After the writer finishes a long, involved piece of work (novel, script, memoir, what-have-you), a pause sets in.
It should be a comfortable rest period. You know the cliched metaphors: recharge the batteries. The ebb and flow of creativity. Hibernation.
It does not feel like rest, however. Or being recharged, slipping slowly out to sea, falling asleep.
It’s more violent. Like being tossed off a moving train. Capsized into the ocean. Falling out of bed.
For weeks, months, years, you have been living this work. Carrying its story around in your head. You looked forward to the hours you would spend in the other world of your creation. Sometimes you have even dreamt about it.
Now, it is gone.
An ordinary person might be relieved. A nonwriter might say, Well, relax then! Take it easy! Enjoy life!
I am convinced that most writers do not think this way. That they relax into their creative minds, into words and other worlds, not away from them. That to a writer being untethered from any narrative is a disruption, not a relief.
Not much is written about this after-writing time. Writers’ diaries, advice magazines and craft books are full of discussion about how to write well, where to get ideas, and how to avoid writer’s block.
But this period of which I speak is distinct from writer’s block. It is not lack of craft or even ideas that characterize it. Writer’s block implies that a project has been begun, a narrative started, and then suddenly stopped the way a dam blocks water.
This hiatus is more of a desert than a dam. Geographically, the desert is marked by long stretches of arid land, lack of water, and sparse vegetation and animal life that have adapted to the harsh climate. In the same way, a writer’s desert is desiccated and extreme.
A writer who suddenly finds themselves in this desert is not a native species. He or she is away from the lush garden of their usual creative state and are ill-equipped to adapt. They may eventually walk out of the desert in the way lost campers sometimes do, dusty, thirsty, maybe even near death, but alive.
But what if they don’t?
The fear that marks the writer-nomad in this after-writing desert is that they will not escape. That never again will the Eden of creativity inspire them. That the task just completed can never be repeated. No more books, plays, biographies, poetry collections.
That they will continue to live in the desert, stuck between oases.
So it is useless, I think, to counsel the writer who is between projects to relax and enjoy a desert stroll. No sane person would choose to spend months under the hot sun in Death Valley, waiting for the one day of the year when the rains come and desert flowers bloom. No. For all but the most intrepid, the goal is to get the hell out of there as fast and as safely as possible.
What’s that up ahead? Is it the shimmering waves of heat over a desert highway? Or just another mirage of civilization?
The only way to find out is to keep walking. By which I mean: putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard every day, until the possibility of another project begins to take shape. To dabble in short, quick works, like an en plein air painter chasing the light. To literally walk, if that is your wont. To read, if that is all you can manage.
Do not expect to enjoy the nonwriting. Do not feel guilty if the completion of your magnum opus has left you depressed, restless, uncertain, anxious, or any of the emotions that flood in when the writing ebbs. Accept that walking across the desert is the price you for living a year or two in another world, a lush and vivid place that already has taken on the feel of a dream.
The writer and naturalist Donald Culross Peattie came to the Mojave Desert at the outbreak of World War II. At the trip’s outset, he and his wife set up crude housekeeping in an adobe shack at a friend’s ranch. Peattie arrived haunted and conflicted over the state of the world and his own part in it; the first thing he did was to unplug the radio, but he could not unplug his mind. How could a naturalist justify his existence when all able-bodied men were being called to serve their country?
In this literal desert, however, Peattie continues to follow his life’s work of observing Nature and writing about it. By the end of his journey across the West, he has come to terms with himself. In The Road of a Naturalist, he writes: “I do not know how to justify my way of life, any more than I know how long it can continue. I can only say that this too is reality; this too is truth, this also is the business of a man, and its own wage.”
Crossing the desert, the writer loses sight of her own purpose. Neither does the writer know how long it will take to embark on a life’s work again. All the writer can do is keep moving.
First published in 1941, Donald Culross Peattie’s The Road of a Naturalist was reissuedvin 2013 by Trinity University Press.