Lying fallow

I’ve learned not to panic when my creative inspiration is gone.  Once, I would have strained to catch an idea or a wave of thought just to feel that I was creating something.  This is particularly pertinent, I expect, for those of us who have to set aside specific slots of time to create.  If we don’t use those periods productively, then surely they’ve been wasted.  But now, I accept that creativity works in cycles and the times when my creativity is at its most fruitful are punctuated by periods when it appears to be absent.

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Recently, I took a big step to focus on my creativity.  I reduced my hours in my job so that I would have one day a week specifically to spend time on my creative work.  Obviously this meant taking a pay cut, as well as shrinking the time I had available to spend on my job (since it didn’t get any smaller!), so it was a risk, considering I’m not yet a ‘professional’ writer or artist.  But, I saw it as a way to make a real investment in myself.  It was a statement that being creative was something important for me and my life, whether or not it leads anywhere.  This was something I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do at any time previously.  But, now felt like the right time to do it, and so I embarked on my creative Mondays.

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I knew that there would be Mondays that wouldn’t work out the way I envisioned them.  There would be times when I would have to use the day to run errands or complete chores.  There would also, no doubt, be Mondays when I would want to do nothing more than sit all day in my pyjamas and watch television.  But generally, I’ve found those days to be energising and productive.  In the morning, I take the dog for a long walk, perhaps along the river or to the coast.  This helps me to begin the day by absorbing sights, sounds and smells while thinking about nothing except my dog and our walk.  The walk stops me dwelling on worries or ‘to do’ lists and instead, gives me the necessary mind space to focus on my creativity.  Afterwards, I have the energy and motivation to immerse myself fully in writing or painting.

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But there have also been occasions when I have absolutely no creative inspiration to draw on.  After a week of dabbling, feeling moderately inspired, doing a little painting, a little writing, my creative day came and there was nothing there.  I tend to feel these times, not as a ‘block’, but as an absence.  I knew that I wouldn’t create anything that day, but there was no panic, no grasping for ideas.  I don’t view these periods as empty or blocked times, but as fallow periods.  In farming terms, by leaving a field unsown (fallow) for a season, the land is allowed to regenerate itself, to restore the nutrients that have been leached from the soil by overuse.

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This is a helpful way to view a period of ‘creative block’.  Rather than worrying about it, first, accept that there will inevitably be times when you don’t feel inspired.  Don’t force it, but think of it as a fallow period during which your creative fertility is restoring itself.  It may only be a day or a week, or it could, as in my own past experience, be a period of years.  You might find it helpful to think of your creative mind as that empty field.  Perhaps you’ll see it as bare earth, furrowed but unplanted, with mysterious processes taking place beneath the soil that will act as a perfect nursery for new ideas.  Or you might see it as a patch of land gone wild, colonised by beautiful plants that some would see as weeds and others as wildflowers.

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Following acceptance, the second step, for me, in making best use of fallow periods, is to indulge in what I think of as ‘passive creativity’.  So, I will use the time as a period of reflection, preparation and absorption.  What this meant for me this Monday was walking the dog as usual and snapping pictures just because I found them interesting: the wildflowers on the river banks, the fish quay at work, the shells on the beach.  I may use them to spark a painting or a story, or for nothing at all.  I wasn’t concerned about their quality or purpose.  I used them to observe the world around me without any creative agenda.

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Another aspect of passive creativity for me, is to absorb other people’s work – reading a book that I’ve read before, perhaps, watching a documentary about an artist at work.  I don’t believe that reading or enjoying art are always passive activities, but when I’m in a fallow state, this is what I want: something that won’t challenge me to engage with it too much, but will allow me to gently absorb it to help restore my own creative energies.  Another approach might be to do something you think of as completely non-creative, but for me, a different type of creativity is what works.

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‘Creative block’, or ‘writer’s block’, is only a label.  The words themselves sound harsh and unhelpful.  They hide a host of fears about failure and the sustainability of ideas.  Re-framing these times as simply fallow periods takes the stress out of them, evoking a sense of relief, an acceptance that you don’t have to actively chase your creativity all of the time.  It’s fine to leave your creative mind to turn a little unkempt for a while, to simply be receptive to whatever creative energy is out there, and to return, refreshed with a new crop of ideas.

40 thoughts on “Lying fallow

  1. Excellent post about the fertile vs. fallow energies of writing!
    You’ll never regret taking one day off to write. John Steinbeck wrote out how his mind got used to the predictable patterns he established, and after awhile it would kick in at the time even when he wished it wouldn’t.
    We’ll hope for amazing creativity and energizing writing patterns for you on the day that is now yours to invest in writing!

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  2. What a wonderful way to look at those times when creativity and the Muse seem to have left us. Selfishly, I wish I could have read this post several months ago. I suspect it would have allayed some of my worries and fears.

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    • Thanks JM, I’m glad you found it helpful, even if it came too late for your last fallow period – hopefully you’ll remember it during the next inevitable cycle. And thank you for the wonderful link from your blog.

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  3. Creativity has never been something I can schedule, and I sure envy those that can work like that. I get the most wonderful inspirations when I have my hands in the dishwater or am taking a shower and can’t get to a pen and paper fast enough! Yet, recently, when I had a whole week of complete peace and quiet all to myself, nothing happened 😦 I moped. And I went crazy because no matter if I forced it or relaxed and let it happened, it didn’t.
    When those moments come, be ready!

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    • Thanks for your comment Ayla. I love those times when my creativity is buzzing and my mind is full of ideas which strike at all sorts of times – I wrote a while ago about how helpful I find bus journeys for incubating ideas! But, when I had only odd moments to create, I’d find myself procrastinating because I felt I didn’t have time to do any of my ideas justice, so I have found it very helpful to have a period of time specifically set aside.

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  5. It’s wonderful that your giving your writing that day. So very important. You are right…the word block is extremely unhelpful, I never use it. I write around it. Something always comes, even if it’s unexpected.

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  6. I call these fallow periods too. The important point is when to let it lie, and when to begin digging in. I agree that exploring books or movies is a great way to re-invigorate the creative soil and then keep going.

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    • That’s an interesting point about letting it lie or digging in. My fallow period lasted about a week this time and it was enough just to be passively creative, but I’ve started to try to monitor these cycles to understand if there’s any pattern to them.

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  7. Sometimes I take writing sabbaticals. A week or a month off from writing. It helps clear my head and re-enforce how much writing matters to me. Sometimes space helps you see how much something matters. 🙂

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    • That’s a good idea Kourtney, I don’t know that I’ve ever took a conscious sabbatical from writing, but I can see how this would potentially get the ideas flowing and give a sense of excitement about getting back to it.

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  8. I agree; it’s only a label. Another thing that can help is to either be a member of FSF (five sentence fiction) / FF (Friday Fictioneers) in order to make yourself do a very small story each week, or you can elect to spend a part of that fallow period writing a 100 word story or a 3-5 sentence story ( beginning, middle, end) to keep your juices flowing. Works for me.
    Scott

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  9. Lovely piece here, Andrea. As a farmer’s daughter I found the image of the field very comforting. I wonder if, like you, because of all the time I spent growing up – surrounded by nothing but nature with a sense of all the time in the world – my creative droughts don’t seem too drastic because then I can dabble in my other love: simply observing the world. Though, I have to say when I feel a creative absence I am always aware that a small part of me wants to keep digging around for something, and it takes a moment to set a new course and remind myself that I am also happy when I am not working!!

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    • Thanks Gabriela, as much as I love being creative and feeling the ideas firing around my head, sometimes it’s just a relief not to feel that I have to be creative and to enjoy others’ creativity instead.

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  10. Lovely post, Andrea. I swung by to read as JM recommended this particular post as wonderful help to any writer who struggles to find the words, or the story, or whatever else is playing keep-away with the creative spirit. I am not going to say I am blocked again! 🙂

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  12. I so agree with this, it’s about knowing how your mind works and adapting. Most days I write [I think that’s the journalism dynamic in me] but there are days when I know that would be wasted and so I read or research instead. Or think, going for a walk is important too, or swimming lengths. SD

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  15. I like this, Andrea. It’s much gentler to envision writing this way as if flowing with life. I think it’s what I’ve been going through where my head and heart have been in conflict. I think my heart has been winning out. You describe it so beautifully here — it’s okay to rest like a field and rejuvenate. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

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    • Thanks Pat – I think it just takes the pressure off a bit. I’ve still been blogging recently, but haven’t been able to write any fiction for a few weeks – like you, various ideas, but nothing that I can bring myself to put down on paper, so I just accepted that and did something else instead.

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      • It does take the pressure off, thanks Andrea. I think I’ve just come to the acceptance part — didn’t realize I needed to do that. I was trying to make something happen that wasn’t there. 🙂

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