I hear this advice often—I think I read it first from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, one of the books I borrowed from my mother’s bookshelf way back when. Artists need time to “fill the well,” or replenish our creative resources, especially after we’ve completed large, all-encompassing, energy-draining projects such as novels that have taken huge chunks of our hearts, heads, and souls to get on the page.
How do you fill the well? You take in inspirations. You let yourself ponder and wonder and think. You take a look at the world and collect (people, ideas, fragments, overheard conversations, images, notes, pieces, pebbles, seeds).
So maybe this post is about this need and this process.
Or maybe this post is about that moment after you’ve published a book and the pressure that comes to write the next book.
And how this moment can expand into days. Weeks. Months. Years? (Help me, I’m quoting The Walls Around Us—that’s how connected I am to that book still and proves it’s been hard to move on and let go.)
This is me: I just published a new book. My fourth. I’m proud of it. It feels complete. There was the fear of what would happen when people started reading it, and I survived that, and the nerves of what would happen when it got published, and if it would change my life (we writers, no matter how realistic and jaded we get, still hold the secret hope that the next book will be the one to change our lives), and I think it did, in an internal way that feels very personal and wonderful, but I don’t necessarily think it did in the splashy ways most people ask about or expect.
This is a two-book contract, I should add. And the second book on the contract is a whole new novel, completely unrelated to Walls. It’s a creation from scratch. And it’s due.
This winter, after a short stint at an artists colony, I turned in a very wobbly and paper-thin first draft of my next book, and then got feedback, and was set off on a course to rewrite and reimagine it. I agree with the feedback. I know there is a lot of work to do—I love hard work. But even as I knew all that, The Walls Around Us was coming out, and there were promotional things to do, online and in-person, and I kept going away to conferences, and I kept telling myself I would really dig in deep when I got home, and I slipped in work in between things and time kept passing without much progress made.
What I needed was for time to stop. I needed permission to take a little break from trying to get the novel into shape and just close my eyes and let the shape nudge itself together in the darkness.
Lately I’ve been thinking about all of this. And I discovered something:
When forcing yourself to hit an arbitrary word count every day doesn’t help… And when guilt-tripping yourself into a stupor doesn’t help… And when comparing yourself to the productivity and publishing schedules of other authors doesn’t help… And when effectively tying yourself to your desk chair doesn’t help…
Know what helps me? Doing something tentatively connected to writing that has nothing whatsoever to do with this novel.
The first thing has been my teaching and the private manuscript critiques and mentoring I’ve started doing. I love working closely with other writers, and digging in deep to their novels even when I’m feeling faraway from mine. Somehow that’s helped.
The second thing has been a project I’ve been doing for the month of May, or Short Story Month. I’ve been reading a short story every day—if you want to see which stories, here is the list I’m keeping updated. Pressure-free reading. It’s working wonders on my head.
The stories don’t take long to read. And most of the stories I’m choosing to read are not YA, so I don’t have to think about the industry. I just have to absorb. Admire. Experience. Fill the well, I guess.
It’s been a wonderful experience so far. Inspiring. I feel lighter. I feel happier. I feel less tied to my author-self and more connected to my writer-self, the one who just loves words.
I’ve learned this about myself: I need time in between books to not be writing the next book. I always need this time, and I always fight against needing this time. I always feel bad about myself. I always force the work, and this takes me on detours, and ends with me having to undo what I forced.
If this always happens, you’d think I’d have this figured out by now, but I’ve also learned that I’m a work-in-progress and still learning.
Next time, I would like to remember this and give myself the well-filling recovery time I know I’ll need. Now I’ve had it, these new ideas are percolating and my heart is beating fast again and I can see the end of this novel glimmering in the distance and I want to run to it. I have the energy, once again, to run.