Monday, June 22, 2009

Clea Simon: On lying fallow

“Where do you get your ideas?”

As the guest blogger here at the Well-Read Donkey this week (hello, everyone!), following in the footsteps of such marvelous authors, that might seem too basic, too elementary a question. You are, after all, fellow writers and book lovers.

But last week, speaking to a library group, I fielded it, as you have or as you will, too. And, to be honest, I was momentarily at a loss. I rallied – when you speak to readers, you’re as much an entertainer as an interview subject and besides, I'm promoting my latest, Probable Claws as well. So I recalled the incident that sparked my first mystery. I’d been working on a nonfiction book (The Feline Mystique) and had ended up spending a very odd day with a possible cat hoarder (you know, a “crazy cat lady”). I love cats, but spending time with her had been stressful. She was not well, and I felt myself pulled between sympathy and terror and plain old revulsion. These were strong, uncomfortable feelings and I realized, then, how such a woman could become a victim of violence. I had a motive. I could put myself in a criminal's mind. And thus, the process that resulted in my much-lighter-hearted first mystery, Mew is for Murder, began.

But last week – this week, too – I’m in a different place. I am not working on a book. I have nothing in the works. This after having published three nonfiction books and four mysteries, with a fifth (Shades of Grey) due out in September. You see, last month, I turned in what I hope will be the sequel to Shades. After that was done (on deadline, no less), I returned to a beloved project that I’d let sit months before. I re-read and revised that and sent it off to my agent. And now I’m trying to relax. To let myself lie fallow. To have no ideas.

This is the most difficult part of the process for me. I’ve been writing professionally in one way or another for nearly thirty years. Much of that time has been in journalism, where ideas are your stock in trade and need to be churned out regularly. I’ve worked for bimonthlies, monthlies, weeklies, and daily newspapers with the same results: when you need to write something, you find something to write. And if you’re momentarily stumped (accent on the “momentarily” or you wouldn’t be in the business), you punt. You take an evergreen idea and add a few new branches. Basically, you create at will.

That kind of writing has its advantages. For one thing, it paid my bills for many years. Plus, on a deeper level, it taught me a discipline I cherish. I do not believe in writer’s block, since it was a luxury I could never afford. When I have to write, I do – even if it means spending a day hacking out some transitional scene that I know is necessary but that I’ve avoided. Even if it means writing a scene that I will probably cut later, but need to get out on paper for some structural reason. The ability to write is like a muscle. If exercised regularly, it works better, moves more fluidly and with more grace.

But the churning out of ideas, that I’m trying to give up. A book is too dear a project to just jump into. I don’t want to commit to a story the way I used to grab up a service feature assignment. Don’t want to plot on demand, pulling together bits and pieces of projects past. I’m not a prima donna – I did just write a mystery because an editor wanted it! But if I don’t have a contractual obligation, I’d rather just let it happen naturally. And in order for that to happen, I have to allow myself time.

When we’re both writing, novelist Caroline Leavitt (author of Girls in Trouble) and I often talk about the “rusty water” days. The days when you write crap, knowing you have to get it out of the way in order for the clear water to flow. “I’ve learned to be patient,” she emailed me today. To trust that, in her words, “the subconscious is still churning.”

This is harder for me, because it’s not about getting the bad out. It’s part of the process, but it’s not an active part. It’s lying fallow and letting those deep springs replenish. It’s not that I don’t have little tickles in my head – scenes, a possible title, a confrontation, a spark – I do, lots of them. But unlike some of my colleagues, I'm not writing them down. Not yet. They're too ephemeral, too fragile right now – and I don’t want to leap in just yet. Writing anything would feel like commitment. It’s too soon and I’m still in too reactive a mode. I’m not writing for a daily paper anymore. I’m not on assignment. I want to fall in love.

* * *

How about you? How do you deal with the quiet time between projects? With the waiting and wondering? I'll move onto cheerier, more fruitful topics later this week, but this is the one on my mind now. Are you in a fallow period? How are you coping?

Let's chat. Who knows what will come of it?



  1. What a great post, Clea. I love the lines about falling in love, because there is a difference between the work we have to do and the work we want to do. And we cannot always control the subconscious. Lately, I've been working out before I sit down to write because I feel like it primes the pump a bit. (Sometimes it works. Sometimes.)

  2. I like the idea of lying fallow Clea, but in reality, if I don't write the snippets down, they may be permanently lost. Such is the status of my memory these days!

  3. Clea, this is terrific--thank you. At the moment, I'm fallow in the middle of a novel. I have been distracted by life and by my own posts here, but there's something else going on. I think it's that my character has just received a shocking but incomplete bit of family news, and because he has also met someone with a story to tell that he knows will be distressing. I feel every bit as fearfully poised as my character, and I think this is what's holding me up. Either I am stalled because he is, or he is because I am, but the logjam must break!

  4. Thanks you, Caroline!
    Roberta - must you? I sometimes think if I don't write them down, my subconscious will keep working on them. Once they've seen light, though...
    Kate - interesting place you're in! Do you think you're in one of those those places where you should keep writing (get through the rusty water) or that with time the problem will resolve? Hmmm....

  5. Hello everyone. (I think I may be the only one here who has met each of you.)

    There are some psychoanalysts who admonish their patients not to write down dreams or tell anyone about a dream before bringing it into the analysis, because once the dream has been written down or told, it is set in amber and is less available for the rich work of the analysis, some of which involves the truly free associating required for the telling of the dream.

  6. That's it, Katharine! That's the feeling I have exactly! I don't want it set (in amber or in type) yet.