveries. They’re probably things everyone’s heard before. But it’s the simple reminders, I often find, that I need most.

Space and silence. For me, my subconscious needs space to cultivate creativity, and quiet to let it grow. By space I mean freedom from restrictions, schedule and obligations — which adulting really isn’t conducive to. This is that “inspiration in the shower” phenomenon, that moment when all you have around you is hot water and tile, you’re mechanically doing a routine you’ve done 10,000 times before, and your subconscious is free to run. Then, that shiny new idea suddenly makes itself known.

But how to recreate that? I found that small, simple steps made a world of difference. Whenever I could, I shut my phone off for a few hours in the morning. The rest of the time, I turned off notifications from everything but calls. I stopped watching the news. I’d take long walks in nature — without my phone. (Notice a trend?) I also got a proper schedule book and started to use it religiously, and when we got the chance, my husband and I decided to leave town and moved to a cabin in the bush. That last one isn’t a very accessible change, I know, nor an easy one. But my word, did it help. No longer was I soaking up the business and anxiety of pandemic town life. (Now, all I have to worry about are the bears and moose — but that’s another story.)

Structure and reliability. Quite opposite to freedom, sometimes creativity needs to be fenced in. It needs expectations and guidelines, boundaries it can run free inside. It needs to be sat down at a desk and given a blank document, whether or not it feels like working that day. It doesn’t always cooperate, but it can be trained like a muscle. And, like a muscle, it must actually be worked in order to grow. Sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike is romantic, but impractical, especially in an unpredictable world.

Those three hours in the morning where I shut my phone off? That was all the structure and reliability I could give myself, so I took it. And, little by little, creativity showed up. Sometimes I’d write 500 words. Sometimes 3000. Sometimes I’d delete chapters. Sometimes I’d just end up eating cookies and staring at the wall. But I showed up. I gave myself that time and space, and something happened.

I wrote two novels this year, and edited another. I’m proud of that, because I know I fought for each and every word. Yet I’m prouder of what I learned through it. Learning how to be creative in the midst of crisis is a skill I hope I’ll continue to refine throughout the next challenge, and the next. And though every person, creation, and situation differs, I hope something here has resounded with you, too.

Photo of H. M. Long H. M. Long is a Canadian fantasy writer, author of HALL OF SMOKE and TEMPLE OF NO GOD, who loves history, hiking, and exploring the world. She lives in Ontario, but can often be spotted snooping about European museums or wandering the Alps with her German husband. She tweets @hannah_m_long.