The Fertile Void


A grave on Inis Oírr, Ireland

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I started writing something new. As I did so, I almost welled up with tears. I was excited, relieved, inspired. I felt like someone had connected my arm to an IV drip after months of severe dehydration. Finishing my essay collection for grad school last month took every last bit of original thought and motivation from me. I wasn’t sure when or if I was going to be able to write again. But there I was yesterday, typing away. I felt like everything was going to be okay again.

And then I woke up this morning and sat to write and it was gone. There was nada. Just the heaviness that was there before. In my head I keep hearing a cartoon sound—a high pitch falling to a low pitch, a thud, and then silence.

Because I am an anxious person, I take this to its logical conclusion—I will never write again. Sure, I’m writing this blog post right now, but it doesn’t count. By write I mean WRITE—essays that change hearts and minds, words that will make you cry, ideas that will spawn revolutions. Not meager blog posts to be seen by the likes of three people. (Thanks friends.)

This feeling is majorly uncomfortable. I’ve been trying all month to make myself write something. I’ve been journaling, opening old books, looking at photographs—trying everything I can to find inspiration. It was just here yesterday! It must still be here somewhere.

It isn’t though. I think what happened yesterday wasn’t so much the return of something as it was the last gasp of something. Whatever remnant of inspiration I had left is gone. I’m in the dark place now, and there’s nothing to do but wait.

I think I've actually been in the dark place since at least last fall. At that time, I came across the idea of “the fertile void,” a concept that says that even when it looks like nothing is happening—something is happening. Some even argue that the fertile void is an essential part of the creative process. If we think of creativity as having seasons, then the fertile void is like winter—the harvest has ended and we must wait for spring to come again.

This is the part I’m not so good at—waiting. But also, trusting. The reason I keep forcing myself to try to create something is because I’m afraid that if I don’t use it, I’ll lose it. But trees, flowers, and plants don’t fear an endless winter. They also don’t die. They lie in wait, dormant, preparing for the spring.

Like in winter, being in the fertile void doesn’t mean things aren’t happening beneath the surface. The soil and the critters are still alive down there. The trees are too. So too then, is creativity. Instead of fighting the void—forcing the writing and beating myself up for not doing the work that everyone around me is doing—I know I just need a rest.

But resting doesn’t mean I start sleeping in every morning or zoning out in front of the TV every night. I think the trick—the thing that ensures the spring will come again—is still showing up. Steven Pressfield writes about this in The War of Art. Elizabeth Gilbert writes about it in Big Magic. The muses have to know you’re serious, that you’re in it for the long haul. If they are used to finding you at your computer every morning, and then you stop showing up, they will stop showing up too.

In our culture of endless productivity, it’s easy to feel lost when we aren’t swimming upstream with everyone else. But just because you’re not currently writing the next Great American Novel, or painting the Mona Lisa, or carving David, doesn’t mean you aren’t working. Reading counts. Journaling counts. Taking photographs counts. Listening to music counts. Cooking a really great meal counts. Watching movies counts. Having good conversations counts. Any act of creation, or any act that contributes to the act of creation, counts. As long as you don’t quit, it counts.

At least, this is what I’m telling myself.

I don’t know if this winter is going to last a few months or a few years, which scares the shit out of me. But I’m here anyway. Waiting.


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