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Letting the Fields of Inspiration Lie Fallow

Beating the blocks by turning your attention elsewhere

In the midst of a flurry of spring activity, I find myself feeling rather uninspired. I have been playing, sure, and I wrote a few new songs over the winter (some of which have turned out quite nicely, thank you). I’ve been doing a lot of other writing as well: this column, reviews of guitars, interviews with guitar builders, as well as other projects. But a couple weeks ago, I realized that I had been burning the creative candle at both ends when I sat down to write and simply could not muster one more word, and the guitar felt like it was made of lead.

So what’s a writer, or a picker, to do when the muses club you over the head, take your wallet and split for spring break?

Well, if you’re me, you head to the fabric store and go nuts. I’ve made two jackets, a baby-sized crazy quilt, three shirts for the menfolk, a blouse and some pants in the past couple weeks. What does this have to do with guitar, you ask? Songs are ephemeral. They exist only when someone is playing them. Sure, we have the memory of them, and there is a folder on my hard drive that has all my lyrics in it. Many folks have even been so kind as to buy my CDs. But those are not the songs. Likewise, words can be put on paper, but unless someone reads them, they’re just representational symbols on a page. So every once in a while, I have a need to go through some simple, repetitive, productive motions that allow me to start with one thing, cut it up into pieces, and assemble the pieces into something that I can touch and use. The visual stimulation of the colors and patterns and textures, and the eye-hand coordination it takes to make a suit jacket, for example, exercise different creative parts of my brain than the guitar does. After a few dozen yards of fabric pass through my fingers, words and melodies start pouring out of me like somebody’s tapped a keg.

Turning my attention elsewhere while I go through a dry spell becomes far less traumatic and painful than wringing my hands as I wait it out. Instead of becoming depressed, withdrawn, sleepless, restless and cranky, I am relaxed and peaceful, even happy. In a sustainable farming system, fields will occasionally be left to do what comes naturally for a year or two, which recharges the soil with nutrients and makes whatever is planted there later do that much better. This is the same kind of idea. Writers and musicians are notorious for “chemical fertilization” of their inner fields, trying to force their unwilling brains to produce. Much like exhausted fields that have been over-farmed, this process erodes the functionality of the artist, often in exchange for decreasingly “nutrient-rich” words and music.

So as the weather begins to draw us outdoors, I’m going to do the unthinkable and advise you to put the guitar down and go take a walk, put in a garden, build a deck, make some curtains, plant some trees, paint something, tune up your bike. Then after you’ve done some of these simple, repetitive yet productive things, put some new strings on the guitar and take it out on your new deck to watch that most famous of ephemeral phenomena, a sunset.

If that doesn’t work, then you have my blessing to go out and buy yourself a shiny new acoustic. It’s been a rough winter. You deserve it.