On Lying Fallow

FallowFieldI’ve been feeling a little desperate recently. A little panicked. Because for the first time in more than a decade, I don’t have anything to write.

Oh, I have a few ideas: the novel that I didn’t think I was capable of writing before I started writing novels, the short stories that might eventually be collected with the one I wrote this summer, the mystery/thriller that my daughter and I brainstormed a year ago and which feels too far outside my wheelhouse. But those ideas, as interesting as they might seem, are like seeds that have failed to sprout.

For the first time, I understand why many writers don’t feel comfortable talking about their works-in-progress. During all my past projects, I’d enthusiastically entertain the question, “What are you working on?” It didn’t matter if I were only a thousand words in, I’d offer the verbal equivalent of a parent showing off photos of the new baby, because once begun writing, I was devoted to whatever idea had initially captivated me. Even during the inevitable crises of confidence, my book-in-progress held me in its thrall so tightly that I’d never consider not cultivating it.

Now, I could forgo any of my ideas. My imagination has been plowed and harrowed and is ready to be sown, but I don’t really want to work on something I could so easily abandon. A new worry arrived: am I still a writer if I’m not writing?

Today I went on a walk to try and shed the restlessness. As I neared the end of the block, a sideways deluge that came on so fast there was no point in trying to outrun it. Apropos of my metaphorical dark cloud, I decided to continue my walk in the rain.

The storm was over before I got home, and I noticed the way the grass and trees twinkled in the sun. I thought about how sated and nourished they must be, how they would retain their robust green that much longer before it was time to go dormant. But dormant they will eventually go, then green again, and on and on along nature’s cyclic path.

And I? I wondered as I walked, Why should I not also be on a cyclic journey? Instead of thinking of a fallow period as some sort of failure, maybe I should let myself be nourished and sated by other creative pursuits. The Little Free Library initiative that I’ve undertaken in my neighborhood, for example. Or the upcoming start to my fourth year of teaching for Writers in the Schools. Or the pile of wonderful books on my nightstand. As I considered this literary harvest, I realized that as necessary as writing is to me, not writing might be equally so. Henry Miller may have concurred: “The life of a creator is not the only life nor perhaps the most interesting which a man leads. There is a time for play and a time for work, a time for creation and a time for lying fallow.”

And just like the flash thunderstorms that Houston is known for, I need to trust that eventually a new idea will come, all of a sudden, and drench my ready imagination. Whatever seeds are planted there will grow and green, and soon enough if you ask me what I’m working on, I’ll be more than happy to tell you.