Lesson #5: The German Forest

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OK, we're about half-way through this writing stretch. Are things getting difficult for you? For many, this is the hardest part of the whole process! If you're making steady progress, congratulations! If you're struggling, it's OK. But don't give up hope.

Today's lesson is more of a pep talk. (If you're keeping yourself accountable with deadlines, you should have a few thousand words written at this point, aiming for 5K words by July 20th.) This is a talk that personally resonated with me and I hope you'll enjoy it. (I even have a picture of a German forest set as my computer wallpaper as a constant reminder.)

A few months ago, I went to a live Radiolab, featuring host/creator Jad Abumrad and cellist Zoe Keating. Abumrad talked about the process of founding the now-popular Radiolab and the general struggles that most creatives face.

He spoke about the feeling of "gut churn": that clenching feeling in your stomach that accompanies creative work. You might feel gut churn early in the process. For me, I feel "happy" gut churn when I start something new, and "anxious" gut churn when I release something into the world — generally circling back around to "happy." Regardless, though, feeling that gut churn is a good sign: a sign that you're making something worthwhile. 

Then he told a story that really encapsulated what it feels like to be immersed in a difficult creative endeavor. It's a story Abumrad has been telling for years. While working on a Radiolab story about Wagner's operas, Abumrad felt that he was getting lost in the Black Forest of Germany. He felt the looming trees all around him, evoked from the opera's narrative. He said the same feeling of unease and fear mixed with a smattering of boldness occurred with every story that eventually turned out to be great. Now, he sees "getting lost in the German Forest" as integral to his creative process. It's how he knows he's on the right track.

From a write-up by Alec Nevala-Lee:

Abrumad [says]: “And we at Radiolab have given this state a name, because it happens quite often. We call it ‘the German forest.'” And it’s a place, I think, where most storytellers find themselves sooner later. When you begin a project of any size, whether it’s a long essay or a short story or an entire novel, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to cover, and one of the hardest part of the process is translating the inchoate mass of ideas in your head into something that can be consumed in a sequential form. Abrumad doesn’t minimize the difficulties involved, but he notes that wandering through that forest is an essential stage in any creative endeavor:
[Abumrad continues.] "When I heard the Wagner thing on the radio later, I was like, 'Whoa, somewhere in the middle of that trauma, I think I found my voice.' There’s a real correlation between time spent in the German forest and these moments of emergence. And to be clear, the German forest changes. That sense of, the work is just too big to put my head around this, how am I gonna do this, that never changes. But what does change is that the terror gets reframed for you, because now, you’ve made it out a few times. You can see over the treetops, and into the future, to where, there you are, you’re still there, you’re still alive."

The German Forest is beautiful and dangerous, much like creative writing. It's easy to get lost in the process and the story. Allow yourself to get lost. Explore the depths of your creativity. Remember the light that shines through the trees. Push forward until you find a clearing, or set up camp in the thickets. It’s OK to lurk and linger in the process.

I’ll see you on the other side.

— Ashley