The question that folks in advertising so often ask might, I think, be true, in other creative pursuits as well:

Are we a bottomless well of ideas, inspiration, brilliance? Can the well be drained dry? If nobody is applying the pressure—if you’re the one who’s turning the spigot—can you empty yourself out?

I wonder.

I write every day. Hours-worth. Full-time job, freelance, no job…I write. I go to the tasks, to the asks, with joy. I look forward to what I place on my own plate. I adore the occupation. It is breath to me.

And in the obsession that writing is, I know that I run the risk of that mental exhaustion that is at once a public epidemic and a secret fear. And here’s the tricky question…

If you don’t know that you’re exhausted…if you’re not recognizing the symptoms…can the dry-well-head affect the quality of the work?

Sometimes, every word we draw from the well opens other springs that fill the drained-out space. Sometimes we are like perpetual motion machines, fed by our own energy. And sometimes we find ourselves in the shallows, staring unexpectedly at the sandy bottom of our ability; a water level suddenly and terrifyingly low.

How do we know where we are? How do we know when our hearts give us one readout on the internal creative fuel-gauge, and our heads give us another?

Self-awareness is a writer’s DNA. We hope it is, anyway. There comes, however, a moment of mutation in which our tiredness disguises itself as something else. The writing feels flat. Or not-enough. We eat the bad apple of “good enough.” We settle for a level of quality that, in our years at the craft, is the equivalent of autopilot. We don’t wanna. We do, despite ourselves.

So take the damned day off, I hear you say. Put the work down and go to the movies. Sleep in. Go out and have a beer. Easy to say. Harder to do. When we write—when will and energy are at odds with one another—we are, as one character in the work-in-progress reflects, treading water at the deep end of the ocean; if we stop paddling for a moment, we’ll drown.

When a writer is in the empty inner well, we drown in nothingness.

That’s why I’ll devote the morning to chores. And why I’ll come to the well once more this afternoon, to draw whatever water is left. If I can’t find water enough, energy enough, to sustain a day at the page, at least I can look at my reflection there.

 

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