Even prolific writers talk about those moments, after the completion of a book or screenplay, when they wonder whether they’ll ever write again, ever have anything more to say. If the writer is lucky, the thought is fleeting and the next new project is already bubbling up in the writer’s mind, begging to be written.
But, honestly, the well does sometimes dry up. And a dry creative well isn’t the same as writer’s block. The dry well is more like a void–nothing to say, no words, no images. It’s a drought, a dark night of the writer’s soul. And it feels, in the moment, as if it will last forever.
It won’t last forever. But every moment it does last feels like an eternity.
Occasionally, a writer has just pushed the muse too hard, and the muse is taking a vacation. Writers who take part in Book in a Month programs know they’ll need time off at the end of the month’s writing push–and they know their jobs, friends and families will reclaim them and give them that much-needed change of pace.
For writers who are undergoing transformations in their personal lives–deaths, divorces, or the birth of a child, even a spiritual awakening–the well may run dry because the water’s being changed. If dams are opened to drain a reservoir, the reservoir looks like a wasteland until it refills with water. If a writer drains herself emotionally or creatively, the wasteland only lasts until the inner reservoir is refilled.
Here are five steps any writer can take to end the dark night of the muse:
- Walk or do rhythmic physical work. Movement integrates sensory input with our bodies’ memory systems, which are stored in the cells of the body. Movement can put overwhelming memories in their place, connect them with stored and potentially useful memories and ideas, or simply restore balance.
- Set a timer and freewrite for seven minutes. Let time be your boundary and just dump whatever’s on your mind. Sometimes writing a letter you’ll never send helps clear issues. Sometimes it helps to write a letter to your guardian angel, asking for guidance about writing again. The short period of time is your boundary and protection; within that space, write out whatever is on your mind (which may be the debris blocking the creative flow). Because we normally see, hear (internally) and feel (kinesthetically, as our hands and arms move) as we write with pen and paper, writing by hand has some of the same benefits as movement.
- At another time, set the timer and freewrite your feelings about your primary project, the one you “can’t write” about. Let any doubts, misgivings or frustrations with the project flow out onto the page. Walk or move after writing and read it later to begin making new choices. Sometimes tiny flaws in a work stop the flow and can be corrected quickly once they’re identified.
- Create in another form. More than 25 years ago, I learned of the sad, sad death of a man I’d once loved. He’d escaped a difficult family situation–and went back, later dying young of cancer. And I was angry. It was one of the rare times I couldn’t meditate and couldn’t work on a writing project. I put the anger in my journal as rough drafts of a couple of angry poems. Years after that, I went back to the journal and used those feelings to write a short story. Today I often bring conflicting feelings into focus with a cinquain, a short poetic form based on syllables and a very few lines:
My personal coaching clients have sometimes adopted the cinquain for the same purpose–to contain and clarify feelings. Others use clustering and mindmapping to explore intense feelings and feel the energy shift so they can go back to other writing. For some, photography, watercolors or (one of my own choices) knitting and fiber arts may be the alternate form that releases the flow.
- Refill the well. Julia Cameron recommends weekly artist dates, and at least two weekly artist dates if you’re working intensely. The harder you work, the more you need to replenish your well or reservoir by collecting sensory images (any sense) and experiences.
What causes the dams? What blocks the flow?
Ordinarily, it’s emotion. We feel intellectual conflicts as overwhelming or as overload. Sometimes intellectual overload leads to burnout. But an emotional excess, or unprocessed emotions, or emotional conflicts can lead to moments of creative paralysis not unlike the dark moment when a character in a story is forced to make a leap of faith beyond anything known in the past.
The most powerful emotional transformations are those ruled astrologically by Pluto, which also rules lasers, atomic bombs, and the great cycles of death and rebirth. The good news about transformation is that all flow is stopping only because a great change is at hand. Transformative experiences change our paradigms. There are moments that change us forever. And there are seasons that build up to the same impact. The moments of change capture our imagination and seem to pass in an instant. It’s the long slow seasons of change that temporarily slow or block the flow of the creative imagination.
You may have to rewrite the book that was half-finished when you felt the slowdown from flow to trickle to dry stream. It may need to be revisioned in terms of the writer you have become while you did the preliminary work that released the emotions that dammed the stream. You may have to rewrite from the voice of another character or, in extreme cases, shift to another genre more suited to the real theme of your story.
In the long run, the flow begins again when you get out of the way, unblock your emotions and allow your resistances to crumble. The good news is that the new work will be stronger and better than anything you could have written without the dark night of your writer’s soul.
Mary O’Gara, Ph.D., CVACC, is a certified creativity coach and a life coach whose specialty is working with women whose work is their passion. Mary has been a professional psychic and astrologer since 1976; she was listed in Who’s Who of American Women and Who’s Who in the West for her leadership in the women’s movement. Mary writes short stories, poems and creative nonfiction and has won awards for her writing.
Creativity has been Mary’s passion since she was in college, and her current professional focus is on creativity after the age of 50. Creativity is the part of the brain that actually grows and develops until people are in their mid-80s; Mary believes that increasing ability to create and to handle complexity accounts for the reverence native peoples have for their elders and also for the amazing ways older people adapt to changing environments and abilities.
Mary lives in Albuquerque, NM, enjoying the insights into kabbalah and ancient wisdom that are available in her multi-cultured community. Mary is an ordained minister and thrives on the similarity and interchange between spirituality and creativity, which she sees as the inside and outside of the same cup or chalice. For a free gift, visit her at http://www.maryogara.com
Mary’s next Savvy Authors workshop, The Feminine Journey, begins March 2nd. The Feminine Journey is a true journey, which probably originated with the legends of Inanna, and is the foundation for Gone with the Wind and Titanic. In the Feminine Journey, we begin with a life everyone else thinks is good enough for the heroine–but she knows something is missing. In the Feminine Journey, the heroine has to let go of everything that sustained her own life, and then, in the dark moment, reach out for what she did learn from that life in order to forge her own path and move forward. For more information or to register for the workshop, please go to here.