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Fallow Fields — An Argument for Letting Your Creativity Rest

"tired field" by Pea Chesh [1]
“tired field” by Pea Chesh

The first sign was music. Or lack thereof. My mind was calling for silence. Demanding it, to the point that I couldn’t even bear to turn on the radio while driving. And not just because I was tired of hearing the same 10 songs over and over. (Even the good ones get old after awhile.) Something inside me needed to rest.

The quiet went on for days. Weeks. Months. No music. Few books. Hardly any writing. It feels scary, almost shameful, to admit that last part. I’ve spent so much of my life wanting to be a writer, carving out space and time to be a writer, justifying the cost and heartache of being a writer. How could I not be writing?

Only recently, when I finally found myself yearning for music again, did I realize what I’d been doing, and how very vital it was to my work.

‘Fallow’ periods were traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of their land. The benefits of leaving land fallow for extended periods include rebalancing soil nutrients, re-establishing soil biota, breaking crop pest and disease cycles, and providing a haven for wildlife. — source [2]

We are the farmers, and the fields are our creativity.

Unfortunately, the practice of leaving fields fallow is falling by the wayside. We have become obsessed with economics and productivity. If a piece of land looks empty, then we rush to fill it. Think of the crops it could yield, the profits! If the soil starts to struggle, then we assist it with chemicals. We cannot abide the idea of a resource under-utilized. We do not wait for nature to take its course, to restore the earth in due time.

Similarly, we chug caffeine to keep ourselves going when we are tired. We multi-task to maximize our efficiency, to squeeze every last second out of our days. We look for formulas and shortcuts. We aim for more more more, because more is better, never mind what we can healthily sustain.

This is no way to live, and it is especially no way to write.

Right before I stopped listening to music, I had been over-working my fields. I was desperately trying to salvage an old manuscript, and harvest a new one, and sow more seeds into every inch of earth that I could see. In between the ambitious, hopeful rows of my novels, I planted short stories, essays, poems, blog posts, tweets, emails… Anything and everything. But of course, the land could not support all of that. By trying to grow too much too fast, I was depleting my soil of nutrients, attracting pests and disease, creating an unruly, inhospitable chaos — not to mention wasting my own precious energy.

Thankfully, a deeper instinct within me cried out, calling for quiet. For a break. I heeded the call, perhaps because I was spread so thin that I lacked the willpower to resist, or perhaps because I could see my fields suffering and knew that they needed to be razed to the ground in order to rise again.

Either way, that is exactly what they have done. And now I am writing again — tenderly slipping seeds into the soil — and I can feel the difference. The earth is no longer weary and dry, but rather dark and rich, eager to nurture my words, my ideas. This kind of fertility cannot be forced, only encouraged through good practices for both the farmer and the land.

I’m not saying that we should all stop writing for months at a time. Personally I hope never to need such a long fallow period again! (But maybe I will, and that’s OK.) I’m only saying that I think many of us fear idleness, as if not producing is evil, a poison. But in my opinion, what’s truly toxic to our work — the work of creating art, of finding and sharing beauty and truth and experience — is to push too far. To focus on output rather than input. To view rest as an enemy, rather than as another tool in our toolbox.

Before closing, I should also note that everyone’s fields are not the same. What overloads one tract of land might thrive in another. But the desert is no less valuable than the rainforest. They are simply different. And they each produce their own beauty, their own life, their own stories.

Have you ever gone through a fallow period? What impact did that have on you, your process, or your work?

About Kristan Hoffman [3]

Originally from Houston, TX, Kristan Hoffman [4] studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and later attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Now she lives with her family in Cincinnati, OH, where she writes both fiction and nonfiction with a focus on feminist, multicultural stories. Her words have appeared in the New York Times, Switchback, and the Citron Review, among others. She is currently at work on a Young Adult novel, and is represented by Tina Dubois of ICM. For more, please visit her website [5].