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Q: A poet/teacher asks: What about the “dry times,” when writing just won’t come, and it feels like the shadow of death?

A: I am moved by your sharing of the journey as poet/ teacher through the kind of “valley of the shadow of death” that most if not all of us experience at times in our writing life. It is not death, and we know it is not death, but the shadow may be more terrifying than the experience itself. Not having gone through the experience of death itself, of course, I can’t say for sure, but I do know that shadow, and it is fearsome. Your situation sounds to me like part exhaustion in your work as teacher, which does sometimes become feeding others the very food we ourselves are starved for – and part perhaps a need to do some concrete giving to yourself that will refresh the wells of your own creativity.

For me that kind of refreshment has tended to come in two ways: a silent retreat and/or working in a different genre for a time. First let me offer my own ideal, and then a “what if” that isn’t possible.

Ideally, I need to be away from home for at least eight days – the first three to rest, and five for work. I spend the first three days doing absolutely nothing that has to do with writing, with work, with projects, with answering the needs of others. Some people need the “silence” to be broken at meal times – I want total silence. Nothing but walking, reading for relaxation, sleeping, (great, generous, as-much-as-possible night and day-time sleeping) and taking care of the body’s needs. No “oughts” or “shoulds.” No cellphones or email. Then five days of writing. If I am deep into a project, I work on that one project – not more. If I am finished with a project, exhausted and empty, then I am gentle with myself, listening, waiting, doing simple descriptive writing of things around me, letters, or stream-of-conscious journal until words begin to come of their own volition. Write in pieces, in blocks, as a person might make a quilt, trusting that the pattern will reveal itself. Take the images as they come and refuse all inner and outer critics.

If that isn’t possible, it is possible to take out a year-long calendar and schedule some private times. Don’t base them on what I, or someone else recommends. Work with yourself. Think about the times of day, the amount of time, the place that has worked when your writing flowed freely. Give that to yourself again. Some writers recommend 30 minutes a day. That drives me bonkers! I just get warmed up, just get started in 30 minutes – and I’m mad as a wet hen when the 30 minutes are up. I do much better with two hours once a week in a local “greasy spoon” drinking their coffee and writing, than 30 minutes a day at home with family life around me. Work with yourself. Give yourself, schedule and keep faith with yourself, regularly. And try each year to schedule one or two longer times away.

At the heart, these dry times are usually transitions. One field of our work may have been exhausted and needs to lie fallow. That is when it is great to have more than one field. To change the metaphor — it is not healthy, in my opinion, to play only one note. By that I mean to work in only one genre. You are a poet – perhaps you need to let the field of poetry lie fallow for a season or more, and do some other kind of writing: a play? an essay? a short story? memoir? Writing is like fields – every writer should have several fields, and allow the ground to rest and refresh itself in one field at a time. When I come back to poetry after a period away, working as I did on a full non-fiction book, I almost always find myself at a new level of writing poems. A different place. And myself eager to explore it. Refreshed.

I hope something here is helpful. It is all projection, really, so don’t feel badly about filing it in the “circular file!”

Best wishes for refreshment and the springing up of new songs.

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Writers and leaders of writing groups, teachers of writing, and young writers are invited to write questions to Pat. She will choose one question each month for response. The questions may be edited, and will be anonymous, but if location and identity such as “Writer”, “Poet”, “Teacher”, or age of young writer is offered, that will be included. Offer a question: HERE

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