Trusting Your Creativity—Even When You Aren’t Creating

Trusting Your Creativity Writer's Block

Trusting Your Creativity—Even When You Aren’t Creating

Last year I discovered a wonderful Austin program called Neighbor Woods, where you can register to receive free saplings from the organization in the interest of sustainability and helping combat climate change. They brought me four lovely baby trees, among them a pomegranate.

The pomegranate embraced life in my yard. A slow-growing tree, nonetheless it seemed to immediately spread its roots and its branches; it filled out, greened up, and I excitedly awaited my first harvest of its fruit in a few years.

And then a few weeks ago its leaves began fading, then yellowing. They thinned out. My tree was failing.

I watered more frequently, and fertilized it. I did the things I thought I knew how to do to encourage growth.

Finally, when I did some research to diagnose the problem, I learned that pomegranates are deciduous. They naturally yellow and drop leaves preparing for the winter and then leaf out beautifully again in the spring.

I mistook a natural fallow cycle for ailing that needed attention. And with the best of intentions I gave my tree all the things it didn’t need—too much water, unnecessary fertilizer. I jeopardized its health by trying to force it to grow during a normal cycle of rest and retreat.

The Cycles of Creativity

Lately I’ve been feeling a little like my pomegranate.

The last eighteen months have been exceptionally busy for me—my business and my creativity flourished and grew, like my tree. I kept a breakneck pace that was exhilarating…but also exhausting.

After a nearly nonstop year and a half of presentations, speaking engagements, articles, and book releases, on top of my work with authors, my schedule finally slowed down in December…and so did my motivation.

New ideas don’t seem to be coming as fast as they had been. My productivity has stalled. I find it harder to get to my desk in the mornings and create, to bring my brain fully online—and I’ve been flogging myself for the slack.

I started to worry I’d lost my mojo.

I think many of us panic when our creative force deserts us, when it becomes difficult to write, when we have trouble focusing, or when the ideas don’t come. 

But like so many things in life, creativity is cyclical. Things that require great energy and effort to grow also need time to incubate.

Creativity is cyclical. Things that require great energy and effort to grow also need time to incubate.

You can’t keep dipping from a well that needs time to replenish.

As with my pomegranate, when our creativity is in a dormant stage I think we can inadvertently do more damage in trying to force it out of its natural resting cycle.

We may push ourselves to meet our daily word count, grimly sit down at the desk every day, force ourselves to get words on the page no matter whether we have anything to say at the moment. So many of us feel guilty every moment we are not actively working on our craft.

Lying Fallow Is Part of the Process

When the pandemic first hit I heard over and over and over from authors that they were too stressed or busy or just discombobulated to write. On top of all the anxiety as COVID upended our lives for the first time, many felt distraught at the “abandonment” of their creative efforts.

So the first thing I did, in March of 2020, was create a presentation I offered for free to writers’ organizations and groups—“How to Train Your Editor Brain”—to show authors how much we can feed our creative energies even when we aren’t writing: simply by learning how to analyze the books we read, movies and television shows we watch, the music we listen to; by noticing our feelings, reactions, thoughts…and what provokes them. That’s how we learn how to put those experiences on the page to affect our own readers. (I’ve since added the course to my online offerings here.)

Creativity is about creating—but actually writing is only part of that process. So much of it is also observing, processing, thinking, understanding…paying attention.

Creativity is about creating—but actually writing is only part of that process.

Sometimes not only is that enough, but it’s the essential work of being an artist, a writer. You can’t create unless you fill the well. You can’t leaf out again until you go dormant sometimes and gather your nutrients and energy.

As with me and the pomegranate, we must realize that what we’re experiencing and feeling isn’t death—of my tree, or of our creative spark—but recharging. We have to trust that our life force and our creative spirit will never desert us. They may just need to lie fallow for a bit.

Once I calmed myself down about my tree and realized it was simply in a natural life cycle, I was able to relax and enjoy the beautiful yellow of its leaves when they caught the sunlight in a way that the opaque green leaves did not, and lit it up like a golden nimbus in my backyard. I can notice it looking like a bare stick in the lawn now without panic, knowing it’s gathering its resources to flourish again in the spring.

And I’m trying to give myself permission to do the same—to spend time baking or decluttering or catching up on sidelined chores. To train my dogs, take them for walks, sit on the floor and pet them. To hang out with my husband and other family and my friends, make dinners, have conversations, binge-watch movies and shows and books. All without guilt or worry that my creativity and drive have deserted me.

The measure of ourselves as artists doesn’t lie in how much creative work we churn out. It’s about the entire process–work periods and fallow periods, times when we bear fruit and times when we go to ground to shore up our energies for the next growth spurt.

Especially in the lull the holiday season offers, I hope each of you takes whatever time you may need to go dormant for a while…trusting that when the time comes, your creative energy will always return.

How are you feeling creatively these days, authors? In these challenging times, are you finding your work is sometimes impacted? What do you do in those times to regather your energy and let the spark rekindle?

14 Comments. Leave new

  • Tiffany, I needed your words right now. My husband passed away from Covid in September, and the shock, grief and recovery from Covid myself, has kept me in a void. Now that three months have passed I’ve begun to wonder if I will ever want to write again. I’ve critiqued a couple of things for my critique partners, but feel stymied with my own creativity.

    Your post made me realize that right now I’m where I need to be. No guilt. No pressure. Allow my creative roots to go deep and multiply as I heal. I’m finally able to read. . . a lot, and enjoy binge watching Criminal Minds on Netflix while I crochet blankets for friends. I’m feeling nudged to jot down ideas for what I’m calling Living the Learning Curve, since I’m living alone for the first time in my adult life. Just a nudge. No urge to write. But I think that’s okay. I’ll take my lead from your pomegranate and rest and gather strength for a new season. From my heart to yours, thank you, Jan.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 30, 2021 1:58 pm

      Jan, you have been on my mind since our email exchange. I can’t imagine how challenging it must be to have lost your husband, to spend these first holidays without him, and continue to readjust to such a heartbreaking, enormous change. Your courage and grace amid such difficulty continue to inspire me–as does the way you are maintaining your creativity even in times where it sounds like it feels awfully hard to find solace in it, and turning your experiences into something that may help you and others who face loss and readjustment.

      I hope you have loved ones and friends who help ease your burden and your heart. And I’m so glad you’re here with this community too–writers show me over and over how supportive and warm they are. Feel free to email me again if you’d like to chat about more places to find like-minded creative souls, if it might help nurture that part of you even while you let yourself rest and gather strength.

      Thinking of you, friend. Take care of yourself.

  • Mandi Eizenbaum
    December 30, 2021 1:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing this post, Tiffany. It is certainly right on the money! Simply, it’s really comforting to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way about my writing and all the things going on for the past two years. Good luck to you -happy and healthy new year!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 30, 2021 2:00 pm

      Thanks for taking time to say so, Mandi. It always helps me to know my experiences aren’t outliers too. I think these ups and downs are just part of the creative process–which I suspect is also especially reactive to things like, you know, global unrest and uncertainty. 😮 Happy New Year to you as well–and I’m hoping for brighter days in 2022.

  • Oh my goodness, Tiffany, as Mandi and Jan have previously commented, your post couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. I too have been dealing with some personal issues that have distanced me from my current WIP. I’m on a tight editorial deadline, so I’ve been feeling guilty and discouraged—something I’ve not felt before in my writing. On the one hand, with the isolation of Covid I was able to get my third book published this year and I’m well on my way through the draft of my fourth. On the other hand, the despair of our current world situation seems to have caught up with me and I’m suddenly feeling depressed and exhausted.

    Tiffany, I really appreciate your transparency in sharing your own feelings about creativity. Mandi, I’m so very sorry for your loss and I wish you peace and gentleness as you go through this incredibly challenging time. Xo

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 30, 2021 4:51 pm

      I’m so glad this hit you at the right time, Karen. I suspect a lot of us are feeling a bit of creative ennui, given the holiday lull and world events. Congrats to you on getting your third book published, despite all that! Meanwhile, take care of yourself, and I hope 2022 brings us a little more sunshine. Thanks for taking time to drop a note.

  • @ Jan Fugman: I am so very sorry for your loss, Jan. Loads of love and a big hug coming your way. I too lost my husband very suddenly and very unexpectedly many years ago now.
    The period of grief never really ends, but it does become manageable. I promise. Little by little days become easier: people say fewer and fewer foolish things because they don’t know what to say; the isolation that losing your partner brings diminishes; and slowly you will rejoin the human race.
    Ironically, my loss helped me make the best decision of my life. I continued the MFA that I had barely started, and I began to believe in myself as a writer. I had a few poems published. A short story placed in a competition. A piece of non-fiction was accepted for publication.
    I still miss my late husband every day, but I am eternally grateful for the choice his loss made me make. It saved my life.
    With time, things will look a little better, your joy and wonderment will be restored, and you will be able to breathe again.
    Val xx

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 30, 2021 5:32 pm

      What a beautiful response, Val. I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband. I can’t imagine it–but how inspiring that you opened the door to your creativity even amid such a huge loss. Congratulations on all your successes–and thanks for sharing your insights and your kindness.

  • Thank you, Tiffany! I love getting your posts in my email! As everyone previously stated I’ve been uninspired lately. Kept beating myself up, especially when someone would ask, “Is your book finished?” Now I know that I’ll be back in track soon. Ready with more exciting stories, thoughts, and edits. Thanks for the needed words.
    Sending my thoughts and best wishes for those that lost someone. Loss is hard but there is always hope around the corner.
    Thanks again,

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 30, 2021 6:30 pm

      Thanks for your kind words and support here, Patty…for me as well as the other readers. And I’m pleased the post was well timed for you! Seems like a common feeling at the moment, with the holidays and everything else going on in the world. Take care of yourself.

  • Mary-Chris Escobar
    December 30, 2021 10:39 pm

    Thank you so much for this reminder. I stumbled on the image of a tree being fallow in the winter a few years ago in the middle of a creative dry spell and it was immensely helpful– so it was poignant to get a similar reminder today. I just spent a large part of the afternoon cleaning out my personal inbox. It’s amazing how light it feels to shed the wait of all those undeleted messages (same feeling cleaning out my closet gives me– I guess my inbox is my virtual closet 🙂 ).
    It’s so important to remember, and so easy to forget, that things like this, and all the other things you list (time with family/friends, reading, watching movies, listening to podcasts) all contribute to making space and filling the well for our creativity. This meditation from Sarah Blondin was my first introduction to the “tree in winter” concept and I return to it often when I’m feeling down about not being traditionally productive:
    Also sending peace to those grieving- thank you for sharing both the hurt and the hope of it all here. May be all be gentle with ourselves as we move into 2022.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 31, 2021 2:55 am

      Thanks for the meditation link, Mary-Chris; I’m going to try it tonight. I’m with you on decluttering things! I love the feeling of freedom and space it offers me. Thanks too for sharing your kind thoughts for the other commenters. This community always warms me with its kindness and support.

  • […] the year? YOU ALL KNOW IT’S TRUE), here’s a little encouragement (see, not all negative) from Tiffany Yates Martin, who talks about the creative cycle. I’ve learned to respect this cycle, even if it’s not always easy during the “lying fallow” […]

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