Refilling the Well

  • By Meg Opperman
  • October 19, 2015

What happens when your idea bank dries up?


Have you ever finished a big writing project and thought you’d just jump right back into another one, only when you put your fingers on the keyboard nothing happened? If not, lucky you. But it has most definitely happened to me. And, at least in my universe, a blank page equals one grumpy writer.

What did it feel like?” you ask.

Crap. It felt like crap. What? Not writerly enough? Okay, fine. It felt like a deafening silence — no words rushing through my head, no characters clamoring to get out — just unnaturally quiet. Empty.

Am I really complaining about not hearing voices in my head? Yes! The silence kills me. Hey, I’m an extrovert, remember? Even when I’m alone, I like to be in a crowd.

Then it hit me. I’d contracted the dreaded Empty Well Syndrome (EWS). And I hadn’t even been bitten by tsetse flies, nor had I shot up with dirty needles, or practiced unsafe group sex. Not recently anyway. How could this happen to me?

It took way too long, and several bouts of EWS, to figure out that there was nothing wrong with me…nothing writing-related, at any rate.

After one particularly long EWS bout, I had a breakthrough, a cure for the sickness, if you will. I’d just finished a really intense work — a first draft of a novel — and all my energy had been invested in completing it. I primarily consider myself a short-story writer, so investing the time and energy required to produce a novel was, well, novel.

I would dream of the characters at night, and daydream about their lives in the daytime, and I’d hear a — sometimes annoying, usually entertaining — running commentary from the cast throughout the day. It was quite crowded in my head. So you can imagine how it felt to suddenly have everyone go silent. Almost as if someone had died.

At first, I took long walks by the water. And walks in the rain. I never got around to the piña coladas, but I would have happily imbibed if it would’ve helped me refill my well. I sat at the keyboard a little every day. Nope. Nada. I read books on craft. I read books for pleasure. I went to the gym. I practiced yoga. I read the news and listened to NPR. I’d return to the keyboard.

Still nothing.

Feeling discouraged, I decided to take myself out to lunch one afternoon. I went to a happening little sushi place near the University of Maryland in College Park. The sushi was decent, but the eavesdropping was fabulous. There’s a lot of human drama that goes on around a campus. Some of it funny, some of it decidedly less so. But for the first time in two weeks, I felt…like a pump being primed. (See? I’m sticking with the well analogy.)

So I started going out, seeing friends, not letting my crushing sense of guilt at absenting myself from my keyboard get in the way of socializing. It only took a few days, but soon ideas started to bubble up again. My well was filling back up. Perhaps it’s because I’m naturally extroverted, so that throwing myself in the middle of a crowd invigorates me the way a stiff drink can’t.

Writing is mostly a solitary art, and without the voices in my head to keep me company, I needed real company. I don’t know if this approach would work for introverts — they might be better off with piña coladas and walks in the rain.

But I needed people. Strangers, friends, colleagues. A tidal wave of humanity. Anything that would fill the well of ideas and get me back to my keyboard.

And I did, after only a few days, go back to my keyboard. I began writing a short story that I quickly finished and sent on its way. Then I wrote another. And another. You get the picture.

Will my well ever run dry again? Yeah, I’m pretty sure it will. I’ll try to be a little more gracious to my family when it happens next time, and I’ll beeline for another busy restaurant near a university — because now I know what fills my well.

What fills yours?

[Cartoon used with permission from artist Jim C. Hines.]

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