“Whatcha Doin’?”: Surviving a Writer’s Dry Season

I came back from teaching in the Miami of Ohio low-residency MFA program yesterday and found we’re still in the middle of a dry season here in Columbus. The lawns are brown and crunchy, and, truth be told, it depresses me to see them that way. Even those who are watering, or have irrigation systems, are having a hard time keeping up. The landscape makes me think of things ending, and not in that pretty, crisp-air, autumn sort of way. This dryness calls to mind a dormant land and a fallow period, one that suggests that things just might not get better. Of course, I know that isn’t true. I know eventually the rains will come, and the heat will break, and we’ll move through autumn into winter. For the time, though, it’s easy for hope to ebb.

Such is often the case when it comes to our writing. We hit a stretch where the words won’t come, and when they do, they seem wooden, lifeless, devoid of significance. Or the work heartens us, and we feel, finally, we’ve got something to share with the world only to find that the world disagrees. Agents pass, editors pass, awards committees pass. How easy it is to find ourselves spiraling down through despair. How tough it is to keep believing in ourselves and the work we do.

This morning Cathy and I walk into our favorite breakfast place, and as we’re being seated, a little girl, maybe seven or eight, walks by, and she says to her friend at a table behind us, “Whatcha doin’?” Her voice is so bright—so full of interest, so full of belief that her friend is indeed up to something of note—that Cathy and I can’t help but chuckle. The girl’s voice is the voice you want to hear in those times of despair. It promises grand things ahead. It says, I love you, and I want you to love yourself. Sometimes we need the reminder that our lives are indeed majestic. No matter our circumstances, we’re blessed. No matter how dark things seem, there are people who wish the best for us, people who are genuinely glad for our company.

And if the writing’s not going well, it’s just not going well. It’s not—trust me on this—the end of the world. Sometimes in those dry seasons, we just need to shift our focus so it takes in more than the landscape of our writing. Maybe we just need to attend to other aspects of our lives that bring us joy—family, other work, friendships, worship, charities, nature. The list can be a long one. My point is releasing the writing for a while as we celebrate other things we enjoy can bring us back to the writing with renewed vigor and hope.

So the question is, “Whatcha” doin’?” Whatcha doin’ to love yourself and the life that you have? Whatcha doin’ besides feeling sorry for yourself? Whatcha doin’ to nurture all your talents and the things that bring you joy. I don’t mean to simplify complicated issues of depression or mental illness by suggesting they’re easily overcome. I’m only saying that sometimes, in a dry season, a little girl’s bright voice—a simple question—can show us how inconsequential our sadness over the fact that our writing isn’t going well can be. Such sadness is often bred from placing too much emphasis on the ego and making success, however you choose to define it, too weighty a marker of our value.

We have so much to offer—so much that has nothing to do with our writing. Whatcha doin’ to remember that fact, to embrace it. Sometimes we just have to hold on to survive the dry season. Sometimes we have to find other ways to thrive while we wait for our writing to once again have life to it, to once again bring us joy.

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