Friday, January 29, 2021

Sinking into Winter: The Power of Rest and Retreat in the Writer's Life

I've just sent the revision of my third novel to my agent, and I'm at a loss. I sit, watching the snow fall outside my office window, wondering if I should pick up another project, read a book on writing, call someone. My agent is backlogged; she says she hasn't had so many manuscripts to read in a long time--thanks to the pandemic, we're all writing. So she may not have comments for a few weeks, if not longer.

It's been a huge push, I can fairly say, to get this manuscript ready for her. I'm disappointed not to get immediate feedback, but I also know better. I've worked on it for three years, after all, writing, revising, workshopping, and revising again. I can wait. Her feedback is always excellent. I estimate some parts of the novel have gone through thirty iterations and she'll have more to suggest, most likely.

Living with a book in process is not unlike having a three-year-old in your office 24/7, always chattering away, needing your attention. I resent it, I love it, I require it to stay creative.

Now my three-year-old is off to ski camp for however long it takes. What do I do with myself?

It's not that I don't have plenty of options. There's a file drawer full of short stories ready to finish and send out. Another novel calling for work. Even a nonfiction book idea simmering.

Still, I sit here, watching the snow. Wintering. Feeling bereft and acknowledging the need for that kind of emptiness.

The Oddity of Blues from Reaching a Goal

When you reach a goal with your book, at any stage--first draft, first revision, final round before an agent--there's often a sense of loss. Certainly excitement, relief. But also a bit of exhaustion, an emptiness.

I hear this from writing friends and colleagues, from my clients and students, so I know it's not just me. One friend likened it to postpartum blues. A kind of creative depression that we sink into after the push of reaching the milestone.

For me this week, giving birth to my book, then having to hand it over, is a shock to the system. It's happened before, I should be used to it, but I'm not. I miss it.


To help myself through this fallow period, I've been reading about something called wintering.

Pandemic times have forced many of us to winter, or live through times that life seems frozen. When we're battered by too much crisis, in health, life, the political arena. When the news is tragedy after tragedy.

In the northern hemisphere, we've reached the winter of our calendar year as well. We're isolated more than ever. So winter outside seems like an additional affront. Some face it: My neighbors, nearing their eighties, go outside each morning in the bitter cold to walk, snowshoe, ski. Others sink deeper into comfort.

I was fortunate to find a guide for this period of my creative life in a book of that title: Wintering by British essayist Katherine May. (Click on the title to link to an NPR article about her philosophy.) If you haven't already discovered it, run right out and get a copy. It's a soothing balm for the soul on all levels.

May defines wintering as these fallow times, these lost times in our lives when crises hit, when we are forced to change and it's not comfortable, when we feel apart from the herd. Her series of essays range in topic: hunger, cold water, snow, darkness, including fascinating facts about winter in other cultures, how people survive (even thrive) in icy times. She always links wintering back to the interior life, the life of the writer or creative person or most anyone. She has come to treat winter as if it offers precious jewels that we can benefit from.

She believes that without wintering, our deeper ideas and understandings of life can't be accessed.

So each day, I am practicing wintering. I am giving myself evenings in front of the fire, staring at the flames. Hot mugs of tea, A brisk walk (this morning it was in the teens when I walked three miles, and my face almost froze but I came home exhilarated). Doodling and journaling and doing a jigsaw puzzle with my family. Letting myself be sad about a movie or book. May calls wintering "active acceptance of sadness" and I'm practicing that too.

Yesterday, a bouquet of flowers waited for me on the entrance table--a gift from my family for finishing my book. That's part of wintering too, acknowledging what the year has been, and what a year, and all that we've managed to create in spite of it.

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