How to Fill That Vast Cavernous Well That Seems to Go On Forever

(But really it's not as deep as you think)

Hi friends.

It’s a cold and rainy day here in New Orleans near the end of Carnival season. We all wished for warmer weather if not a nice party or two. We will settle for being alive and well.

Right now, I’m circling the tail end of this book and beginning to think loosely about what the next one might look like — because eventually I will have to start writing another. A novel, that’s the plan. A new book, another burst of an idea and then days, weeks, months of forming that idea into something alive and beautiful.

That is the thing about being a writer: we work, just so we can keep working. There is no end game. We write, we publish, we begin again. The satisfaction is in the process, and perhaps a beautiful cover you can show all your friends, or maybe someday hearing that your book made someone feel comforted or entertained or challenged intellectually. Always, though, you are just working toward starting all over again.

But what happens when we don’t feel like working? I’ve just written down a history of the last decade of my life in a book. I’ve gone through the exercise of processing it, documenting it, feeling all the feelings about it. And I’m not saying the well is dry entirely or that I’m afraid I’ll never fill it again, but I am keenly aware that the well needs to be filled.

So what do we do when we feel like we don’t have anything to say? What do we do when the well is dry? How do we refill it?

Kristen Arnett (author of the upcoming With Teeth which you should definitely pre-order): “I think a lot of what has worked for me has been revisiting well-worn favorites like books and shows I’ve seen a million times. Just to let myself enjoy and remember why art makes me happy.”

Esme Wang (who has a new workshop on Indexing as Creative Discovery): “Pinterest boards. It’s so cheesy-sounding, but I collect photos that interest me in secret boards on Pinterest. Like mood boards, but for writing.”

Lauren Groff (author of the upcoming Matrix which you should also definitely pre-order): “Read! Draw, long walks and runs, learning something alien to your work. Playing and living is filling the well.”

In the past, travel was definitely a part of my creative restoration process. I flew all over the world for work and for fun, sometimes, too and there was always something new to see. Whether I felt it consciously or not, I was gathering steam and power and inspiration, even if it was to be used at a later date. These days, there are limitations to such matters, obviously, but I still choose different destinations that are within driving distance. A cool cemetery I’ve never visited before an hour away. A park in a different part of the city. (I know it’s cold elsewhere, my Northern readers, but I promise it won’t be someday.) And there are small trips we can take every day. A different route to the grocery store. A new block to visit. Or even a place to visit in your mind.

Andy Greer is the next level.

I also went to a museum, a few months ago. I made a reservation online, and then I went there on a Sunday afternoon. There were only two other people there. We all were far apart from each other. We didn’t even make eye contact. We just looked at the art. We were pure observers. I did not feel calm or relaxed, but I did feel a little fuller after I left. A little switch was tripped. A jagged line of electricity within me.

I also try to listen to new music that I would not find otherwise in my personal feed. There are plenty of great resources out there – you probably already have your own – but I am a fan of Flow State. Such a quick, easy, passive way to experience new art, a new feeling, even if it’s just a subtle shift.

Alex Chee (author of required reading How to Write an Autobiographical Novel): “I took a spec tv screenwriting class online and as homework wrote an outline for a ‘Westworld’ season opener — Season 4, episode 1. And after feeling so burned out on my own work, it really was freeing to write about my favorite lesbian android minor characters, to write fight scenes, to have the lovers on the run. Afterwards I went back to my own work feeling like I could do anything, which is the feeling I think I am always chasing. Writing in a way I never do seemed to have answers for me.”

I didn’t take a class, but I did try another kind of new writing – writing this newsletter. Thinking about writing in a more organized way, having to explain my process rather than just intuiting and internalizing everything, listening to other people’s comments and questions and then answering them, making myself sit down and write in a letter format – all of these things have churned together to create a new vibe. It’s also helped me to think about which aspects of writing I appreciate most and what my challenges have been in the past. Contemplating process might seem tedious to some. But on the other hand, without our process, none of us are getting anything done. It has been satisfying and fulfilling to me to get a handle on what makes me tick creatively.

So now I know what’s next in my process. When I’m truly done writing I Came All This Way to Meet You and it’s time for me to move on, I have a few ideas of what I’ll do to gather speed again. I will walk in the mornings, and then write casually and without judgment in a notebook. I will eat well and stretch before bedtime, and read twenty pages of a book every night before I shut out the light. And I’ll try to experience something I haven’t before.

There’s a new ferry now in New Orleans, between downtown and the West Bank. I haven’t ridden it yet, and it’s supposed to be quite nice, modern, an easy, comfortable trip. I’d like to take it, maybe when it gets warmer out, just to be out on the river, and to see the city coming and going. It would feel like a kind of threshold to cross, some sort of simple ritual. The river is so wild and dangerous and has so much power, yet I’d be riding safely atop it.

Not one action you can take will fill the well entirely. This year in particular it feels like we need small spoonfuls to fill it. But we must make the attempt. Inch by inch, drip by drop. We must try.

I’m leaving the comments open today in case you want to suggest ways you fill your well.


You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to Vera Institute of Justice.