Last June in my blog Life Happens, I berated myself for not writing by comparing myself to writers who write every day—no matter what. In the comments section, several writers wrote encouraging me to return to my writing. Author, Harriet Chessman also wrote: “I too can only write when my life has calmed and steadied. I’ve always been this way. I really feel that, in these times, I’m filling up with life. Or sometimes my metaphor is that I’m letting my lands lie fallow…”
Inspired by Harriet, I reached out to her and asked if she’d share more in my Authorly Advice blog. Thank you, Harriet for sharing your wisdom with my readers and me.
Thank you to the wonderful Ana McCracken for bringing me on board this website! I loved Ana’s blog post about what a challenge it can be to continue writing each day, especially in the face of something major happening in one’s life. I wrote her a comment about how I often let my writing lie fallow, and she suggested that I develop this comment into a post. So here it is!
I have always written best when I have felt ready to write. This is the heart of the matter. Once I’ve started a short story or novel—once I’ve begun to be immersed in a new fictional world—this readiness is often present inside me, in spite of all the distracting, crazy, exuberant, worrisome things going on in my life, and in spite of other professional commitments, because the story itself holds me in a kind of dream, and I want so much to come into this dream again, figure it out, follow it to a beautiful, resonant completion.
Yet even when I love a particular dream I’m in the midst of creating, I often have to let it go for a while. Life has simply become too intricate, too powerful and absorbing. Illness, the death of a family member, the sorrows of one of my children, or (in a happier vein) a wedding, the birth of a grandchild, a move across country—all of these happenings and more can make my writing plummet right to the bottom of my “to-do” list, or vanish entirely.
When this happens, I hear myself wishing I could be like writers I know who continue to write each day, in spite of it all. Yet I also know that this is how I am, and there is some honor in it. I know the writing is waiting for me. And I also know that my lived experience—this grief, that source of transformative happiness—will contribute to the richness of my writing.
It isn’t always life that asks my writing to wait, however. It’s the writing itself. I could be in a wonderfully peaceful and happy time, yet something is puzzling me about the shape my story is taking. Maybe the point of view feels off, or another character is nudging my elbow, saying “Let me in!” Maybe I start to doubt the arc of the story. Often I doubt the story itself.
It’s in times of greatest writerly uncertainty, when the story seems to be going in circles, or I’ve lost that shimmering essence or sense of architectural clarity, that I really have to take time off. Sometimes this time is short: a day or a week. Sometimes it’s much longer, though—weeks or months, a whole season or two.
Often, I actually enjoy this permission to take a breather. What a relief it can be! During such breaks I am glad to sense how I’m able to let go and fill up with life.
What is more difficult is the lingering worry that can slip into my days off: will I ever come back to this irritating, impossible story? Will I ever hit on a good direction with it? Have I lost my way as a writer permanently? Instead of feeling that I’m resting as my fields lie fallow, growing loamy and rich, I imagine my story as a desert, or a maze I will never, ever crack.
Once the writing comes again—and thank heaven, or the gods of writing—it DOES come again—I am more ready. I don’t know how this happens. It just does. Somehow the story has been developing, and sorting itself out, while I was looking elsewhere. And once I feel this sense of readiness, even if I’m not 100% or even 50% sure of my direction, I can start to dream the dream once more, follow it out, inhabit this surprising other world I’m in the process of making.
So I guess my advice is simply: be good to yourself, when you feel overwhelmed and can’t seem to continue writing each day. Try letting yourself fill up and lie fallow when you must, for a whole big block of time if necessary. Trust that the story will be growing inside you, when you’re immersed in other things, great and small, tumultuous and nettling. Imagine—ah!—that you have all the time in the world, and before you know it, you will be dreaming again.
Harriet Scott Chessman is the author of the acclaimed novels The Beauty of Ordinary Things, Someone Not Really Her Mother, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, and Ohio Angels. She lives in Connecticut, and has created the libretto for MY LAI, a new work composed by Jonathan Berger, to be performed by the Kronos Quartet, Van Anh Vo, and Rinde Eckert. The world premiere will be performed on January 29, 2016, at the Harris Theater in Chicago.