I write this from the warm comfort of my bed. It is 16:03 (on Wednesday September 23), yet I have barely strayed from this position all day, and am unlikely to.
The Obvious Reason
I have a cold. My head feels heavy and sore, my throat stings, and my nose seems to have reinvented itself as a tap for congealing chili-oil with a washer problem. When rise I become shivery and achey, which makes my desk, with it’s cold hard surfaces, looks horribly inhospitable. So I return to bed. Though I’m not so ill I can’t function; I’m wide awake, and actually made a batch of scones earlier. It is, after all, just a cold.
The Reason Less Obvious
Last week was the busiest I’ve had as freelance arts practitioner, ever: I had a thirteen hour event to run* (with help), two** other workshops to deliver, and a two day conference to help facilitate. The last few months have seen me writing, researching, and rewriting plans and material; marketing; organizing; discussing; negotiating; finding and engaging speakers/tutors, and all the other stuff that goes with such enterprises. The whole experience has been rather like crop farming: seeds were sown, followed by watering, pricking out, hardening off, planting out, thinning, feeding, weeding. There were the random problems that have one rushing out into the rain, or sun, to protect the delicate. Slugs, weevils, caterpillars et al had to be monitored and removed (no pesticides here). And then the harvest. I made the mistake of choosing crops that would all come at once, so had a week of frantic, near mind-breaking work, and now it’s all over. I should be free to get on with the next job.
I had intended this week to get straight back to my book, which has been lying in wait for me like a faithful lover since the beginning of August. But the last two days were taken up with domestic and administrative tidying, and today I feel too fogged for the problem solving a third draft requires. So I half lie, half sit, like a spoiled, sickly house-cat. Or so it seems.
The soil must rest before fresh seed can be sown, or the next crop will fail.
Even if I were feeling in the peak of health I probably still wouldn’t do much good to my book. Creatively, I’m spent. For two months I’ve been running like a Trabant in the Plymouth-Dakar rally: my oil’s congealed, my spark-plugs are burnt out, there’s a hole in my cooling system (apologies for the metaphor switch); I could probably run on a little longer, but at god knows what cost to the air quality.
Had the cold not materialized, by now I’d probably be accusing myself of procrastination, and whining that I’m not a real writer because real writers just get on with it. Didn’t Peter De Vries say something about ensuring he was ‘inspired at 9am every morning.’? And Bukowski, he said that thing about real writers needing only paper and a pencil to write. And don’t we hear all the time about writers, Stephen King for example, who churn out books like factories?
Yes. But there have been just as many real writers who speak of the need to take a break between books (e.g. Virginia Woolf), and others who argue that teaching robs one of creative energy. Ted Hughes’s letters are full of complaints about this, as is Sylvia Plath’s Journal. Both of them talk about the difficulties they faced trying to teach for a living and make good creative work at the same time, because teaching takes everything, and they needed to rest afterwards.
Just like a Trabant can’t run without petrol, or a potato can’t grow without nitrogen, a writer can’t write without, um…
Ideas? Knowledge? Experience? Imagination?
William Faulkner argued that a ‘writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others.’ I realize you don’t use up these things in the same way a car uses up petrol or a crop uses up nitrogen, but it does seem that there is a period between projects when you’ve used up the energy needed to access your imagination, observational skills, and experience. So you need to feed, and rest. Also, I find there’s a distinct space between one project and the next which needs to be negotiated.
Once I’ve emptied my art reserves they need to be refilled. I know lots of people who do this by getting out into the hills, and I do find that helps. But what I really need is to idly mooch in the artistic milieu. I need to look at paintings, and sculptures, and talk about such things as the emotional impact of colour. As I don’t live in 1930s Paris, or round the corner from Tate Modern, I read books, listen to my musician pals talk drunkenly about the virtues of dropped ds on Friday nights round our kitchen table, and wander the internet. It works pretty well.
For example, I spent most of this morning going through my Pinterest account and either moving or copying pins to different boards. I use Pinterest to store images and links that inform my creative work, and my boards are named for the various categories I feel are key to this. But for a while now I’ve been finding particular images aren’t where I thought they should be. Too many categories overlap, and some pins need to be in more than one place, so reorganizing is something I’ve been meaning to do for months. Although it’s not a difficult task, it is time consuming, and until today I hadn’t got round to it. If I wasn’t taking an enforced break this simple but important job would be unlikely to get done, yet it will save me heaps of time when researching in the future. Just knowing I’ve begun it makes me feel lighter. And, by looking at images of art, design, and beautifully photographed nature all morning I’ve added to my creative reserves. I’m not sure any of this will have a direct impact on my book, but I can’t be positive about that, and it will definitely have an indirect impact by reminding me of such things as perspective, narrative devices, and framing. Not to mention the more quotidian choices people make every day. For example, as I was browsing I stumbled on a hashtag about dressing for work. I have no idea about that kind of thing, and my main character has to spend time in an office in a key scene, so, actually, it did have a direct impact. I haven’t written that scene yet, but I now have some idea about who populates it. All this was achieved while lying idle in bed.
There’s more to being a writer than writing. You don’t spontaneously generate an idea, write till you have a poem, story, or book, and then immediately start again with another idea. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Peter De Vries was getting at. Ideas grow in the soil of your observed experience, and imagination. That soil needs a fallow period. You can write only when you have taken in enough to work with. An idle spell allows your mind to feed, and rest.
How do you restore your creative spirit between projects?
*this was the only one that paid actual money.
**I didn’t make it to the last one, on Saturday, as I had a car problem which I’d probably have been able to solve if I hadn’t been so knackered.