When the wells run dry- artists’ and writers’ block

 

 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.

Writer’s Block- a short story

 

Writer’s Block

The blank page was as empty as a bank account the day before pay-day, and as depressingly familiar. Like a signpost pointing an accusing finger, the page indicated another day of failure, of emptiness and despair. Oh, words had been briefly typed upon this mocking sheet, and then erased before they had time to settle there. If this had been an old-fashioned typewriter, then a forest of paper would have been in the bin by now, and with crumpled islands of discarded starts surrounding the target. That was one small mercy of the computer revolution, no waste paper any more. Instead, the untitled page opened day after day, with all words wiped from it. Surely there was a Greek myth somewhere of someone who toiled all day writing words that faded from the page as night fell. If there was, he couldn’t remember how it ended

Well, the words didn’t fade: he deleted them, despising himself and those ill-chosen words that just sat on the page like awkward teenagers, jostling each other and looking out of place and untidy and defiant. It was the defiance that got him angry and made him hit delete over and over again.

I used to be so good at this, he thought, miserably, closing the file and shutting the computer down. A glass of wine to chase down the blues, and he’d call it a night, again, sleeping fitfully and being pursued by words that fled when he turned and tried to see their shapes. Tomorrow, just to be that little bit more hopeful, was another day and it held all sorts of joys, not least of which was an appointment with a hypnotist. He sighed, drank the wine too fast to enjoy it and went to bed.

I want you to visualise your block,” said the hypnotist.

Trying to oblige, he did so.

What form does it take?”

It’s like the Berlin Wall, but a hundred or so feet high,” he said.

Visualise a door.”

He did so. It was a very handsome door too, with brass fittings and a massive bolt and lock.

It’s locked,” he said.

There was a tiny sigh from the hypnotist, and through the filters of his downcast eyelashes, he saw her glance at her watch. She’s bored with me already, he thought, and sighed himself.

Look in your pockets, you’ll find the key,” she said and he could hear the boredom and irritation.

In his mind’s eye, he pulled out a massive bunch of keys, and after rifling through them, he said,

Nope, it’s not there.”

You must try harder,” she said and he snapped open his eyes, and glared at her.

Do you not think I’m already trying as hard as I can,” he snapped.

I think you’re deliberately sabotaging yourself because you don’t really want to get through this block,” she said. “Don’t bother to make another appointment until you make your mind up to really embrace this.”

Well, that was a waste of time and money, he thought as he drove home to the empty screen awaiting him. Now I know my block is a hundred feet high and crosses a whole country, and I don’t appear to have the key. Really helpful. Not.

Before he opened that taunting file again, he checked through his emails and found one from an old friend.

I’ve sent something for your little problem; should be with you tomorrow,” she’d written.

The block had become so much a part of his life that he often felt he ought to introduce his friends to it at parties. The block had lasted longer now than many relationships and like a failing marriage that has ceased to even invite interest, let alone the kind of slightly voyeuristic attention it did at the start of the downward slope, it had become a subject to avoid among his friends. They were bored with it and with him; a writer who can’t write any more ceases to have a place in the world unless he reinvents himself, perhaps as an editor or a critic. For him that would be when mercy killing might be in order.

His friends scarcely ever mentioned his block, as though it were an embarrassing disorder the discussion of which might somehow infect them, so it intrigued him what she might be sending. At the start of it, people had been full of helpful suggestions and ideas, all of which he’d tried, with a steadily decreasing amount of enthusiasm. He wasn’t sure what else might be possible; hypnosis had been his last idea.

The following afternoon, the parcel carrier van pulled up outside his house and offloaded a large and heavy box. Signing for it, he barely managed to get it inside and dumped it on the kitchen table with a resounding thud. Taped up and mysterious, it sat there, inviting him to open it. He stared at it, wine glass in hand unable to make a start on it. Somehow the prospect of another disappointment was almost too much to bear. By the second glass of wine, curiosity was getting the better of him and he began ripping away the tape and slashing at the cardboard with the vegetable knife in a frantic effort to get it open.

Peeling the flaps back, now ragged from his frenzy, he peered inside. He blinked. Amid the polystyrene chips, there sat a large rough hewn block of wood, which was tied up with a bright red satin ribbon.

What the f-?” he said, biting back the obscenity.

He emptied the box, tipping the chips out on the floor and feeling through every corner of the box. Nothing. Not even a note, nothing.

The bitch…” he breathed, awed that someone he thought he knew so well could surprise him like this with such a vicious piece of mockery. He’d really not have thought her capable of such extraordinary nastiness.

Anger boiled over, and he hefted the block in his arms and marched outside into the fading light of the garden. The wood shed was mostly full, with the arrival of a new load for the coming winter and he at first intended to just chuck the block in there but as he flung open the door, something caught the light and glinted. The big axe he used to split logs was embedded in his chopping block and the polished head gleamed with oil.

I’ll show you what I think of your block,” he said, and seized the axe, tugging it from the block and as his long-repressed fury took control of his hands and his heart and he placed his gift on the block and began to attack it with the axe.

Halfway, he stopped and sharpened the axe very carefully. It was only the coming of darkness that halted his focussed efforts. By then the block had been reduced to splinters suitable for kindling only.

Sweating and breathless he threw all the pieces he could find into the log basket and carried them back into the house. Well, tonight seemed to be getting colder; time to light the fire for the first time this autumn, then. The hearth needed sweeping before he could lay the fire, and by the time the flames had begun to warm the room, he felt only a sense of emptiness again. He’d lost a friend today, truly, because he’d obviously never really known her at all.

Sat cross-legged on the hearth rug, he gazed at the fire and felt tears streaming down his face, distorting his vision and making the flames seem softer somehow, reminding him of his grandmother’s house when he was small. She’d make him crumpets by toasting them on the fire and slathering them with butter from their own cows. He remembered her with some surprise; she’d been gone more than twenty years and he’d scarcely given her a thought in all that time. Strange, really, when she’d been the one who’d enthralled him with tales of her own childhood and of things her grandmother told her. He probably owed his whole love of stories to her.

Watching the dancing flames, he saw images in them, pictures of things long ago and far away and rather marvellous and magical, and he found himself reaching for his laptop and beginning to type, filling that blank sheet with words that danced like the flames and made patterns of surpassing wonder.

And he didn’t delete a single word.

Becalmed

I’ve been working very hard the last few weeks, teaching and touring with my students and I’d forgotten  quite how exhausting I find it and how much it takes out of me. While I haven’t taught all day every day, I usually come home and the first thing I have to do is prepare the lesson for the next day. It’s hand-to-mouth stuff, responding to both the requests of a class and to what I have observed they may need. There’s not a lot of me left over many evenings, and that tends to be taken up with dealing with family needs of one sort of another. I’m not exactly a workaholic but to be honest, if I do something I like to do it properly and no stint at it, so I undoubtedly do more than I am paid for at work, for the sake of both professional pride in a job well done and for the students. Today I said goodbye to the class I have taught for the last 3 or so weeks. I cried a tiny bit too. They got cookies and brownies, though.

I’m finding it hardest at this time of year to find that delicate balance between allowing my creative self to flourish and putting her into a state of suspended animation until the summer is over. Some evenings, if I have been home by lunchtime, I have been able to write for a few hours. The trouble with this is that like any delightful experience, I don’t want it to end and then am unable to get to sleep at a sensible time to allow for a 6am start the next day.

Now the sheer tiredness is starting to take over. I went to give blood last week and discovered that while not fully anaemic, I was close enough for them to send me away without taking any blood. I have had a few other health niggles and now, I have one of those annoying colds that is just hovering there, making me sneeze and giving me sore sinuses.

Creatively, I am stuck too. There are ideas there but they are too nebulous to really focus on and I suspect a self-protection mechanism is stopping me. The number of visitors here has dropped to a low number and I feel like a sea- going vessel that relies on the wind, when the wind suddenly drops and the sails go slack and empty.

Becalmed. 

I’m sitting in a silent sea, with nothing but seagulls for company and no wind in my sails.

What to do? Well, blowing into the sails is a rather futile gesture and weather magic is unpredictable, so this is what I propose to do:

I shall sink anchor, see to some housekeeping aboard my boat and hunt out my fishing rod. I’m going to just slump on deck in the sunshine, see what bites and just wait. I may even go swimming.

You can’t fight the weather any more than you can fight the internal  doldrums. Maybe it’s time to enjoy some down time. God knows I am about as flat at the ray below!