The idea of a fallow field is thousands of years old. Farmers would let a field fallow for a year so that the field could regain its strength. If a field was used year in year out, especially for the same crop, the soil’s fertility was exhausted.
In modern times fewer and fewer fields are left fallow as it has a significant impact on farmers’ yields, and these days rather than grazing animals on the land for a year, letting the manure and the earthworms and the wild grasses do their work, farmers use commercial fertilisers instead.
I am not a farmer, but I do believe that this shift away from ‘resting’ a field and towards artificially stimulating the land to produce non-stop, must have an environmental impact. Just think how it affects the bee population, for example. There is also a theory that without fallowing, levels of carbon in the soil are reduced, releasing it into the atmosphere (see here if interested in this theory). I’m also convinced there’s an impact on the flavour and nutritional value of the food produced.
It’s quite easy to see, I think, how this example from agriculture is analogous to writers, and indeed to our lives in general. In Jewish teachings the concept of leaving fields fallow, or ‘shmita‘ gives us the idea of the sabbatical:
“Sabbatical or a sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek σαββατικός sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a “ceasing”) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year).” (from Wikipedia)
As writers, we are often told that we should write every day, and when I can I do. In recent years this kind of routine and discipline has been the thing that has kept my words flowing even when I was too tired or too busy or just not motivated. But recently I got to a point where I felt I was forcing my brain to write, but there was something missing – an energy or an inspiration – that left me feeling flat. And when you are prioritising writing above, say, spending an extra hour with your family, that decision becomes easy to question too.
I wonder, can you really force creativity to work non stop? If you look you will find plenty of advice on how to keep going. But is that the right advice? I don’t think it is, at least not for everyone. I think sometimes our imaginations also need to be left fallow for a while. It doesn’t mean that nothing is happening, that the time isn’t productive. Far from it. Great things are taking place below the surface.
Daniel J. Levitin, the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University explains why in his post in the New York Times on taking a real break. It seems that for our brains, stopping focusing on a task is exactly what we need sometimes to be truly creative. And writer Rachael Dunlop describes the process in action in this post about her taking a conscious decision not to write.
I am convinced. Not just for writers, but for anyone trying to produce creative work, every now and then our minds need a restorative sabbatical. It might be the best investment of time you could make.
My lovely editor sent me this link to the Wapping Project Berlin a ten week residency in Berlin for artists (aged 33+) photographers, writers, musicians etc. The residency is ten weeks accommodation in the heart of creative Berlin, and the one condition is that you do NOT use the residency for work. Instead, you take the time for “rest, recreation and reflection”. Perfect, right? (Well, perhaps when you have got over that part of you that’s protesting “but imagine how much writing I could get done in ten weeks!”)
I’m not in a position to be able to apply for this residency, sadly. Even while on writing sabbatical I still had to carry on with the rest of my life as usual – earning a living, being a mum and so on. But maybe YOU could – you have until 14th February, so follow the link and good luck!
My two-month writing sabbatical comes to an end today. My notebook is bursting with jottings and prompts and I’m feeling full of momentum again. I’m ready to sow the seeds of the next novel. Wish me luck…