Friday, November 19, 2010

The Mental Compost Heap

Okay so you might have noticed a slight gap in my posts. I'll give you the five cent tour of events: started a story, changed the story, changed it again, changed it back, started a new one, was told to go back to old one, banged head against wall and chucked it all. Started an entirely new project that roared to life like it was born in jet fuel and consumed three solid months of my life. A happy ending, yes?

Yes and no.

I'm thrilled with the finished manuscript, a thriller titled FLOWERTOWN. (More on that later.) When I had finished the edits, however, I noticed a distinct absence of words in my head. The writers among us know how unnerving that can be. There was no next story chattering, no characters nagging, no plot threads weaving through my now resting mind. The silence was only compounded by the diagnosis of nodules on my vocal cords that required me to stop talking, and therefore working, for two weeks. Now that, my friends, is silence.

What had happened? I looked back over the past months and saw how I had spent four solid months: working, writing, coughing, working, coughing, coughing, writing, working, writing, writing, coughing. And coughing some more.

Notice anything missing? READING.

Somehow amid all the creating and coughing and mundane work I had let the habit of reading slip away. As impossible as it seems, I had used up all my words.

And so, with two quiet uninterrupted weeks (and I won't lie, that didn't suck) I began to read. I read everything I could get my hands on: Steig Lawson, Robert Charles Wilson, Lawrence Block, Harlan Coben, Barbara Kingsolver, recipes for sour cherry chicken, Paris Review, a can of fried onions, CD liner notes. If it was printed I read it. As the stories, facts and delicious serving suggestions went in, I could feel the words, the styles, the phrases, the images, peeling off and piling up in that part of my mind that I mine for inspiration.

I've come to think of it as mental compost, the natural process of breaking down all the organic compounds of the world around us, especially those in the written word, into a thick, loamy fertile pile of goodness into which the next seed of an idea can burrow, sprout and become a living thing. I can already feel the heat and life returning to that overly tapped part of my brain, can feel it being replenished.

Have you ever run out of words? Or worked the words you have so hard that they become dry, sterile things? I've learned a valuable lesson. This garden I call my mind, as bizarre as it can be sometimes, needs a steady supply of mental compost. Now when I let my mind lay fallow for a month or two, I know all this reading is just replenishing the soil.