Once upon a time, around age twenty, I began to doubt whether or not I was meant to be a writer.
A junior in college at the time, I had stopped writing fiction. I had grown used to writing a novel on the side, in addition to my regular classes, homework, extracurriculars, and student job, but after completing seven manuscripts, all my story ideas had begun to peter out after a few pages.
I wrote in my journal almost every day. I completed the fictional pieces assigned in my courses with relish, but besides that, I just wasn’t interested enough to stick with anything.
It wasn’t like me. Thus ensued a minor freak-out.
(Note: freak-outs come naturally to us writers. The trick is learning to harness them to enrich our stories, but that’s a thought for another blog post.)
For many years, I had fixated on the idea that writers were people who wrote. I didn’t want to become one of those “writers” that talk about writing and think about writing and plan on writing SOMETHING, but who never seem to actually sit down and string words together.
Since fifth grade, I had been one of those writers who wrote—without even needing an assignment—and then, suddenly, I was not. I had an identity crisis. I questioned my Purpose In Life. I had long, heart-felt conversations with my family and friends about what I should do to fix myself and my life. (These activities are fairly common in college students, actually.)
Ultimately, though, one realization ended my angst: I’d stopped writing once before.
Between the ages of ten and fourteen, I’d written four novels. (Well, four and two-thirds, but I lost interest in the last project.) I’d also finished a novel right before my eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth birthdays. A highly productive period, right? But for the first time, I noticed the gap between the fourth novel and the fifth! From the middle of my sophomore year to the middle of my senior year, I wasn’t writing anything at all. I was concentrating on other things, like being a good student and getting into a stellar college. (Very worthy pursuits!)
So, the long break from writing wasn’t anything to worry about. I didn’t, in fact, go back to writing long fiction again until after I turned twenty-three…which is the age I began drafting Of Giants and Ice.
Nowadays, I think of those non-writing years as a fallow period.
Fallow land—as I learned in middle school—is a section of farmland that plowed and tilled but allowed to rest instead of actually planting crops on it again. This allows the moisture and nutrients to build up in the soil, so when the section of land is cultivated again, the plants can flourish there.
The same concept applies to writers. Some of us need rest periods in between books and/or series in order to build up our stores of energy, experience, imagination, and creativity. Not all authors are like this, but I definitely am.
During my last fallow period, I didn’t write any fiction longer than a hundred pages long (that’s roughly the length of my senior thesis, which was the beginning of a novel).
After that initial freak-out, I stopped worrying about it. Instead, I concentrated on doing other things, and because I’m lucky and blessed, some of them were really awesome:
- I wrote in my journal 6 or 7 times a week.
- I recovered from my first major illness.
- I took a course on fairy tales and another on medieval tapestries, which remain my favorite classes ever.
- I studied abroad in Oxford during junior year, and while I was there, I visited half a dozen countries and scheduled two weeks where I traveled solo for the first time.
- I took a lot of pictures, some of which I’m sharing in this post.
- I fell in love for the first time (and suffered from a broken heart for the first time).
- I graduated from college.
- I found and furnished my first apartment.
- I lived with one of my closest friends while she met and fell in love with the man who would eventually become her husband. I also fought with her sometimes, but not nearly as often as she fought with him.
- I threw myself into the publishing world, completing a number of internships, attending a post grad course at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, and getting a job as an editorial assistant in New York.
You get the idea: basically, during the time I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t idle. I was actively chasing knowledge and experiences that enriched my work when I started writing again. In fact, some of my experiences led directly to The Ever Afters series. (I’ll say it again: I took a course on FAIRY TALES! It was AMAZING!)
Even better, the fallow period helped me evolve as a writer. Both times, when I returned to writing, the new manuscripts were both more challenging and better crafted than the ones I’d written before taking a break from long-term projects. I’m still puzzling out why that is true, but I have a few thoughts:
First, I have more down time. That helps me distance myself from what I wrote and reflect on it more objectively and deeply than I could have if I was working on something new.
Second, I’ve used up all my material. In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon writes,
The comedian Louis C.K. worked on the same hour of material for 15 years, until he found out that his hero, George Carlin, threw out his material every year and started from scratch. C.K. was scared to try it, but once he did, it set him free. “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, and you throw those away, what do you have left? You can only dig deeper. You start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then you do those jokes and they’re gone. You gotta dig deeper.” When you get rid of old material, you push yourself further and come up with something better. When you throw out old work, what you’re really doing is making room for new work. [Emphasis added]
Sometimes, when you’re writing a difficult project, you give it everything you have, and when you’re done, when you’ve infused your writing with every bit of wisdom and creativity and skill you’ve acquired so far in your life, you’re left empty. Too empty to write, even though you might want to.
If that happens to you, don’t freak out like I did; that’s just a waste of time. The emptiness after a big project encourages you to seek out and explore and learn and ponder and grow. Go ahead, and let yourself enjoy this new phase. After filling yourself with new experiences, you won’t be the same human you were when you finished your last project. You’ll be a wiser, brighter, more skilled person, which makes you a wiser, brighter, more skilled writer.
That leads me to the point I’ve been journeying toward all along: While writing The Ever Afters, I gave the books everything I had, and it left me in a fallow period, the third one I can remember.
Since I turned in Of Enemies and Endings’s final draft, my focus hasn’t been on creating something new. Instead, I’ve tried to learn something new and explore fresh territory—to evolve as a person and as a writer.
And I have the feeling: whatever comes next will be more challenging and more invigorating than anything I’ve done before. 🙂