Yesterday I picked up a copy of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, and opened it to the page where she talks about writing as a process of filling up and emptying out. It made me think about where I am in my writing life at the moment, having just finished a long project that took a lot out of me, both creatively, and personally. Empty felt like a good word.
I like the way Ms Lamott, thinks of writer’s block – not as a barrier, but simply the state of emptiness that comes after a great outpouring of work. It makes sense to me more than anything I’ve ever read about writing. A natural ebb and flow of creativity and rest.
I’m definitely familiar with the fullness of writing, too. There is a moment during every book I write when I am fit to bursting with words and I rush to my novel with an urgency I didn’t know I had in me. It doesn’t happen overnight; it comes after many hours, days, or weeks of filling myself up, readying myself to work.
And now, once again, I find myself at the end of a book. It’s time to uncouple from the story and say farewell to my characters, at least for now. After so many hours together and so much time invested, the end does feel a little like the empty ache of homesickness.
So how do I go about filling myself up again?
For me, it’s all about being conscious and open to ideas, sounds, smells, textures, words. I read a lot. I listen. I write down words and phrases in my notebooks. I eavesdrop on conversations, notice mannerisms of passing strangers, and allow myself to slip into my imagination before I fall asleep each night. If that’s not cutting it, I try something different. I cook or sew, learn a language, or explore new music. I’m patient with myself. I refuse to listen to the voice that tells me I will never have another good idea or write another book.
I’ve come to believe that these fallow periods are just as important as the fertile ones. How else can we figure out what direction to take next? What idea we want to grab onto and work with?
Every book I finish feels like the last book I’ll ever write. Each time I can’t imagine being that consumed by another story or knowing characters as intimately I know the ones I’ve written. But then, when I’m ready, I move on and the fun begins again. That’s the nature of creative work; you can’t give up, even if you wanted to.