Thoughts after a flooded, fallow summer

by Shaun Hunter

   Fields,   Kazimir Malevich, 1878 - 1935

 Fields, Kazimir Malevich, 1878 - 1935

This has been an unusual season. Strange weather, outside and in. I am in a new limbo: waiting to hear from publishers about a manuscript query, I’m impatient to figure out what my new project will be.

When the rains stopped in July, I took myself and my notebook outside. I pulled a pashmina around my shoulders against the cool Calgary mornings, sipped hot tea and wrote al fresco. I was looking for the Next Big Thing, but could only see the backyard. I tried to focus. Maybe while I waited for a real project to emerge, I could tease an essay out of the cotoneaster hedge, the geraniums, the fucking magpies. Always, my attention slipped back to the unsettled noise in my head. My notebooks flooded with the usual complaints; I stumbled into sinkholes of self-doubt. What if there was no next big project to get started on? What if there was only this piling up, and burying, of false starts, abandoned middles and dead ends? I clung the good, old advice. Read other people’s books. Keep writing, even if the notebooks feel like pages of sodden garbage.

I found company on the Internet. Three hours up the road in Edmonton, the poet and essayist Shawna Lemay was finding her way through her own soggy season. On her blog, she quoted John Steinbeck: “Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow.”

I committed Steinbeck's words to my notebook, considered his conviction. He doesn’t mention that letting yourself “go fallow” is hard work.

When a farmer decides to let a field rest, does he leave it as is and let nature take its course? A fallow field, the dictionary says, is plowed and harrowed first.

The soil rests, but the farmer works.

Scribbling on my patio every morning didn’t feel like work or rest. It was yet another limbo of the many I’ve waded through as a writer.

This month, sensing the snap of September, I moved inside and started my own back-to-school project: reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.

Tharp calls the first steps of a creative act “scratching.” You can’t control this “wildly unruly process” or insist on knowing where you’re going.

Scratching is improvisation. “Let it be awful and awkward and wrong.”

Tharp makes an interesting distinction. “Don’t scratch for big ideas…There is always an ulterior motive behind a big idea.” Posterity, ego, money. “Scratch for little ideas. Without the little ideas, there are no big ideas.”

I gather up my al fresco notebooks and comb through the pages. And then, I begin to see them, mixed in with the mounds of garbage: promising bits, tiny, green ideas.

And there is a sensation, too. The click of small possibilities snapping together, poking through the weeds and brambles, taking me who knows where.