Dry Spells: On Replenishing the Self and Radical Self Care
Last summer, I returned from traveling the East Coast with grand plans. I was finally going to finish the draft of a new novel, and hopefully finish another round of revisions one what I affectionally call my “10-year-novel” (even though it is probably more like 7). I had successfully launched the new book and finished an essay that kicked my academic-writing butt and was looking forward to a month of writing before I went back to teaching in the fall.
Spoiler: It didn’t happen.
My mind was muddled. I could not focus. I felt like a failure for not having another publishing contract, wondering if the whole first novel thing was a fluke and I would never be published again. I was grateful, tired, and had received multiple rejections. I had no words. I was done.
I couldn’t seem to get excited about my ideas, either. Even though the topics initially drew me in, I hadn’t been at the beginning of something in a very long time and I was confused, sad, and distracted.
I was not creating. What’s more, I felt guilty for not creating. I had one month before going back to school, I had to make the best of it.
But then a voice of reason emerged. My naturopath, Dr. Shawna Darou had sent out her weekly newsletter with an article on“The Definitive Burnout Checklist” where she discusses three things that keep one exhausted and then how to restore energy. Reading through this list, I knew what was going on. I was burned out.
So, I did something radical—I gave myself permission to not write fiction for a month. I continued to write in my journal, which is something I’ve been doing since I was fourteen and it is one of the ways I cope with, well, life.
Here’s some of what I did:
I took long walks and listened to books and podcasts.
I meditated and practiced yin yoga, journal writing my reflections on a daily basis. I bought multi-coloured markers, so I could write in different colours—just for the fun of it!
I saw my therapist.
I reconnected with my love of essential oils.
I read books.
I watched British costume dramas.
I saw friends and went to the movies, you know…fun and play.
I realize not everyone has a month to do nothing and I am grateful for the opportunity of having that month of retreating and regrouping. And I honestly thought that would be enough.
Spoiler: It wasn’t.
In her book, Standing at Water’s Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion, Anna Paris provides a multi-stage process for creative recovery, exploring the blocks and fears that keeps us from connecting with our creative selves. One of the concepts that I found incredibly helpful was the idea that there comes a time in the process when you might become ‘disengaged.’ Paris asks us to consider that this is a “worthwhile phase of creativity in which we stand back from our work” it is a time where “we can rest, feel enhanced by our productivity and be proud of our work-in-progress.” One of the possible causes of this can be “Running Out of Energy.” Paris suggests that the creative process is emotionally and physically tiring. We may not even recognize it while it is happening because we are so engaged in things, that it is only when we feel depleted—burned out—that we are forced to “disengage to sleep and eat” (165-167).
In retrospect, this is what had happened. I was forced to move from a place I had lived in for 10 years—which meant setting a new creative space. I had finished a project that took me essentially five years to create, and then the last six months or so promoting it. It was the experience of a lifetime that I’m incredibly grateful for—that is an important component to this, too, because I felt guilty for feeling burned out.
But, when I went to the page, it was still scattered and all over the place. I couldn’t focus on the particular projects I had planned.
It was time to change the plan.
The first thing I did was find a way to have a deadline by submitting applications to all of the arts council grants I qualified for. This meant that I had deadlines in both October and (I think) November. The great thing about grants is that I had to write about my manuscript, which helped me learn more about the story I was trying to write and what I was trying to say. In a lot of ways, the questions—however confounding some of them might be—are like really good writing exercises that help you get to the heart of your characters and story. By the end of the fall, I had fifty really good pages of the novel, plus a working schedule and outline on how I was going to approach it. Even if I didn’t get the grant, at least I had an idea of where I was going next.
Now, don’t get the impression I jumped in with two feet and was writing pages every day. I wasn’t. In fact, this was a slow process, where I might have only worked on these pages a few hours every few days. By this time, I was also back teaching and in October the college teachers went on strike, so that meant picketing 20 hours a week. For five weeks.
In fact, the strike threw me into another phase of burn out later on. The mental, emotional and physical toll probably took me a few steps back, and I didn’t truly feel like myself until probably this past May.
I had to shift the way I approached writing and carried a new notebook with me. I gave myself permission to write badly and write whatever came up. I wrote out of order and did interviews between characters, writing pages and pages of dialogue of them telling me things about themselves. By January there was the beginning of three things. I haven’t gone back to them, but I was surprised by how much I filled that little notebook.
In all of this process, I continued to practice radical self-care. If I felt like sleeping in, I slept in. I kept up with yoga (during the strike months I walked four hours or more a day so that was covered) and meditated. I developed a writing course to help other people who were struggling with their inner critic.
In January, I recommitted myself to my meditation practice when my friend, Heather Demetrios (who is developing an excellent program on mindfulness and writing), recommended this one-month free meditation course with a number of teachers online. I signed up and kept up the commitment, helping myself get grounded.
I followed this up in March when Heather offered a one-month Mindfulness for Writers workshop, complete with weekly meditations, a workbook and check-ins. This was transformative, and I highly recommend this for anyone struggling with dry spells and creative blocks. This workshop focused on finding the connection between meditation and the flow in ones writing. It also asked us to dig deep into the stories we told ourselves about our creativity, about ourselves.
It isn’t like the feelings of abandonment; imposters syndrome and invisibility went away. It doesn’t mean I still don’t get discouraged, impatient and angry at myself for not being further along in my career than I think I should be. It also doesn’t mean that I’m perfect everyday (far from it), or that I don’t get distracted by the news, or start the never a good idea of comparison with other writers. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t shitty writing days, but I am a little nicer to myself about it.
Perhaps, instead of feeling guilty or angry at ourselves for feeling disengaged or blocked or tired with a project, we can recognize that this is part of the process and find the tools we need to help support us when it happens. These are the tools I found and use. What are yours?
MELANIE J. FISHBANEwrites essays about children’s literature, explores creativity and hopes to unlock the secrets of the universe—or at least find the perfect cup of tea. Her YA novel, Maud: A NovelInspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017. You can follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane on Instagram, melanie_fishbane and like her on Facebook.