Land of Little Rain

The word aridity is one I use as a synonym for what others call writer’s block. Aridity can mean “having insufficient rainfall to support agriculture” or “lacking in interest and life.” Perhaps I use the word because I grew up on the Colorado Desert of California, a place that truly seems “godforsaken.”

Given a cloudburst or the network of canals carrying water from the Colorado River, however, this barren landscape bursts forth with flowers, vegetables, and fruit. But wherever the water is lacking, the vista totally lacks interest and life, or so it seems. Underneath its jejune appearance, however, the desert actually teems with life that is well adapted to aridity. It offers much of interest to the mentally curious as well as to spiritual seekers. As a landscape, the desert challenges us with its space, demanding that we recognize our own smallness. It is a place to be still, to greet silence, and to embrace solitude. We must have courageous hearts to meet the desert’s demands. It does not tolerate precipitous action. Inattention can be not only be dangerous but deadly.

Aridity in our writing is a creative desert. We feel like what we have planted and nurtured successfully for a while—the story, essay, or book—is no longer growing. Consider three women writers: Abigail wonders why she is suddenly writing fiction instead of working on her (easily publishable) nonfiction book. Belinda asks why she is fixing up her art studio when her completed book needs only a final revision. Constance complains that she has written her memoir with ease and speed until coming suddenly to a standstill. She wonders if it is because the next part of the story is the most emotionally charged.

In the narrow view, the creative desert is indeed a barren place in which we lose our sense of direction. We chide ourselves for being unable to plow our way through to the end. We label our “fault” as procrastination. “Procrastinate” literally means to put forward until tomorrow. But we all know that “sleeping on it” is often a good idea. I tend to agree with indigenous groups who believe that each thing happens in its own time. Granted some things must be done in a timely manner if we don’t want disturbing consequences—taking out the garbage, meeting a college application deadline, making the mortgage payment.

Why in writing, other than on deadline, is procrastination a dirty word? Looking at the dilemmas of the three women mentioned, we might consider that Abigail is using fiction to explore the themes underlying her nonfiction. She is incubating ideas that will make her nonfiction richer. By working on her art studio, Belinda is rejuvenating her creativity and allowing her book to rest, a recommendation of every esteemed author and writing teacher. When Belinda returns to the book, she will approach the final revision with fresh eyes. Constance’s psyche may well be reluctant to revisit an unhappy part of her past, but she could accept this as a desert cave that needs exploration. By looking with fierce compassion at what she does not want to see (perhaps with the aid of a therapist), she will come to a new level of healing.

All three women, each of whom is approaching the finish line, may also be experiencing the truth of the adage, “The closer we are to the goal the stronger the pull away from it.” When this mechanism is activated, we have to ask what we fear will happen when we finish: Post-partum separation? Rejection? Success? Failure? Death? Emptiness? Loneliness?

Also possible is that we would rather blame ourselves in some way than accept that creative aridity is part of the process of experiencing creative fertility. Somewhere in most of writers and other artists exists a resistance to accepting our own strength and talent. We can spend a lot of time on energy validating our own self-doubt rather than moving forward. In reading David Whyte’s The Three Marriages after completing this article, I found he wrote on this very subject. He tells the story of poet Rainier Maria Rilke who suffered mightily from creative aridity. Whyte suggests that what Rilke discovered was that sometimes we need the absence of that which we love (in this case, writing) to show us the depth of our love for it. That realization then removes the barriers to our writing.

Each of us is alone in figuring out our relationship with our art. Still it helps to recognize that creative aridity is as natural and fruitful as the desert itself. The more we resist its appearance and see it as verification of something intrinsically “wrong with us,” the more stubbornly it will entrench itself. So relax. Turn inward with the clear accepting eyes of your inner Observer who can show you what you do without judgment. This is all part of writing practice, not something “other.”