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Fallow hours - a process post

Once upon a time, about 8-1/2 years ago, I left the legal profession after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which makes it impossible for me to work full-time as a lawyer - the long hours and high pressure were causing flares, and I simply couldn't do it anymore.

And then, once upon a time, nearly eight years ago, after a few months of moping and watching HGTV and stuff, I decided to pursue writing. For children. I wrote a (bad) poem about a hippo. I wrote a picture book manuscript that was over 1000 words long. As you do. I started doing quite a lot of reading and research, including a lot of time over on the blue board. I found a critique group. I attended conferences and got encouraging feedback from editors. I wrote additional poems and picture books and got some good early results from my poetry, including a poem accepted by Highlights Magazine. Almost six years ago, I started this-here blog.

But it wasn't until about five years ago that I began to get serious. Four years ago, I started the Jane project - tons of research, gobs of writing. Along the way I wrote three different manuscripts involving garden gnomes - a picture book and two chapter books - two other picture books, and a large number of poems.

Along the way, I started writing regularly. I usually make pretty steady writing progress. But every so often, I find myself completely unproductive - in what I've come to think of as fallow hours - those hours (usually extending over a period of days, and sometimes into a two- to three-week period) where I lost a large percentage of my focus and/or drive.

There was a time when I worried about them. Perhaps I'd lost my mojo. Or my imagination. Or my interest in writing. Invariably, I'd start to worry about what was going on, and what it meant, and whether I'd ever write again. And that actually made the situation worse, because it made stressed me out (sometimes even triggering RA flares - why hello, autoimmune disorder!)

These days, I don't worry so much. I recognize these fallow hours as what they are: a temporary break. Turns out that just as one can only drive so far on a tankful of gas before running out, creative folks can only go so long being productive before they need a break. And as with vehicles, your mileage may vary.

In fact, it can vary project to project, depending on the rigors of the particular project. Or the fallow hours can be triggered by life events that intrude, be they personal or not. Oddly, sometimes personal upset triggers periods of creativity for me (I like to bury myself in my work, you see, which is why I got so damn much done the year that my husband was going through chemo for lymphoma); often, though, it takes a toll.

It's not surprising that between the Tucson shootings at the start of last week and the news of Lisa Madigan's fight with stage IV pancreatic cancer, I've been having difficulty keeping my focus. They are the sorts of things that make me consider my own mortality and the choices that I've made (and will make). Taking a step back to consider how best to seize the day and smell the roses has resulted in a number of fallow hours. And I'm good with that.

I've been reading. And watching a few movies. And working on a small side project for which I wrote two poems, as it turns out, so I suppose my output isn't completely shot.

I've learned that when I accept that fallow hours occur and that they, too, will come to an end when they're ready, I stay much calmer - and the fallow period tends to shorten. For instance, today, my plan was to do nothing. Nothing at all. This is my third blog post since that decision was made. And I wrote half a poem, too, because I am apparently so very perverse that telling myself I'm not allowed to write made me desperate to do so.

Still . . . I've given myself permission to goof off and/or play around until Sunday. Because just like fields in which crops are planted, we all need those fallow hours to regroup, rethink, regenerate, reimagine, and to find the joy again.

Kiva - loans that change lives

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( 47 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 20th, 2011 03:55 am (UTC)
Fallow Hours. That is such a beautiful turn of phrase. So wistful, but in an "ahhhhh" way.

That needs to be the title of a poem!
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:01 am (UTC)
I shall see what I can do about that . . .
Jan. 20th, 2011 09:09 am (UTC)
tanita says;
Thank you.
You do put things so beautifully. I've been in the same place, but I also know that I've been here before, and sometimes putting things aside allows you to come back to them and see them more clearly.

And I do think that I agree about the poem - Fallow is such a lovely, restful word.
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC)
Re: tanita says;
Thanks, lovey. And I agree that "fallow" is a lovely word.
Jan. 20th, 2011 09:46 am (UTC)
I think of those times as my "winters." And I figure they're necessary for spring.

I hope you get a chance to rest and regroup, and that things blossom beautifully for you soon.
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
The more I intend to rest, the more I get done sometimes. (Once Jane was done, I planned to take a month off, and instead ended up writing an entire poetry collection.) But for now, I'm trying to take it easy for a few more days.
Jan. 20th, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC)
thank you for this. I needed it right now. :)
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
Hugs to you.
Jan. 20th, 2011 12:36 pm (UTC)
I agree 100%. Enjoy this time.

Jan. 20th, 2011 04:18 pm (UTC)
I'm still getting a wee bit done, but I'm giving myself the gift of not having to focus.
Jan. 20th, 2011 12:56 pm (UTC)
I'm in that resting phase, too.

Joy in the morning....I'm looking for signs of its arrival.
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:19 pm (UTC)
Hugs, Melodye.
Jan. 20th, 2011 02:42 pm (UTC)
Add to that the loss of your ritual site (Borders). Makes sense you'd want time to regenerate.
Enjoy your time!
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
I didn't even factor that in, but I'm sure you're right.
Jan. 20th, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC)
Yes! I love that you give yourself permission to just be and let life go for a bit (I have to do the same thing). I'm so much calmer after my 'fallow' hours -- peace and joy to you, my friend!
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Robin - peace and joy to you as well. It's amazing that giving permission to lollygag actually shortens the time - struggling against the natural rhythm of things just makes everything miserable.
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC)
Isn't it sad that we have to give ourselves permission to take a break? We do earn our rests after all and are so much better once we have re-charged our batteries. I'm looking forward to my day off on Monday. I'm calling it a mental-health day. And boy do I need it!
Jan. 20th, 2011 06:51 pm (UTC)
I think what's sad about it is that some people don't think to give themselves permission, even when they need a break. (I never used to, which is likely one of the reasons I ended up with RA in the first place!)
Jan. 20th, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC)
That's the tough part, isn't it: recognizing that the fallow hours are necessary, though sometimes it's hard to pinpoint exactly why (until you're past that point). I'm glad you have the perspective to know that this, too, will pass--and also, that you're seeing bursts of unexpected productivity, too. Hugs to you.
Jan. 20th, 2011 06:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jeni.
Jan. 20th, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
Such a beautiful post, Kelly. I'm glad you'e found peace with your fallow hours.
Jan. 20th, 2011 06:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Tracy.
Jan. 20th, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you, thank you so much for this post.
Now I know there is nothing wrong with me when I get like that.
Jan. 20th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
If it is wrong with you, it is wrong with every single creative person I know. :)
Jan. 20th, 2011 07:21 pm (UTC)
Wonderful and helpful. Thanks, Kelly. xo
Jan. 20th, 2011 09:40 pm (UTC)
Hugs, Lisa.
Jan. 20th, 2011 10:22 pm (UTC)
Oh, I can completely relate. Thanks for giving us permission to step away sometimes, and not beat ourselves up. We'll eventually find our way back to the words.
Jan. 20th, 2011 10:25 pm (UTC)
Exactly. And it's easier to find your way back if you're not struggling against the lull.
Jan. 21st, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)
I used to fight those times, but I've learned there's no point. I can sit at the computer and get nothing done AND stress myself out even more, or I can step away, get something out of the way that is part of the stress, and make sure I actually get some immersion time in a book I just WANT to read. Then I can come back.

I say I've learned, but of course, feel free to kick me the next time I forget! :)
Jan. 21st, 2011 02:20 am (UTC)
I stopped worrying about the fallow periods last fall. I'd planned to take at least three weeks off after I finished the Jane project, and instead got inspired to write the Shakespeare poems - it was incredibly productive. As it turned into September and my kids went back to school and I started to think of working full time, I stalled for a few days. For the first time, instead of fussing I about it, I just let it slide, and it turned out that by just going with it, not only didn't I stress, but I also got back to work sooner than I'd done in the past when I fought the break. Go figure.
Jan. 21st, 2011 12:15 am (UTC)
The well must refill.
Jan. 21st, 2011 02:20 am (UTC)
Jan. 21st, 2011 02:00 am (UTC)
Laurie Halse Anderson once told me that the muse does not respond well to pressure. It's true, and you simply cannot force the muse back into gear. But as you say, that permission to lounge can also be all it takes to turne the perverse muse around.

It's interesting how many of us have turned to writing after an some sort of chronic illness made our previous calling no longer available.
Jan. 21st, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
You're right about the chronic illness thing - lots of them are autoimmune, too. I've got RA and a side case of fibromyalgia and I know several writers with one or the other (or possibly both). Wild.

I'd always liked writing, though, and had written poetry since I was a child, and it allows me to set my own hours, etc. And I was good at it, too. Always a plus. Not that it's gotten me any sort of rapid success, but still . . . there's something wonderful about working in a creative field, isn't there?
Jan. 21st, 2011 04:01 am (UTC)
What I love about laying fallow is that its true purpose is to re-fertilize the ground. Love that! I've come to value fallow periods and view them as so intrinsic to my process that I make sure to plan them in when guesstimating deadlines and such. I also sometimes think of it as fermenting, because I like that word's association with alchemical/transformational properties. :-]

And how hugely interesting that there are so many of us who have struggled with chronic illness! I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome about fifteen years ago... but am greatly recovered now. But dear gawd, it took forEVER to get back on my feet.
Jan. 21st, 2011 05:13 am (UTC)
The bit about refertilization is exactly why I chose the term "fallow" to describe this sort of thing.

I try to plan the periods, too, with mixed results. I planned for three weeks of fallow/play time after I finished the Jane project, only to have the muse prance by with the Shakespeare poems - a project that moved extremely fast and that I adored, but that precluded my planned fallow period - instead, I ended up busy when I'd planned to rest and in a lull when I'd planned to work. C'est la vie.

CFS totally sucks - I know a few folks online who have it (authors, all) and a good friend of mine has it - and it can be quite debilitating. On the plus side, knowing her made me feel like less of a freak for needing rest and quiet and a decent amount of alone time in order to manage my stress, particularly when in flare. Thank goodness you are much improved - though I suspect you still have to keep a weather eye on the horizon, yes?
Jan. 21st, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for this post, Kelly, it's chock full of wise.

For my part, I've had a lot of things on my plate and have assumed that it was okay to let my revision/rewrite ferment for a while (I'm really not sure which to do with it right now.) But I'm beginning to suspect that I may have an entirely new project sprouting up, and rather than embrace that I keep trying to insist that my energy go to the old one. It's time to do some journaling and playing and figure out which my new direction will be.
Jan. 21st, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
I sometimes move to the new project, which allows the older project more time in the proverbial "drawer", so that when I come back to it, it's with really fresh eyes. I applaud you for taking time to play and figuring out what you most want to do next!
Jan. 25th, 2011 12:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for a wonderful, heartening post. In the modern rush-rush-rush world, it's all too easy to feel that you should always be productive, so thanks for the important reminder of the value of the Fallow Hours (lovely term).
Jan. 25th, 2011 07:20 pm (UTC)
Rush-rush-rush doesn't always lead us to our best work, that's for sure, whether we're talking about writing or housework or pretty much anything else.
Jan. 25th, 2011 02:35 pm (UTC)
I had one of those weeks last week after a few weeks of being really frustrated with my progress. So I decided not to set the coffee maker for 5 am and just sleep in until it was time to go to work. I gave myself permission to do it for a week and it helped a bit. I got up early again yesterday morning and was quite proud of the 400 odd words I put down. I guess I needed more gas too. :)
Jan. 25th, 2011 07:24 pm (UTC)
Firstly, I LOVE that new icon photo - and I love that you and your baby are looking at the same spot on the page!!

Secondly, I'm glad you took a break. Too many of us turn our writing into another task on our to-do lists, and if it's that sort of "must-do task" for too long, it starts to become a chore, and not a joy. At least, that's been my experience. When I first hit the nonproductive periods, I used to worry (as I said in the post), but over time I've realized that I usually end up with tremendous progress after allowing for fallow hours.
Jan. 25th, 2011 08:44 pm (UTC)
The icon was from yesterday - the way she looks at the pictures so intently just cracks me up. :)

I'm glad I took a break too, and I loved your post on this. Here's to breaks when we need them! *lifts tea mug*
Jan. 25th, 2011 07:16 pm (UTC)
Oh, "fallow hours" describes it perfectly! I have never been a write-every-day writer, but sometimes I take whole weeks off, and I have a tendency to beat myself up over it. I like this way of thinking of it much better; it's much more nourishing than guilt!
Jan. 25th, 2011 07:24 pm (UTC)
"much more nourishing than guilt" is exactly right!
Jan. 25th, 2011 08:34 pm (UTC)
i love that
Jan. 25th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Meg.
( 47 comments — Leave a comment )

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