CREATIVITY — LIKE LIFE — HAS ITS SEASONS.
FALL WOULD LIKE TO CALL YOUR ATTENTION TO THIS.
FALL WOULD LIKE TO SHOW YOU SEVERAL FAIL-PROOF WAYS TO USE ITS ENERGY TO REBOOT YOURS.
Feeling blocked, stuck, stagnant? Creatively or otherwise?
Fall has a cure.
Every seasonal shift reminds us that time is moving on, and diems are there to be carped. But none do so more, and more generously, than fall.
The first is sheer physical relief. Extreme prolonged heat is hard on the body. Which means it’s hard on the brain, emotions, and yes, creativity. Because all these things are connected.
When a record-breakingly hot summer ends, even the insinuation of coolness to come perks a person right up. (Of course, with climate change, we are tragically likely to have more prolonged freakishly hot summers, too, unless we make changes we seem to be unwilling to make.)
This makes me appreciate fall coolness all the more, the somewhat elegiacally.
Even so, the first time I get full-on fall energy back after a long summer I think, “Oh! So I wasn’t being lazy after all! It’s not that I’m getting old! It’s that it was too freaking hot!”
Fall energizes us. And we can ride that energy to more energy, and some insight.
WHAT CREATIVITY LOVES… AND DOESN’T
It does not love indolence. It does not love perfectionism (it would rather you actually get something done, than wait for you to get it done perfectly. Because what’s creativity supposed to do meanwhile, twiddle its thumbs while you write, delete, angst, and write, delete, angst some more?).
Creativity also holds no good opinion of “feeling ready.” Creativity says, “If you’re so damned ready, if you think you already know what to do and how to do it, then why the heck do you need me?” And it harumphs, picks up its toys, and goes home.
Creativity also does not love just “thinking about.” Unless it is, sooner or later, the “thinking about” is connected with action.
Thinking about without doing is indolence, and we’ve already established how creativity feels about that.
So don’t waste the upwards blip of energy which fall, with its relief from heat, brings: take action.
RIDE FALL’S DO-IT-NOW, BEGIN-AGAIN ENERGY
For most of us in the Northern Hemisphere, fall and cooler weather coincide with the time of going back to school.
This connection is deep, because it was made when we were young and of tender clay, hence impressionable. The imprint of autumn as the time of sharpen-your pencils, begin again, learn to do something new is lasting.
Begin again: the two most sacred and hopeful words in the English language.
It is true that we have a chance to begin again every day, every moment.
But fall reminds us of this more than any other season. (Yes, spring is all about resurrection and renewal. BUT it’s also the time when school’s about to end, and it’s just about to get hot, and we may be planning vacations… none of which exactly kindle the creative-work fires).
THE FOUR SEASONS OF ALL ALL CREATIVE PROJECTS
Besides bringing blessed, energizing cool, besides its connection with starting over, fall also always reminds me strongly that also every project— creative, entrepreneurial, personal — has its four seasons.
And I’d like to pass this reminder on to you.
I have thought about this for years, and it’s gotten me through some tough times. But only recently – as this fall began, of course – was inspired to do so, by these lovely words from Mark Cain: “The summer gardener dreams of autumn; the winter gardener dreams of spring.”
Now, Mark Cain does not identify himself as a writer. He’s a farmer (as well as musician and yoga practitioner). Over 25 years, he and his partner, Michael Crane, have painstakingly, from the literal ground up, created their paradisiacal 5-acre terraced Dripping Springs Garden. In a small valley along Dry Fork Creek, hard into the Arkansas Ozarks, huge beds, greenhouses, and hoop-houses overflow with all manner of vegetables, greens, and intoxicatingly fragrant flowers.
But these days, it’s not enough for an organic farm to plant and sow, compost and fertilize and weed, hoe and harvest, drive to the farmer’s market and set up shop three times a week… not if it wants to stay economically viable, especially year round.
So Mark also sends out a weekly e-newsletter to friends and members of the members of their CSA. Very well-written, I might add, and always with a recipe.
That newsletter is where I nabbed this quote.
Though the seasons of creative projects have nothing to do with meteorological chronology, what Mark said holds true for those creative seasons, as well.
For even as we’re deep into the present moment of the project at hand, we are dreaming, dreaming of what comes next.
THE WINTER OF OUR CONTENT
You have, or receive, or get an idea. Then what?
There is a gap of time, in most cases, between the idea and the bringing it from the world of the mind — free-flowing, without limit or constraint, full of possibilities — into the limited but actual world of form. This gap could be a few days, a week, a month, a year… sometimes years. The “winter” of a project’s idea has nothing to do with exterior actual winter weather.
No matter how long it lasts in clock-time, I think of this gap as winter. It is the phase between when your project is pure, latent possibility and when you actually start externalizing it. And it’s essential.
Nothing, not a chair or novel, not a building or business, not a method or a memoir, an app or an appliance, began without its idea, and the place where ideas begin is this psychological winter. Whatever it is, and no matter who did it, it was imagined before it was done. It existed without form before it was formed.
The often-quiet arrival of “Wow. That would make a really good…” (poem, novel, essay, editorial, memoir topic… painting, song, service, bouillabaisse, product) is its beginning. Then the period of latency — winter —- commences. You keep turning it, whatever your it is, over and over in your mind.
When you’re out on a walk. When you’re in the car, hoping you get to Pittsburgh before nightfall. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about your it. Maybe you do stop, but you keep coming back to it.
Even though you have as yet taken no concrete exterior action.
How can you tell the difference between winter and indolence, laziness, procrastination? I’ll admit, they can feel similar, and part of the uneasiness that can accompany this creative season is not knowing for sure if it will end and move on, or not.
One hint, though, can be this: if you are keeping the energy around your project deeply interior, and not “talking it out” — not telling other people (your partner, your neighbors, your kids, the bartender), there’s a good chance it’s this kind of winter and not postponement.
Why does keeping your project to yourself in its early stages matter?
Because if you say to someone, “I have this great idea for a story. It’s about…” , especially before you’ve started writing about it, that disperses the energy. Which is otherwise building up inside you until the time comes when you must take it to the next season, and begin acting on it. If you relieve the pressure of the story by telling it verbally (which is much easier than writing it), you let the air out of the balloon.
In a creative winter, you have to be willing to let the pressure build until it is uncomfortable, all the while not knowing if it is something, and what exactly that something might be.
The danger of winter, then, is that you grow discouraged at its seeming unproductiveness. That you relieve its pressure by “talking out” your idea. That in thus trying to hurry it, you sound its death knell.
The gift of winter: it is the necessary quiet womb in which your project, self-contained, may gestate and grow.
The only way you answer the question of whether it is laziness and procrastination or winter is in retrospect. You know it after you have moved on to spring. Then summer, and fall.
SPRING, AN OVERPRAISED SEASON
There comes a day when you start getting that idea down on paper or screen, necessarily imperfectly (it’s never as perfect as it was in your mind, as Dana Gioia has described with razor-sharp poignancy in The Next Poem).
Other days might have proceeded it that start, days when you were, as we say in the Ozarks, “fixing” to do it.
Fixing to do it might be buying a fresh ream of paper or a new notebook, or setting up project files on your Apple, or finding a babysitter for three mornings a week (for we write out of time more than any other material). Or you might start reading a book related to your project. Painters might begin sketching, stretching canvases. Or if your project is not writing-related but entrepreneurial, you perhaps begin doing actual spread-sheets and projections or make an appointment with the bank.
Incrementally, even if the soil is still a little icy, you have moved from creative winter to spring.
Spring is the stirring of action. Spring — and in a creative sense, spring can happen at any time of the calendar year (I’ve already noted that the actual fall is more begin-again-ish to me than actual spring) — spring is when what was latent in creative winter starts becoming visible and manifest. Because you are making it so.
Spring is hopeful, and brave, and courageous; audacious, even. Again, it is also, like all seasons, incremental. From the moment when you keyboard in the first word, thereby bringing your project from thought into form, through the completion of its young, green, very drafty, first draft — all of that is spring. Early spring; late spring.
And with the conclusion of that first draft (or, in another kind of enterprise, your business plan) it is spring on the cusp of summer.
Like all seasons, spring has its own challenges and gifts.
The danger of spring is that you are so excited to actually be working that you work at such intensity you burn out, or overwork so much that you wind up doing a lot that you’ll need to cut later (still, there are worse things).
Or, much more likely and much worse, in your new enthusiasm, you show your work-in-progress to someone too soon, and he or she is so rough and discouraging in response your work is crushed. This may be the “biting east wind” Butler refers to, and it can be the early frost that kills your project.
Now, believe me… I am all for tough critiquing when the time comes. I just don’t think that time is when the project is in its infancy, close to your heart, tender and not yet fully formed.
It needs protection for a little while. It needs to grow, and for you to grow it and grow with it. After all, the same grass you tread on a summer lawn is, in spring, threadlike and vulnerable, its pale green often pierced with a warning sign: Don’t step on the grass. (Though I much prefer this Asian version, a mis-translation of English that is actually more to the point I’m making. SOURCE: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3978. In creative spring, tiny ideas are dreaming).
The gift of spring, then? Actuality! Exhilaration! You have moved from winter’s latency to “putting it out there.”
Each season grows on the one before it, and is the prelude to the next. As Mark Cain noted so cogently and succinctly.
SHALL I COMPARE THEE TO A SUMMER’S DAY?
No, don’t compare me, a creative person, to a summer’s day, please. Unless you compare me to a gardener’s summer day. For summer, of the four creative seasons, is the long haul pick-and-shovel work. Creative summer is not the literal summer of lying in a hammock with a mint julep or going off to the Cape. It’s satisfying, it’s sweaty, and it is effort.
I will speak, using garden analogies, of the creative summer of writing, because that’s what I know best.
The thinning of rows that are too thick, the pruning, the weeding… call it editing, or rewrites. Draft after draft.
The do-overs: call it re-seeding.
The loosening of the soil, the watering…. perhaps showing it to your writing group, or mentor, or reading a book on writing — whatever lets your work in progress breathe a little, and be nourished: call it fertilization.
The celery root or arugula that just didn’t make, and so you must turn the whole patch over and plant something else instead: call, it, possibly, working with the editor at your publishing house, who doesn’t like the structure you thought so brilliant and insists on a complete reworking. And maybe she’s right and maybe she’s wrong — but you signed a contract.
Or you didn’t sign contract or even send the manuscript out yet, because you know it’s not ready.
Instead, you take that hopeful first draft you did in creative spring, and you do it again. And again. And again.
Summer’s dangers are weariness, heat stroke, discouragement. You’ve been working so hard you just can’t tell if your project’s good any more, and so you give up too soon.
Summer’s gifts: as hard as you’re working now, in some ways it’s an easy season. Easier than that first draft you did back in creative spring. Summer can be downright calming.
No less prolific and gifted a writer than Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, “Getting a first draft done is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”
While first drafts are exhilarating like nothing else, they are also scary.
But once you have a first draft — once it’s summer and you’re on your third or fourth or eleventh draft — you have something there to work with, and with each pass it gets a little better. This is strangely satisfying. It’s the workmanlike satisfaction of a craftsman or a gardener.
FALL, THE ACTUAL HARVEST
The fall I am speaking of here is not the fall I began this post with; not the physical fall that follows a literal long hot summer.
It is the time when you receive the harvest from all you’ve done throughout those other three seasons. The project you dreamed in winter, planted in spring, worked on diligently through summer, is done.
Publication! Awards! Books sales! Compliments from others! Reviews! Speaking gigs! TV appearances! Acclaim! The time when you, theoretically, reap the rewards.
Most writers who’ve not yet been published think this will be the most exciting part of the whole shebang. And indeed, when you hold the first copy of your book in hand, especially your first book, there is an thrill that cannot be denied.
And yet, creative fall, too, has its dangers.
Here’s a big one: unlike the other three seasons, what happens now is not within your control. You may get devastating reviews, or none at all. A book may come out just before yours that is almost identical in plot or subject. You may get published only to have your book meet with deafening silence. And even if you are successful beyond your wildest dreams? If you sell untold millions of copies and can pay off all debt plus your mortgage plus the mortgages of everyone in your family, plus-plus-plus? Well, you will lose some friends. Sadly, you can count on it.
The gift of fall is therefore only peripherally about the exterior goodies of the harvest. The real gift is, completion. You did it. You saw it through. You had your idea, you followed your impulse or obsession, you worked and worked and worked, and you finished it.
And no outside response, enthusiastic or discouraging, loud or quiet, glorious or tough, changes that.
The true gift of fall, the actual harvest, turns out to be this: you fell in love with the whole process, even the difficult parts.
And you can’t wait for it to begin again.
ADDITIONAL NOTES FOR THE WRITER AND/OR CREATIVE GARDENER
There are a few things to remember as you consider the seasons of writing.
1. Again: These phases have nothing to do with calendar-time. You can be in any one of these creative seasons, on a particular writing project, for years. Or you can sometimes move through all three of the seasons within your control in a day or two (this has occasionally happened to me with a poem, or children’s book manuscript— the idea comes and it’s written justlikethat — a gift from the muse).
2. Like actual farmers, you can experience setbacks in any season. There are droughts (block, lack of flow). An unexpected hail that takes out all the blossoms, meaning no fruit come fall. No guarantees, for gardeners or writers.
3. The writer who is in it for the long haul — who wants to make a living at her craft — almost always has multiple projects going on, each somewhere in these four seasons, simultaneously.. Even while she’s metaphorically deep into spading the soil and planting in early spring, she may be feeling, winter-wise, the tug and nag of her next idea.
And, if she is lucky, even as those things happen, even as she may be editing or proofing the primary work in progress (summer), he has enough to live on — the financial harvest of work already completed; royalties.
4. Winter, spring, and summer are nominally within your control; they are between you and yourself. As to fall, harvest, well, no one can predict how long it is going to take for a manuscript to be accepted, or even if it will be, ever. Even if it is, no one can predict how well it will sell, though you as the author can help it along to some degree.
5. Therefore, plant more than one crop. Some will grow faster than others. Some will be disappointing in yield, others abundant. Some will not bear at all. Some will seem to do well, then die off. Some will look puny and pitiful all summer long, then make a great recovery in September, giving you more plentitude than you could have imagined (and yet you were thinking about tearing up that patch and using the field to cultivate something else).
Keep dreaming, looking both forward and back. Keep gardening.
Crescent Dragonwagon is the author of 50 traditionally published books in five different genres; she is also the daughter of biographer Maurice Zolotow and children’s book writer and editor Charlotte Zolotow. The 2019 recipient of an Artists 360 grant, her books have won many honors, including a Coretta Scott King Award and a James Beard Award.
This post is part of her Nothing is Wasted on the Writer series, which approach writing and creativity thoughtfully and from experience. She does a new NOTW about every six weeks. If you’d like to subscribe, please do so here. And she’d be as pleased as a bee in a sunflower if you left a comment below.