Claire King

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Fallow Fields

Posted on: January 5th, 2015 by Claire - 13 Comments

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.

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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)

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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…

13 Responses

  1. Mike Clarke says:

    Very interesting post. I absolutely agree with the idea of letting the mind go fallow to see what springs up when attention isn’t permanently channeled on to a particular project. Last month I found myself having an involuntary fallow period with all the other demands on my time in the run-up to Christmas (many of them pleasurable) and I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek blog post about how this might have helped me in the long-run with the writing I hadn’t got around to doing (http://www.macnovel.org.uk/?p=2557).

    On the other hand, a lot of the advice to writers about the importance of attaching one’s backside to a chair and how writers’ block doesn’t exist, seems to serve the purpose of making the point that most writers who write for a living have to sit down for long hours and deliver to tight deadlines whether they feel inspired or not — just like anyone else’s day job — and I wonder whether there’s a tendency for many people to romanticise a writers’ work as accommodating indolent pauses for inspiration.

  2. Claire says:

    That’s a lovely post, Mike. Full of lots of lovely sensual writing fodder (‘scuse the pun). I too have had times I’ve had to write off, in terms of writing productivity, because of other things that just had to take priority, but even through those times I’ve found myself wondering if I couldn’t just squeeze in half an hour or so. The effect being that I never got the wonderful liberating feeling of definitively NOT writing, which then leaves you free to fully enjoy and appreciate everything else in that time.
    I do agree that bum on chair is excellent advice and your points are all true, but there was an author, I forget who, who insisted that once one book was finished he would not immediately start the next, as you needed time to live in the meanwhile in order to actually have something to write about. I think for me at least, that’s true.

    • Mike Clarke says:

      Yes, in retrospect there have been plenty of times when I’ve tried to squeeze in bits and pieces of not particularly productive writing based on the ‘write something every day’ principle and then thought afterwards I’d have felt less guilty and stressed had I just given myself permission to have time off.

      And I very much agree with your other point. I’m amazed when I read details about some writers’ lives who seem to live like hermits (by choice rather than have this forced on them as is other commenter’s Katie’s unfortunate situation). If writers don’t go and take advantage of new experiences and opportunities and to go out and meet real and interesting people then surely their store of experiences will dwindle. It needn’t be something extravagant — just lying in the sun in the park on a summer’s day can be very restorative.

    • Peter Blake says:

      You can write everyday and leave the field fallow by freewritng. The writing or not writing isn’t the issue it’s the effort that we are putting in. Freewriting takes no effort and is enjoyable and something I look forward to.

      I believe that this is because it has nothing to do with me. I don’t control it, I have no idea of it’s purpose I just write.

      I notice that my more deliberate mind will try and turn this writing to a purpose. It seizes on it. I am momentarily energized by this illusion of control. But in reality I am back, drawing on my limited resources of focus, concentration and effort.

  3. Katie Willis. says:

    I love the fallow field image. It’s a favoured memory from history lessons and a very visual one.
    On one level it’s about trust. That something that lies fallow is sleeping, but never dead. That having the courage not to write, to allow ideas to seed in the mind and the heart, is an essential part of the writing process.
    Nothing can work productively non-stop, creativity included. We are not automatons.
    Outside forces always come in to play. In my case it’s illness. There are days I am barely alive, definitely not well enough to write. I have to trust that my stories, my living, breathing, healthier-than-me characters continue to shift and grow some place safe, even when I feel too ill to sustain them.
    So does that make creativity a part of me or outside of me? Perhaps both.
    It requires courage though. Courage to believe that if something is untended, it is not forgotten. It doesn’t cease to exist. The temptation is to want to endlessly check, to uncover, to shake to the death for signs of life.
    My writing sabbaticals are not clear cut choices, rather imposed by illness. I’m not a fan of that at all. But I can do nothing to change it. I am still learning not to fight it. That will probably take a lifetime.
    I’m glad that your notebook is bursting, Claire.

  4. Claire says:

    You’re absolutely right, Katie, there’s a huge element of trust and courage to it. We all seem so time starved that the idea of relinquishing possible writing time seems impossible. And yet true time out is so precious and restorative.
    I wouldn’t wish a writing break imposed by ill health on anyone, but I do believe that even then, if you allow yourself to let go, things move on in their own ways. I’m wishing you health, strength and courage in 2015 xxx

  5. tu says:

    I’m about to write something related on my blog, because I just spent several days huddled under a duvet with coughing children, playing on computer games — not something I’ve really done in the last twenty years — and it felt incredible. All we did was eat and rest, and the effect on our morale and outlook was incredible. It might be the only time in a year that I’ve not run around full pelt for 16 hours a day. Definitely recommend a regular rest period. (Ten weeks though? Ha haaaa… OK that leaves me a little hysterical… that must be for people in a different life stage!)

    • Claire says:

      Well, they do say that you can take a partner and up to two children with you, as long as the children will share a bed, which I think is excellent. 10 weeks in Berlin would be an amazing experience for the whole family. But that means that as a family you’re in a position to pay your travel over and your upkeep for 10 weeks without working, which I think actually restricts the pool of people who could realistically take the residency quite considerably. I think I would prefer ten days but with board and lodging thrown in.

      • tu says:

        I’d love ten weeks in Berlin, and if family circs permitted would consider that — but not “not working” because that’s just not real life; I’m not sure I know many people of pre-retirement age who could go for ten weeks without working at all. I’d much prefer a ten week sponsorship deal to go and write or study — or yes, a ten day hol.

  6. I love this post and agree with you. I think it is essential to take breaks. I just think doing other things, reading lots, walking and family things can allow the mind to relax. I think too that creativity should not be forced, just as there can be delicious bursts of it too. And ,importantly , the best writing comes from the heart.

  7. Thank you for your honesty.
    It seems I am not alone!
    With best wishes for all you do in 2015
    Anthony

  8. Thanks, Claire – the anology is apt. Like other writers, I panic a bit if I stop, thinking that all my skills/ideas will vanish, while also knowing that we DO have to replenish our creative well too. It is all about trust for me – trust in oneself and the process. I’m getting a bit better at it – but to be honest I never feel that buzz of a ‘day well spent’ unless it involves writing. Nothing compares to it – not even shopping or chocolate!

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