HERE IN THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE, IT’S FALL, the season of harvest, which rolls steadily into winter, the season of hunkering down, of mending nets, of dreaming in the dark. And what if, under the spell of that winter, in all that dark, during all those long, quiet hours, a dream should catch fire in the belly of the dreamer? Then, like a three- or four-months ripening womb, what was once just a glimmer will start to show in spring, that season of surging rivers, of buds swelling on what were just skeletal branches the day before.
But if that dream happens to be a big writing project? A novel? A memoir? A collection of short stories? Then be prepared: That quickening may take a while. The writing life has its own seasons—among them, a dark incubation, a time when a project may seem to have gone retrograde, to have lost its purchase. That season is the writer’s winter, the quiet dark in which a writing dream twists and threatens to slip between the fingers of our unconscious.
In her essay “Angst and the Second Book,” from her collection THE OPPOSITE OF FATE, Amy Tan writes about the lengthy gestation of her second novel, THE KITCHEN GOD’S WIFE, during just such a writer’s winter.
Each morning . . . I would dutifully sit at my desk, turn on the computer, and stare at the blank screen. . . . I wrote with persistence, telling myself that no matter how bad the story was, I should simply go on like a rat in a maze. . . . And so I started to write . . . about a woman who was cleaning a house. . . . After thirty pages, the house was tidy, and I had found a character I liked. I abandoned all the pages about the tidy house. I kept the character and took her along with me to another house. I wrote and then rewrote, six times, another thirty pages, and found a question in her heart. I abandoned the pages and kept the question. . . . I wrote and rewrote one hundred fifty pages and then found myself at a crisis point. The woman had turned sour on me. . . . I felt like the rat who had taken the wrong turn at the beginning and had scrambled all this way only to reach a dead end.
Tan goes on to talk about many other dead ends she found on her eventual way to THE KITCHEN GOD’S WIFE. She counts seven attempts. Among other morals we could take from the essay is this: A big writing project can take a long time to ripen. During this time, it may look like nothing (or less than nothing!) is happening, but on the inside, things are shifting, developing, taking shape. Given enough time and space, the big writing dream may well grow into something recognizable.
Tarot writing prompt
During these dark months, take time to slip beneath the holiday glitz and glitter and listen to the fluttering hopes of stories that might want to dream themselves awake in spring. Prepare the soil for those that will settle and take root. Listen in the dark for their tiny voices. Jot down what you hear. Keep your notes safe in the quiet of your own heart, until you feel one or more of them stir. Then fertilize, water, and make space for them to grow.
This writing prompt was inspired by The Empress of the tarot deck (shown here as The Gardener, from Joanna Powell Colbert’s Gaian Tarot). Tarot’s Empress is associated with fecundity, fruitfulness, harvest, and pregnancies of every kind—and with the patience and nurturance it takes to bring those pregnancies to term.