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.


Donna Cummings said...

Sheila, I know what you mean about the words. Sometimes I don't read as much because it becomes "work", since I'm not as often transported by a book as I used to be when I was not a writer. :)

But I realize I need to replenish the words that I've spilled out onto the page with my WIP. It's like topping off the tank, and if I let it get too low, I sputter and can't go any farther.

So yes, we definitely need to put words back in. They're like vitamins for our creativity. LOL

SG Redling said...

And have you noticed that you read books differently now? Things I never would have noticed jump out at me, especially things I've been working to expunge from my own work! Arg!

Wolfgang A. Mozart said...

Oh, Sheila, your post made me feel so much better! Mozart and I haven't been able to blog for weeks. We have "blog block," a combination of insecurity and mental burnout. I totally identified with your cycle of work, write (no coughing here, knock on wood), and in my case, edit, edit, edit, edit some more, oh yes, and write a 3-minute piece for 2 pianos and percussion. Yikes, I am burnt. Going up to the country tomorrow to chill, and yes, read, read, read, and maybe I'll get my mojo working again. Anyway, thanks, reading your blog was therapeutic for me.
Mary Moreno writing as W.A.Mozart, because she often hides behind his persona.

Wolfgang A. Mozart said...

Oh, yeah, I forgot the part about being hit by a mattress and lying in bed for three weeks, unable to do anything except sip chicken soup. Maybe I should blog about that!

SG Redling said...

What does it say about our lives that it takes bodily harm to get our attention? I read about your mattress issue. Yikes! If you can't trust your mattress, what can you trust? Glad I could offer a little solace, since I couldn't help with the furniture.

Anita Clenney said...

So glad you got a story down that you love. I find reading almost necessary for the writing process. I get to places in my story where I feel like I've forgotten how to write. The words feel awkward and stiff. If I pick up a book and start reading, within minutes, I have my writing flow back. Right now I'm reading Diana Gabaldon. I'm on the fifth in her Outlander series, and even though she writes differently than me--for one thing...I'm fast paced, she's slow--but her writing gives instant inspiration.

I definitely read differently now. It's frustrating at times. I've almost found that I can wear one of two hats when reading. The reader's hat or the writer's hat. If I'm in writer's mode too much, it's wonderful research into writing craft, but I can read paragraphs and have no idea what's happening in the story. I love the times when both hats can go on at the same time. Then, I enjoy the story and check for craft.

Tiffinie Helmer said...

This is sooo true and something that I never thought about. When I'm writing fast, like this crazy month of Nano, I tend to write/use the same catalog of words. I leave them in becasue I will be rewriting/cleaning up this mess next month. But for inspiration when my well of words runs dry, I head to the bookstore. There is something about being in the bookstore that charges me, makes me excited, refuels. I always stop and help myself to a drink from the cafe too. Even if I don't buy a book, which hardly ever happens, just being among all those stories is a shot in the arm.

Coreene Smith said...

Man, Sheila, you've hit a soft spot! I can SO relate. I hit an icy patch like this last month, total creative exhaustion after finishing a story. And what do you know, instinct told me to open a book. So, I buried myself, read everything I could get my hands on. . .even flyers on the grocery store bulletin board. :-) And guess, what? The next story came. . .like magic.

So, now I'm full on into it, but I've learned my lesson. Every evening now (once the kids are in bed) I read, get out my mental pitch fork and toss that compost pile, digging to find the good stuff under all that loam. LOL

SG Redling said...

I know the compost heap may not be the prettiest image, especially to non gardeners, but it sure does hit the mark, doesn't it? I will never make the mistake of going so long without reading lots and lots of books again!

Dave McWhorter said...

It is hard. I even came to the end of a part of a story I was writing and I was dumbfounded for two weeks. Just typing the last line (which was actually a screen direction) stunted me for what seemed like ages!

SG Redling said...

When you're used to words flowing, even a day's gap seems like the Grand Canyon.