Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Refilling the Well

I hear writers and other artists talk at times about needing to “refill the well.” I’ve said it myself. Every creative person sometimes feels drained, as if the well-spring of imagination inside them has run dry. I think there are two primary reasons why this happens. I call them “Brain Burn” and “Trench Warfare.”

Simple physical fatigue will certainly drain the well. When I’m really tired, every action is an effort I don’t want to make, and writing is definitely an effort. And, fatigue can be mental as well as physical. My work as a teacher isn’t physically taxing but requires a lot of mental activity, and there are plenty of times I describe myself as “brain burned.” It doesn’t last long. As soon as I get a break from the semester grind, my mind almost always fills immediately with ideas. Or, I might need just a day or two of vegging and sleeping before the “well” starts to spill over.

But sometimes refilling the well seems to take longer. Sometimes, even when I have a break, and I have rest, the ideas and the language won’t come. At those times I know it’s because I’m in a rut, caught up in the mental equivalent of “trench warfare.” My mind has become static rather than active. My thoughts are traveling familiar paths, and I’m a little bored because I know exactly what’s around every corner. Sleep won’t fill this well. But experience will.

Whenever my well is blocked because I’m locked in trench warfare with myself, I try to shake things up a little. Not in my life necessarily, but in my head. I read stuff I don’t normally read, or something in a genre I haven’t revisited in a long time. I watch movies I would not normally choose. I listen to new music, as long as it’s loud and energizing. I try to feel new things and think new thoughts.

If I do need a change in life, it means going to places I haven’t been too before, seeing alternate landscapes, hearing different people talk. There are occasions when I have to physically walk unfamiliar paths, to wonder again what is around the next corner.

Engaging in trench warfare is a lot more insidious than being brain burned. You can sleep the latter away; the former you have to attack. The only way to break such a stalemate is to charge against it. Fortunately, unlike with real trench warfare, you’re not likely to get blown to bits in such a charge. About the worst that can happen is some discomfort at losing the familiar straightjacket you’ve been wearing. That discomfort will pass. Believe me. And you will be the better for having experienced it.

And if you’re wondering why I haven’t been around the blogs for a while, my trench war has turned into a charge. I’m out in no man’s land right now, and I’m not looking to hide. I can feel the tide at my back, the well filling. As a famous general once said, “I shall return.”

11 comments:

David J. West said...

I also try to read outside my preferred genre's-but often afterwards I find an absolute need to go back and reread my favorites of fiction - Robert E. Howard, Karle Edward Wagner, Homer & then some intriguing non-fiction too - anything with treasure hunts, dire battles and indomitable warriors -these all let me refill the well.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

In other words, if what you're doing isn't working, try something neew!

laughingwolf said...

all true...

as da gubbernator said: i'll be beck!

Carole said...

This is perhaps one of the best posts I've ever read. Perhaps because it suits where I am in life a lot! Although I think I try not to be entrenched, I do not get out of my comfort zone. I stay safe. What you are saying makes so much sense. I need to DO, TRY, different landscapes, different places, and new paths. It is going to be interesting if I can get out of the rut.

BernardL said...

I agree. Sometimes you have to lower your head, rev the feet up, and bust into the cement block in your head... figuratively of course. :)

ivan@creativewriting.ca: said...

I notice that when you google re Mental Block, all sorts of entries come up, including advice from old Ivan.

But I think I got a lot of my own jump starts from the late and great Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, master essayist for the old Sunpapers, who said there were certainly times when the creative juices just not flowin' too good, and you are suddenly stuck with blank paper (screen?) syndrome.
You stare helplessly at white space while outside your work station a part of you is watching the agony, the tossing and pitching of your brain.

A the audacity of it all, this creativee thing. Why did you ever start this warlock activity?
Mental block.
You now have to pay for all those past superiorites, the daring of it all the fishing in forbidden streams, chasing moonbeams in the dark, or other manifestations of that thing known as self-expression.

Man, did I enjoy reading Mencken about mental blocks.
But he was a bit German and and into good German food, and ein gutest beer--lots of it. My kind of guy, especiall when it came to beer drinking.

Himmel! He acturally produces a solution, though like all things German, it may be a little overdone, like, say, W.W. II. Heh.

But Mencken was second generation German, and he was American, possible one of the best essayist from the Twenties.

His solution: In so many words, Knockwurst and sauerkraut.

He says you're all out of sorts because you ain't been eating too good.

I immediately went to my deli and got some wienerschitzel and boiled cabbage. And washed it all down with a couple of steins of gutest beer.
Himmel!

I am a creativewriting macchine.

Steam is shooting out of my ears. :)

Richard Prosch said...

Good insight here and yes, been there too. Sometimes a good rigorous non-fiction read (history in particular) can snap me out of the trenches.

Suomi said...

One of the more impressive blogs I’ve seen. Thanks so much for keeping the internet classy for a change. You’ve got style, class, bravado. I mean it. Please keep it up because without the internet is definitely lacking in intelligence.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks everyone for the visit. I'll be getting back to my regularly scheduled commenting and blog visiting now. Will take me a bit to catch up.

Shauna Roberts said...

Interesting ideas, some of which I have not tried. Thanks for this post.

Although I've suffered from both brain burn and trench warfare, my well is most often drained by the minutiae of daily life. It's not physically or mentally tough to floss, to brush, to wash one's face, to comb one's hair, to bring in the newspaper, to take pills, to eat breakfast, etc. But remembering the hundreds of such tasks that need to be accomplished each and every day often requires my full brain, leaving no room for creative thoughts.

Liane Spicer said...

Great advice, Charles. Good to hear you've refueled and are back in the battle.