What happens When the Words Stop.

In Which GeGi addresses an issue all writers have eventually encountered.

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Greetings, fellow octopi! This is GeGi hosting today.

There are times in a writer’s life when the words stop. The flow seems to dry up; you struggle to craft even the simplest sentences. Inspiration and creative energy feel like things of the past, and you wonder if you’ll ever write again.

I do, at least. The rhythm of my writing is very cyclical — abundance is followed by drought followed by fresh abundance, and on, and on, and on. When I was younger this worried me. Each time I took an involuntary break from writing, I felt like it was the final time. The well had run dry, and I wasn’t a real writer after all.  Then the words would come rushing back, and I would be consumed by writing again, trying to ignore everything else so I could spend hours upon hours in the fictional worlds of my own creation. I would tell myself that this time it had to be real, that it would last. Which, of course, it never did.

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Image description: photo of an octopus, one tentacle upraised and coiled at the end. Caption reads “curse you” with extra u’s at the end, and three exclamation marks.

The real problem wasn’t the cycle, though. It was my attitude towards the cycle. Very slowly, as I learned more about life in general and my (also cyclical) emotions in particular, I realized I needed to re-frame how I viewed the patterns of my own life. While there seems to always be things about myself and my life I would like to change, I now understand better the difference between what’s changeable and what isn’t. There will always be aspects beyond my control; in those cases, the challenge then is to figure out how to accept them, and how to not be constantly battling against them.

Acceptance doesn’t mean I have to like it, but it does mean I have to learn how to move past it. In the case of writing, I can’t control when the words flow and when they don’t. What I can control is how I react to those times. Instead of fretting about it, I acknowledge it’s happening and then focus on something else. This usually helps the “downswing” times shorten anyway, and in the meantime I’m not driving myself into a lather over worrying about it. Currently, I’m not making any progress on my new stage of working on the novel, but I am spending time visiting my family and working on O.S.E.A. posts. All three are valuable pursuits, and all three are time-consuming, so I tell myself two out of three is reasonable, and writing posts is still writing (which is all very true, though it‘s completely different from my novel-writing).

Mostly importantly, when the cycle has swung to the not-active side of writing, I know now it doesn’t mean some part of my brain isn’t still working on writing. Think of it this way: when you plant a field, it takes time for the seeds to reach the top of the earth and break through into the light. During the time you can’t see them, however, there’s still enormous amounts of effort and energy being expended in the dark. Roots are spreading out and down, learning to feed nutrients back to the stem as the stem itself begins to push through soil towards the sun it can’t yet feel, reaching every upward. Then when it finally breaks through, there’s an explosion of new growth. All summer, the plant will stretch higher and higher towards the sun, sending out more and more leaves while the roots delve ever deeper and further outwards. Yet even in tropical climates, there will come a time when that growth cycle needs to rest. The plants will slow or even stop; in colder climates the ground may look barren. But a fallow field, looking empty, isn’t the same as dead. The soil is still alive, and will still bear nutrients and life to the plant when the cycle for growth returns.

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Image description: side-by-side stages of a bean seed sprouting in dirt, growing roots and stem until it breaks through the soil, and then spreading out the first leaves.

Just like the cycles of nature, I know when my mind seems empty and barren it’s only a surface illusion. Deeper down, in my unconscious mind, the work is still happening. The periods of rest are times when the nutrients of creativity need to gather and recharge the soil of my mind. The seeds of inspiration are busy growing beneath the surface, too new and tender yet for the sunlight of consciousness but still there nevertheless. Everything I think and do and read and watch and discuss during this time is like adding to a compost pile — it needs time to break down into more soil, but in the end it will make for a richer garden from which to harvest.

The things I’m exposed to will someday become inspiration and ideas, often without me even realizing where it came from, but first they must be absorbed and processed and mixed in with everything else. Eventually, my mind will need the time of rest in order to recharge for the next bout of active writing. Every aspect takes energy, so it makes sense that, just as plants adjust focus of growth from root to leaf to height to fruition, so too will my mind change from putting down words to gathering new information to creating new ideas. Rest and recharge is essential to new and healthy growth. Fretting and worrying and battling it only prolongs the process, because it takes energy away from where it’s truly needed. I might not always know exactly what’s percolating away back there in the depths of my mind, but I can always reassure myself that something is happening, and if I can just let it do the thing, someday soon it will bare fruit.

Not to say I can just sit back and be completely neglectful about it. If I want my mind to bear a crop I can harvest for writing, then even in the fallow times I need to be feeding my mind the right kinds of things. I need to be paying attention to whatever will create a rich compost and plant the correct seeds. Otherwise my mind has no food to work with, and the fields of unconsciousness will remain barren until I finally put in the effort.

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Image description: photo of hands covered in dirt, gently pressing the soil around a small sprout.

So when I don’t feel like writing my main project — or at all — I’ll make sure I’m at least reading books (fiction or non, usually a mix of both), staying productive on occasion (even if it’s just housework or chores), being creative sometimes (in any medium), paying attention to the world (other people, plants, animals, current affairs, anything outside my own head), and other things to keep me moving the right directions. Each of the things I’ve listed serves a rather specific place in the writing process, after all: reading means I’m exposed to other people’s creativity and ideas, productivity gives me a sense of satisfaction and usefulness to help counter my tendency towards depression, creativity keeps everything flowing instead of feeling stagnant, and paying attention to the world outside my own head is how I can keep creating worlds inside my own head.

It’s important to figure out which specific things are part of your meta-writing-process, so to speak; the bits that happen beyond the conscious actions. One of the classic questions authors talk about being asked all the time is “where do your ideas come from?”. Understanding your meta-writing-process is the key to answering this question. You might not have the same fallow-fruitful cycle I do, and that’s fine — there’s a lot of ways to be a writer and to write, and none of them are wrong as long as it works for you. But regardless of how you work, there’s a meta-writing-process happening somewhere in your subconscious. Try being mindful of it, get to know it a little, and experiment. See what happens when you feed it different things. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover some completely new style of writing you never realized you were capable of, just from giving your mind a new way to grow!

Happy planting, friends.

Let us know in the comments what you do when the words seem to stop, and how you stay creative during dry spells! As always, if there’s any topic you’d like to see us discuss, just tell us and we’ll be happy to address it. Thanks for reading, and if you find any of our posts helpful then please tell us about it, and then tell all your friends to read us too!

Author: GeGi

pronounced jee-jee; neutral/ve pronouns; nonbinary demi-grrl; queer/grey-Ace; geek introvert writer; autodidact artist; pagan punkrock pixie panarchist; comfortable with all animals except spiders and mosquitoes and most humans.

2 thoughts on “What happens When the Words Stop.”

  1. Another share-worthy post!
    Being in the middle of a dry spell myself, I appreciate the perspective that things are still happening beneath the surface, just waiting for the right combination of ingredients or the right time to sprout into fruition. Thank you for that insight – it helps!

    Once in a rare while, I’ll sit myself down and just write whatever. It usually starts out with lists, moves on to complaints, then maybe, hopefully, finally some real writing takes place. It won’t be anything good, and it won’t generally be anything to do with my particular writing projects… but sometimes just the act of putting thoughts to paper (or screen) helps get the juices flowing again. In your gardening analogy, it would be like putting a heat lamp over the seed trays or moving them to the greenhouse in order to force germination to happen more quickly. Like forcing springtime bulbs to flower before their season… which might be an insight as to why I don’t do this more often: I recognise the ebb and flow of the seasons and prefer things to bloom in their own time. Just my personal preference.

    In the meantime, I generally aim to throw myself into other creative projects that end up neglected when I’m in full-on writing mode. Maybe it’s their turn to bloom for a while. I also try to enjoy more time outdoors – hopefully in the forest, by the sea, or atop a mountain, my happy places where I get a better perspective on Life. But sometimes even the mundane world of doing dishes, hanging laundry, and weeding the garden works, and that’s a good thing because those things need doing anyway. The aim, for me, is to get into that zone where I lose track of time because I am so involved in what I am doing… just like when the words are flowing… and, like starting a suction tube, maybe they’ll begin to flow again. And if not, at least I got some other stuff done.

    Like

    1. Thank you, and you’re very welcome! Aren’t analogies so much fun? I love the way talking about something using the vocabulary of something else can bring new insights simply by giving us a fresh perspective from which to view the familiar. There’s always a balance those writing seedlings, isn’t there? Forcing them doesn’t always feel like the best approach, but you can’t neglect them either… That’s why I love doing other creative or even just productive things — as you said, then if you still haven’t worked on the project, at least something got done!

      Like

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