Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rest Breaks for Writers--Feeding the Creative Artist

I'm rerunning this blog from last December, since it is timely at this season.  To honor my artist and focus on my writing, the blog will be taking a break until the first week of January.  Feel free to browse the archives back to 2008 for inspiration--and consider taking a rest break and feed your own creative artist this month!

There are some important signs of burn-out that writers need to attend to.  An overactive Inner Critic.  A feeling of the blues about one's work.  A sense of deep depletion, despite enough sleep and exercise.

December often rolls around with all of these symptoms, for me.  I'm finishing up my fall semester of teaching my online and in-person classes.  I adored them--the students were amazing, wonderful, and inspiring-- but I give so much to each group, holding the creative space for them when they can't see the pathway, it takes a lot of energy and time.  This week, as the classes complete and the last posts are made, I find myself sitting on the couch, staring at the mountains outside my living room window, wondering where I am.  More important, who I am.  I can't tell anymore.

Crying jags often accompany this, for me.  Wails of "I'll never write again" sometimes come too.  It's normal to dive even deeper as the tension releases and the stress lessens, as both body and emotions come forward with long-ignored needs. 

Don't get me wrong:  I eat healthily, I exercise regularly, I sleep reasonable hours, and I have good family and friends support.  I'm living a good life.  But in the realm of manifestation and creativity, which is what my work is all about, I had been stretched to the max these past months.  I didn't know any other gear to drive than Intense.  I didn't know how to get back to the "necessary boredom" that Dorothy Allison talks about, the place where my own creativity bubbles up.

Somehow, though, I'd managed to carve out three weeks in my calendar.  My spouse started a new job about that time, my son was visiting friends for the holidays, so I was alone.

Blissfully, frightfully alone, with nothing to do.  Or, let me rephrase, nothing anyone else was asking me to do.

So what next?  How do I make use of this nothing, and let it heal me, fill me up again?  I hadn't a clue how to begin.

Taking a Creative Retreat for the Inner Artist
I have a wonderful book for these occasions:  The Woman's Retreat Book by Jennifer Louden.  It's packed with ways to disengage and reacquaint yourself with yourself.  I found it on a back shelf, went back to my spot on the couch near the mountain view.  I closed my eyes and opened the book at random.  Of course, it opened to this section "Feeding the Artist."  I read the first line: "If there is one cosmic law I know the consequences of ignoring, it is this one:  you cannot create from an empty well."

Duh.  Why didn't I see this before I had my meltdown?  Well, obviously, when one is empty, it's hard to see that.  Many of us keep running anyway, fueled by adrenaline, and the joy of life gets dimmer and dimmer.  We lose track of where we are, who we are.  We get swept up with other people's lives (and creative needs--if you're a teacher).  It's all good, it's all important.  I love my work.  But there's a moment to say, "Stop!"  Let yourself go back to yourself.

I decided I would ignore both calendar and lists for these three weeks, as much as I could.  Even my visioning lists went into a nice blue folder and into my desk drawer.  I began to putter, to play.

The first day I cooked two soups.  I love to cook, and two soups in one day seemed lovely and extravagant.  Besides, the vegetable drawer was foreign territory and I could use up a dangerous-looking butternut squash (fine with the dangerous part cut off).  I took a walk and went to bed by 9.  The next day I listened to Christmas carols and wrapped a few gifts then read a lovely novel (Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann) and let myself nap.  Day three I got out the card table and started a jigsaw puzzle.  I cleaned out my clothes closet.  I took myself to lunch.

You get the idea.

One of Jennifer Louden's most important directives in this chapter on "Feeding the Artist" is not to create while you're filling the well.  Stop working on your project, stop trying to manifest anything.  Ugh, that was hard.  I hadn't had enough time to work on my novel-in-progress, so these three weeks were planned as full immersion.  But when I took out the manuscript and my editing pen, I froze up.  It all looked terrible--a sure sign of the Inner Critic's negative notions surfacing--and I couldn't bring myself to do anything.  Reading Louden's advice felt like a reprieve.

Funny thing.  As I began to fill up again, new ideas started coming.  I would be watching a movie or marveling at McCann's amazing prose, and I would find myself thinking very lightly about my own creative projects.  Images would come.  An idea of how to solve a sticky plot problem in the novel.  A place to get information I needed.  I didn't pursue these, just took notes.

I'm letting the creative tension build for another week.  It's getting fun.  I look forward to my empty days, I no long dread the thought of moving so slowly.

This Week's Writing Exercise 
1.  Take stock.  Do you need to feed the artist?  Is she or he starving from too much output and not enough input these past busy months?

2.  If the answer is yes, can you carve out time for a rest break?  Even five hours in a day when nothing is needed of you is amazing and precious.