This was first posted as a guest post at J’s blog
When the wells run dry
One of the more familiar and dreaded problems of the creative life is that of being blocked. Writers write of being cursed with writers’ block, artists speak of similar blocks and musicians talk of dark times when the internal music seems to go silent.
It’s probably worth looking closely at what is happening when this sort of experience prevents you from expressing your creativity freely, because there are a number of different kinds of problem at the root of this issue.
The first kind of block is one where getting started seems to be the problem. A writer will agonize over first lines, artists over the first brush stroke, and musicians over those crucial few bars at the start of a piece of music. Often a change of scene will do the trick; many writers who work normally at home find they can start more readily if they work somewhere else. A deliberate change in routine can also be beneficial; swapping morning for evening, weekday for weekend. You get my drift.
The second kind of block comes in the middle of a work, when suddenly the impetus you felt at the start evaporates, ideas seem stagnant and dull and sometimes you even lose sight of where you were going. At time like these you have to say to yourself, “Courage, mon brave!” and keep trudging onwards. Good discipline helps here. You’ve come so far and it would be a waste of all the early effort to give up now. In a novel, this usually comes somewhere after fifty thousand words, roughly halfway. The only real cure is persistence and determination. Sadly, these are not things you can easily acquire; though to be honest, getting even half way through a major work is a substantial achievement, so by this point there is every hope that you have already learned enough discipline to have a good chance of finishing.
The final form of block is probably the most difficult to deal with and also the most devastating for the unlucky creative soul to be burdened with it.
Years ago when we lived in darkest Norfolk we were lucky enough to have access to both woods and fields but also an artificial river. This was a cut-off channel between the river Wissey and the Great Ouse, dug in the late fifties to avoid the perennial problem of flooding in the fens. It was there to take the overflow from the rivers at peak time; sluice gates were fitted at either end so that whichever river was threatening to burst its banks could be relieved of its burden of flood waters safely.
I was quite friendly with many of the old farmers who were often a mine of information about country matters and these good ole boys were also a source of stories about local history and lore. One of the stories they told me was about when the cut-off channel was dug.
Basically, the channel cuts a great gash through the countryside for many miles in a long straight line. Initially, the whole thing was like a lunar landscape, without tree or shrubs or wildlife, a vast wound in the land. But by the time we moved there in the late 90s, it was a real wildlife haven, with even otters being seen on a regular basis. Over time seeds of trees and plants had drifted in and colonized the bare earth; we had colonies of rare orchids as well as more common plants.
In the months following the opening of the channel, a strange phenomenon took place in the area around; wells ran dry. In farms and households within a three mile radius wells rapidly became dried up. Not only did the channel take water from the two rivers but from all the water-sources in the area. Springs and streams, ponds and lakes, all diminished to the point of vanishing. The new river drained them all. Fifty years later, some of the wells had never refilled and new wells had been sunk to reach the ground water the farms needed.
The creative life draws from deep within the soul of the artist, and for some it seems like a never ending supply of inspiration will always come bubbling up, like a spring, or there to draw from like a well. But wells and springs rely on a mysterious process of osmosis. Rainfall on the land seeps down into the earth, often deep within porous bed-rock and over many years, even thousands, the water is drawn into a well or forces its way up through a spring.
It’s not like a tap. You can’t force the water to come through. If the rainfall has been scanty over many years, the ground water will be insufficient to supply the wells and even reliable springs begin to fail. Water is a finite commodity, and contrary to what many writers start out believing, so too is inspiration.
So where does inspiration come from? Unlike rain, it doesn’t fall from the sky. Holistic therapists believe that water needs to mature before it is ready for humans to drink, and undergoes a process of both purification by the filtration through layers of rock and soil before it reaches a spring or a well and to draw it from surface water, like a reservoir or a river is to take it before it has completed a complex process of maturation and development. They see water as a kind of a living entity that has stages and ages in its life and to draw water before it is ready it to deny ourselves the full benefit of that water. The same can be said for inspiration. Inspiration is an equally long and complex process; experiences and our meditations and discoveries about those experiences, our emotional reactions good and bad all contribute to the maturation of our “stories”. Sometimes an idea seems to appear fully formed as if form nowhere, conjured from imagination like a genii from a lamp. But in all honesty, these apparently unrelated ideas have often spent the equivalent of centuries being filtered through layers of our unconscious until they bubble up, clear and sparkling like the finest of spring waters.
So what about those times when nothing, but nothing, emerges from our inner selves to offer on the altar of our art? We thrash around and the ghosts of ideas emerge, stale and tired and begging to be allowed to sleep again. Is it all gone? Have we poured it all out and there is nothing left?
Maybe. Perhaps it is all gone, perhaps we have indeed spilled all our water on a dry land and it is gone forever. It’s also worth asking whether there is another event taking place in your life that may itself be draining that creative energy; a new baby, a new job, a house move, a divorce and so on may be things that are taking the majority of your internal focus and diverting that energy away from whatever your art may be.
But the remedy is the same whatever.
Go and live. Go and find and explore life’s richness. Allow the rain to fall on your inner land. Don’t rush the process; it can take years or a lifetime to fill up ground has been drained of all moisture. Slowly, very slowly, the earth becomes soft and moist again, and the fluid seeps deeper and becomes purified by the rocks and the soil and slowly pockets of it begin to accumulate deep inside.
Don’t sink endless wells of exploration; like the cut-off channel they may drain the land still further, leaving it drier than ever and you as thirsty as before.
Let be. Let things alone. Step away from your art. Don’t say you’re finished with it because it may not be finished with you. Walk away and let the natural process of recovery take place.
And one day, if all is as it should be, you will be surprised one day by the sound of water bubbling up and spilling over to irrigate the dry land and make it fertile and healthy again.