So after that experience of a dozen years ago was I prepared for it to happen again? Like now, for instance? It’s hard to say whether this belated gap-year that my wife and I are on is the cause or result of my present state of writerly emptiness. But the truth is that if I stand at the lip of the deep place inside me and drop a pebble it’s a while before I hear anything and it’s more likely to be a thud than a splash. Is it over? Who knows? But I do know what to do. You might be empty but the world never is. Yesterday I drank a bottle of beer made from stinging nettles. The world is full and calls out to be attended in all its fullness. Waiting should never be a passive thing. Well being for a writer must include well filling.
By Tim Wynne-Jones
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I do believe, however, that sometimes the well runs dry. When that happens, a writer might try all manner of exercises to kick-start the creative process, climb back in the saddle, get the juices flowing – so many metaphorical actions meant to allay the fear that somehow it might be all over. If the exercises fail, don’t panic. Step away from the computer. When you have nothing to say there is virtue in not saying it.
About a dozen years ago my well ran bone dry. Did I stop writing? Sad to say, I did not. I churned out two unpublishable novels. When you know how to do this thing, it isn’t so hard to fill a few hundred pages with typing — in the sense Truman Capote meant when he famously said of Jack Kerouac, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It took eighteen rejections to get it through my head that I was shooting blanks. I had nothing to say. The well was empty. It was sobering. I remember confessing to my wife that maybe it was over — the writing, I mean. I’d had some good innings, knocked a couple out of the park. I was luckier than many. With gratefulness and humility I accepted an offer to teach at Vermont College. After all, I’d learned a think or two along the way and maybe I could help others make a dream come true.
And slowly the well filled up. I’ve published eight books since the “end of my career.” Maybe I was just burned out. I like the empty well image, better.
When I first started writing, it was out of fullness. I was bursting with ideas, with scarcely the rudimentary craft to fashion those ideas into anything readable. But I had lots of energy and desire and literary heroes to emulate. I was prepared to fail again and again – miserably — and learn from every failure. The writing came fast and furious, and for twenty years I harvested that fullness, bucketful by bucketful. I’m staying in a Cornish fishing village right now and I’ve been watching kids on the quay catching crabs at high tide. They drop a line into the water with a cheesecloth bag full of scraps tied to the end. When they drag the line back up again, there will be as many as half a dozen hungry little crabs clinging to that tasty sack. The writing came like that, idea clambering over idea, some dropping away but one or two always making it to quayside. Ideas with claws! And then it stopped. The tide had run out, you might say.
But empty, it turns out, is as good a place to start as full. As long as you are willing to let it be, listen deeply to the silence and not freak out. It’s well-filling time. Step away from the computer. Look up. Do something you never did before. Get on a bus and get off somewhere unexpected. (If it happens to be a blustery moor complete with bronze-age stone circles, all the better.) Get lost. Expect nothing but be prepared for anything. And when you hear the trickle of that deep cavern starting to fill, let it. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to scoop up what is there. The water is likely to be muddy for a bit. Be patient. Know the difference between procrastination and waiting.