On Being Fallow / Arnold Thomas Fanning

Time goes by and I do not write.

Despite Kafka’s warning – “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity”[*] – I do not fret, I do not let this sit heavy upon me. Rather, this period of time, to outward appearances so unproductive, is a time without worry, a time of lightness indeed, an unburdened time.

Little voices, distant echoes in my head, inform me that there should be feelings of inadequacy or guilt over this fallow period that is being travelled through; admonitions to ‘Write Every Day!’, pop-psychologist diagnoses delivered of ‘Writer’s Block’.

They do not trouble me, and I silence them, long familiar, through long familiar practice, by simply ignoring them until they quieten of their own accord through their own attrition and apathy.

Because I have come to realise, over time, and through experience, that these periods of non-writing may be relished and appreciated and valued; that they have worth in themselves. They have substance. Bounty, even.

Not that it was always thus, this realising, this realisation. For I did used to fret, and bully myself into sitting facing, agonisingly, a blank page for long hours on end until it began to shimmer and float – still blank – before me. This did produce thinking that I was ‘inadequate’, made me feel ‘guilty’, for not ‘writing’, not being ‘able to write’. For did I not think of myself as a ‘writer’? Ergo, I should ‘write’, no? But I felt I was ‘failing’, would continue to ‘be a failure’ if I did not ‘Write’.

(Note all the quotation marks, indicating that these must not be my self-generated reprimands, but rather the voices of those countless others who apparently know it all).

Then I read an interview with Irish singer-songwriter Lisa O’Neill, who said:

I’m starting to realise that time that goes by where nothing happens and which is seen to be negative, could well be process time, soakage time. Maybe the creative mind should be okay with that? You can’t have something wise and clever to say every year, let alone every month.[†]

This chimed with me, profoundly, as being so true, and was more than just a revelation or a wake-up call; it was a way of accepting the ways of being that really make up a writer’s life – or at least this writer’s life, and it became a kind of credo for me. After reading this I became galvanised and encouraged by finding out that at least one artist I admired, another creative soul, took a similar route to me in their creative practice. For the routine I had been following – being writing, and then not being writing – had long been there before I read this. Now however I felt free to accept it and enjoy it.

Now, I no longer force myself to sit and attempt to write when I know, instinctively and from experience, that I am not in the writing frame of mind (or being). Rather I sit patiently with this feeling, enjoy the benefits of the non-writing times in my life.

For there are benefits, as Lisa O’Neill implies. When I’m not writing I do believe I am still living a creative life, being creative, through reading for example, and reading widely and voraciously, catching up with all the books and stories and essays and articles I had neglected when writing and not reading so much. Not to mention watching T.V. and listening to music and going to the movies and the theatre and concerts as well as walking, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes not, and also going for more leisurely swims in my gym, or spending more time cooking and relishing my meals.

Moreover, I’m thinking. Not in a self-conscious way, it must be said, and definitely not profoundly, but still, allowing the mind to wander alright, to graze around, gather ideas which occasionally get jotted down for use later when in actual writing form – but not written about, or up.

For I discovered, in myself and long ago, that it is simply too frustrating to attempt to write when not in the right place to write, that writing is generated quickly when in that place but is produced agonisingly slowly or not at all, when not.

This might all sound counter-productive, counter-intuitive, and impractical; at times there are deadlines for example, the work won’t be done if I amble along reading and walking and thinking.

So is this way of approaching writing truly unhelpful to the writer?

I think not, and above all I do not fret about it; nor do I cajole nor bully myself into writing at fallow times. I accept it as it is for me. For the work does get done when needed, because the ideas really are there when required, have been growing, thriving, ready for when writing has been returned to.

That fallow period has been productive after all and has produced dividends.

My good friend, the actor Michael Bates, observed, rightly, that I cannot read when writing, and defined this as being my ‘output mode’. I have learned to recognise, and appreciate, its opposite, an ‘input mode’: absorbing and reading and thinking and observing. This mode, actually, is vital to the writer’s life – for it is living.

And without living, what is there to write about?

[*]Letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922.

[†]Interview with Tony Clayton-Lea the Irish Times, Fri, Oct 18, 2013.

Read Arnold Thomas Fanning’s ‘The Ferryman’ in Issue 10 of The Lonely Crowd. 

Arnold Thomas Fanning’s short stories, articles, and essays have been published in The Dublin Review, Banshee, theIrish Times, the Sunday Business Post, Crazyhorse Magazine, The Phoenix Anthology of New Irish Writing, gorse, and Longreads.com. His work has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and RTÉ Radio 1 including for Arena and A Living Word. His most recent play McKenna’s Fort won the Oscar Wilde Award for Best New Writing in the 13th International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, and in 2017 he received an Arts Council Bursary in Literature. Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, his first book, is published by Penguin Ireland. www.arnoldthomasfanning.com

© Arnold Thomas Fanning, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.