Beyond What You Know: Allow Fallow Time

By Sage Cohen

Nature has four distinct cycles. No matter how lofty we might imagine ourselves to be, writers are subject to the laws of nature like every other living thing around us. There is no permission slip that will excuse us from this fate, no matter whose signature we forge!

Yet, despite a lifetime of witnessing the world around us bud, blossom, drop petals, push out lush fruit, ripen, burn glorious autumn flames of color, lose everything, slumber, then start over, we seem to expect more of ourselves. Many of us strive for a nonstop cycle of bud, blossom, fruit, harvest, repeat. (This is not surprising, since this is how the clockwork of our culture turns: to produce, produce and produce some more.) But the fact is that flora and fauna don’t work that way, and neither do we.

It’s simply not natural or sustainable to be continuously producing. Farmers rotate their planting so that the land can replenish after a harvest. Writers who want to make the most of their natural resources will make similar choices. One of the great blessings of the writing life is that we are not beholden to supervisors or stockholders. This means that we get to decide how, when and where we write. You can clock in and clock out if that’s what works for you. But I recommend finding a way to align your process with the natural world and learn from the seasons how to trust the cycles of your writing.

Once upon a time before most of us knew of her, Alice Walker was given a grant to write. She proceeded to move out the country where she spent a year knitting. As she knit, the characters in The Color Purple made themselves known, and the force of the story’s narrative gathered like rain clouds. I’m guessing that by the time Walker sat down with pen to paper, a veritable storm of a narrative shook the entire landscape as it poured forth from her. When it came time for harvest, we readers had the good fortune to pluck The Color Purple ripe from the virtual vine.

I remember the first time I heard this story about Alice Walker’s writing process. I wondered if she worried, as I have, that when she was “doing nothing” that nothing was happening. I wondered if the people around her (if there were any) were anxious that there was no sign of a book being written during that year. But clearly, this is an author who understood far more than I did about embracing and moving with the cycles of nature.
I’m not proposing that you match what the seasons are doing exactly by writing furiously all spring and summer, then spending the winter canning and preserving all of your good ideas. But I am suggesting that you have a four-part rhythm that’s worth exploring so you can better understand when your high productivity times are, when it’s time to add fuel, and when it’s time to rest.

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

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2 Responses to “Beyond What You Know: Allow Fallow Time”


  1. 1 rowena June 15, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Thank you for reminding me of something I know logically, but have a tendency to forget when faced with the “I must produce!” mindset.

    We live in a world that seems to worship production. Mainly because you can only sell what has been produced. But nature, which we are a part of, understands better how things really work.

    Working with nature, rather than against it can only help us with what we do end up writing.

    Now if only I could quiet down the anxiety about NOT producing.


  1. 1 readers digest Trackback on June 10, 2008 at 9:52 pm
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