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.
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.
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?