The Writer’s Season: A Pursuit Of Active Dormancy



There is a time when it is all right for writers not to write. I’ll say this again so I’ll remember. There is a time when it is all right for writers not to write. It is time of preparation, and very much like putting over-cropped ground down to grass so the soil can regenerate. A time of fallowness then, but not of time wasting.

Before the real work can begin, there must be input, a drawing down of resources (like a tree in winter) – reading, researching and general planning.  And when I say ‘not writing’ I don’t mean give up on the writing practice – the brainstorming-stream-of-consciousness splurge, the morning pages, verbal doodling, keeping diaries. In fact do more. These are the equivalent of a musician practicing scales, or a dancer taking the exercise classes before working on a performance. This kind of practice strengthens fluency and, if you’re lucky, opens pathways to your subconscious thinking. It is all part of making ready for creating new work. None of this is for public consumption.

Yet doing sufficient groundwork is probably what most of us balk at. We have been fed with the notion that the best creation only comes in a white-hot blast of inspirational outpouring. We wait for it to happen. And it may never happen. More likely as not, such an approach will become a self-fulfilling blockage prophecy.

Then we may we tell ourselves the lie that if we are not busy producing words for the work in progress, then we cannot call ourselves writers. This may prompt us to start a work too soon simply to convince ourselves that we are being productive. Too often this will also end in confusion, blockage and despondency.

Only when we know our subject in our hidden depths, down in our roots and under the bark, can we best deploy our conveyances (our words) to bring it to the outer world. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in every last detail. Or not exactly. I have in mind Michael Morpurgo’s way. This well known English children’s writer is also a farmer. When he is thinking about a new book, he tells himself the story over and over until he dreams about it. Then he goes out in the early morning among his sheep and tells them the story. Only when he feels it is going down well with the ovine audience does he begin the act of serious writing. In this way he has proposed, explored, processed and internalized a narrative before he has written a word.

What emerges is more likely to be a  work that has intrinsic authenticity and consistency, as opposed to a narrative that has been imposed by the writer from outside, and often feels weak and poorly rooted.

So what do we need? Preparation, preparation, preparation.

But not too much either. I’m suddenly thinking of Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, he who ended up so obsessed with his researches that he left no time to write the book.  So a balance in all things. The knack, of course, is to recognize tipping point.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell



36 thoughts on “The Writer’s Season: A Pursuit Of Active Dormancy

  1. I find that I never see those times coming–they’re usually a product of distractions and external commitments stacking up, but I always enjoy the vigor that follows.

    1. I was thinking of painting too, Janet. Perhaps because we use words as our main form of communication, we’re a bit slap-happy in their usage. By contrast, unless we were simply playing and making a lovely mess, we wouldn’t expect to create a good painting by sloshing paint around i.e. without a plan, and some well defined thoughts on the interpretation of the subject, and our craft well honed before we start.

      1. You are so right. I am constantly emphasising this to workshop participants etc…and reminding myself on a daily basis, that, play is such an important element to the creative process…..I believe it is the first stepping stone towards creating something of more substance. Have a lovely day…Janet:)

  2. Great post Tish. I’m trying to train myself to do this, rather than plunging in and scribbling frantically when I have an initial idea – I’m trying to take more time, to read around a subject, to create a framework first. It’s hard, but I hope it will lead to more successful stories.

    1. Yes, you are right about the hard work. It really is a lot like gardening, labour-wise. Lots of processing, composting, turning, finding the right soil, creating the right conditions for things to thrive, knowing what works with what and when. In another sense, writers are like compost heaps – they have to take everything in, break it down, and turn it into something useful, working from the inside out. It’s not usually something you can rush.

      1. Writer as compost heap – I do like that idea! Yes, I’m working hard at stopping myself from working hard – if you know what I mean. The cogs are turning, notes are being made, research done. I just have to stop myself from rushing at that laptop too soon 🙂

  3. You’ve given me much food for thought, Tish. As another Janet said above, this post applies to more than just writers. Whatever craft we pursue, we need to work hard and also take times of rest without judging ourselves. Of course, if we’re doing nothing all the time, we can’t really expect to miraculously succeed, but the mind needs times of rest to simply wander. A photographer’s parallel might be to simply take photos she might not ordinarily take and not worry how they turn out. She might be surprised and, in the days of digital photography, any can be easily deleted.


    1. Yes, Janet, you are right that we need to work hard at any craft/art we wish to pursue, irrespective of natural ability. Being non-judgmental is the hard part of course. So yes, play is important too, and knowing that, in some sense, you are serving an apprenticeship. And that learning a craft takes lots of time. Thank you for your thoughts.

      1. Being judgmental to some degree is necessary, I think, but you have to be willing and able to turn that off sometimes and just see what happens. I’m thinking more here of judgmental in the editing sense.

  4. You are right on the mark. A couple of sayings came to my mind:

    The first I don’t remember who it was, some professor was mentioning him, but the author said when you wake up and write seven sentences. Chances are the first six sentences will be garbage. But the seventh may have something worth holding onto. The point being, one would never have written that seventh line if one had not written the first six.

    The second was told by Jane Hirshfield one of my favorite poets, who was I was lucky enough to attend a reading. During the Q&A she at one point talking about a topic similar to what you are dealing with here said she had a period of five years when she did not write any poetry at all. “I was a poet who did not write poetry.” Which in my mind speaks to a poet’s sensibility (or a composer’s or a dancer’s etc) that exists whether we are writing or not. I has to do with how we experience the world. Eventually pen must go to paper in the end, but preparation can be journaling, little exercises, or just reflecting, walking through the woods and experiencing life as it is.

    1. Yes, indeed – experiencing life as it is, and even when it is an imagined life. The problem for many is that this contemplative, nurturing, growing oneself approach does not fit with the dominant cultural exhortation to be commercially successful. Of course the two mindsets rarely get on together. Do you know The Gift by Lewis Hyde – a book-sized essay on ‘How the creative spirit transforms the world’. It’s quite a demanding read, with much anthropology, but it places creative output where it should properly be lodged according to traditional peoples’ values – i.e. within the ritually charged domain of gift exchange. Thanks for joining the conversation. I like the idea of the seventh sentence maybe having something. A bit like panning for gold 🙂

  5. I like that you’re write about creativity, so creatively. I wonder how this harmful mythology about what creativity means has come about. It’s so destructive to the spirit.

    1. Thank you, Su. I guess commodification kills most things – to put it bleakly, and if there are created works that can’t be commodified then the dominant culture proclaims them without value. Would-be famous authors should perhaps be aware that if their script ever gets past the slush pile and onto an editor’s wish list – the next person it probably goes by is the company accountant. When the rejection slip comes, this should be borne in mind. Sometimes, just sometimes, the outsider’s voice is deemed so stonkingly original that they receive the platform they deserve – thinking here of Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’, and more currently of Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s ‘Dust’. It is a bit depressing really, but then the http://www maybe has all sorts of possible new pathways up its sleeve – that could put art truly back in the spiritual domain of fair exchange. It makes me imagine internet wandering minstrels, and virtual griots and praise singers, and their writerly or painterly or musicianly equivalents, or indeed anyone who makes good work in whatever medium. This is one of the great pluses of WordPress. The only big downside is that creators cannot make a living from their work via this platform. It doesn’t quite lend itself to the good old bartering system or the exchange of services.

  6. I know what you mean. I’m in that fallow time and I’m quite comfortable with it. When it is time to start writing I’ll know. In the mean time I write here, and there, and blog posts, and emails, and little spurts of inspiration. I love the piece about Michael Morpurgo very much. I think it’s time for me to begin that. Thank you.

  7. Makes me think of all the maps Tolkien must have made, constructing those made-up worlds until they really do feel real. I’m doing the same, and yes, it should bring more to the telling when it’s time, so that it’s like the tip of an iceberg, with so much more of it untold, in our sub-conscious.

    1. Exactly, Bill. There’s a lot that can be learned about world-building from writers like Tolkein, Le Guin, Scott Card – even if your setting presents as the most realistic of realisms. Spot on with your top of the iceberg.

  8. What a lovely substantial read, both post and the conversation winding through the comments. Again you’ve nailed a point by analogy.

    I’m off to find some sheep to read to! A great idea – you hear what you’ve written as well as the sheep and that can’t be bad for prose or for ideas.

  9. Wow, this is excellently soothing. Not that I have ever published anything but obviously I need a loooooong fallowness. And yet even when I set to write something, I never have the whole story in mind yet. I prefer to be as surprised as my dog would be if I told him the story first. Might try it though, he might have good suggestions. 🙂

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