Creativity is great. At its best, it’s fertile, energetic, enthusiastic and rewarding. And sometimes the very best way of writing oneself out of a block is to doggedly apply the seat of one’s pants to the seat of a chair and get on with it.
And sometimes, it’s not.
I haven’t painted for 18 months. My studio has lain barren, a junk-room, unappealing, chaotic. Now, having cleared out the dead spiders and chucked out the dead work, I’ve begun to paint the way a decorator does, brushing white emulsion over piles of old canvases and boards, each one representing hours, days, weeks of work and thought. Slowly a pile of white surfaces is growing, spaces for future images.
It’s the same with the writing. Eight months with barely a shoot. I’ve been through various stages of frustration, guilt, anger and misery, envying fellow writers their engagement and feeling like an outcast. And yet now, with the first stirrings of new ideas, I can see that the fallow time was necessary. Patrick Gale (author of Notes From An Exhibition) says he waits for two years before he begins to write a novel. Two whole silent years!
Fallow periods feel barren. And frustrating. And guilt-inducing. And time-wasting. It’s easy to beat oneself up for lack of activity. And when there’s no inspiration, it’s all too easy to believe that it will never come again. Yet it is only through being empty that a vessel can be filled.
Inspiration stems from the Latin word inspiro – I breathe in. We need to be inspired in order to express. Writing is like breathing out: expressing, sending energy out into the world and onto the paper or the screen. But energy isn’t a one-way street. We need time for replenishing. We need time to be empty, so that we can be re-inspired. The rhythm of the world and of our bodies show us this: Tides ebb and flow. The moon waxes and wanes. Light gives way to darkness. We breathe in, we breathe out. If we only breathed out, we would die. The trouble is, modern culture doesn’t give much time or value to the ebbing and the emptiness.
Old-fashioned farmers leave their fields fallow for a season so that the soil can rest and regenerate. And perhaps old-fashioned writers could do the same for their souls. Poets know this. There are many spaces on a page of poetry: between words, between lines, between stanzas. Maybe these spaces represent the ruminating time, the resting time, the silence before inspiration.
I saw a man fishing yesterday, from the end of the pier. It was very, very cold, and he was wrapped up in a coat and a hood, solitary. Was it the fishing he loved, or the excuse for silence and contemplation, some simple emptiness at the end of a productive day? There are seasons in the writing year, I think, to sit silently and fish the waters of the unconscious: there’s a lot more down there than meets the eye, and everything comes to she who waits.