This week I’m writing to you about an idea that came to me during a creative dry spell a few years ago. At the time, I felt blocked in my own practices and was frustrated with everything I did. There were times I got really down on myself and art and thought, ‘why bother?’ or ‘Nothing I’m making is any good.’
I think we all feel this way from time to time. Whether it’s about creative work or personal growth—we all get frustrated with our own progress.
During the pandemic, I think many of us are finding our creative cycles out of wack, responding to everything new around us. I’ve seen and felt a lot of anxiety around the question of how we should be during the pandemic.
During my dry spell, this idea of fruitful and fallow times helped me move past the negative thoughts I had about my creativity and what should be happening. Feeling like this metaphor had served me well, I tucked it away in a drawer but have often revisited it in my mind. Now I’m bringing it out, dusted off and re-written, to share with you.
This idea is all about a peach tree I grew up with and how it’s the perfect model for understanding creative life and challenging our notions about creative identity as linked to productivity.
On fruitful and fallow times
The thing about the peach tree is this—I grew up on a horse farm with a gnarly old peach tree down by the gas reservoir near the barn.
In the summer, the branches would droop with fruit, so far that some of them kissed the ground.
Some years, they would have these fat, juicy peaches bigger than your fist. Soft fuzzy yellow with red stripes that looked like they were about to burst. Sumptuous.
Other years? You’d hardly know it was a peach tree, save for a handful of hard, orange nuggets that would show up for a few weeks, then drop to the ground. Noncommittal.
I asked my parents why sometimes the tree was really good at making fruit, and other times… not so much.
Matter of fact, I was told that the tree needs time to rest in between making the big peaches. This is so it can save up energy and nutrients to put into the peaches next time around. In other words, it had intentional periods of rest so it could put more energy into making the next harvest amazing. It didn’t try to make big peaches when it wasn’t ready.
The tree knew when to rest. And it was okay with it.
The wisdom of nature always gets me—the balance of creation and conservation, budding and biding, fruitful and fallow.
Anyone who works in agriculture knows giving things’ time to rest’ is an obvious strategy for success. It’s why farmers don’t plant the same crops in the same fields year after year. They vary them to let their fields recuperate in between.
No one argues with soil that it should be more fertile.
I wish I applied this logic to my creative practice earlier in life. Before, my understanding was more like I had to burn like some nuclear reactor of creative energy. Thus leading to many meltdowns.
We all have creative cycles. When you’re fruiting, you might have that feeling of being absolutely on fire, on a roll, unstoppable in your work. Words fly from your fingertips, paint dances across the easel, you grant applications get accepted one after the next, you travel across the world.
Then, there are the other times. The fallow times. We might not love to talk about them, but they’re equally important and should be appreciated for their role in creating those fruitful bursts.
You take time off from touring to focus on your health, you go to the cabin and write a hundred pages of trash, you disappear off social media for a while, you try something new, and it blows up, but you learn something.
You can’t make juicy peaches every year. Nor should you. Embrace your fallow time. It’s a significant period. Don’t kill yourself trying to give me ten shitty peaches; just hold off a bit and then give me your great peach when it comes. Don’t worry - I’ll still remember you’re a peach tree.
And let me tell you something - it does you no good to get mad at yourself when you’re having a fallow time. To feel like your worth rests on being abundant. It’s as useful as hating the sun.
You never see a peach tree give a fuck about anyone’s expectation of it to make peaches.
A peach tree does what it does. It rests when it needs to. It doesn’t stress out about it. Who is anybody else to tell it otherwise? It’s a fucking peach tree; it knows its peaches better than anyone.
The hard reality of living in a post-capitalist society is the pressure to commoditize and optimize ourselves every waking moment. A narrative gets into our heads and creates a fear that says: when you are not producing, your identity ceases to be. When you’re not mounting an art exhibit, you cease to be an artist. When you’re not writing a novel, you cease to be a writer. If you’re not sharing your process with us on social, are you even…?
But that logic…
It’s pretty dumb. Isn’t it?
When it’s winter, and the peach tree has no peaches, it’s still a fucking peach tree. No one questions its peach-tree-ness. We’ve seen it make peaches before. We know it will do it again.
No one asks a peach tree if it might be something else during the winter. Or why it’s not making peaches right now. You know peaches don’t bloom in the winter—duh.
A peach tree doesn’t question its own identity and tries instead to make—I don’t know—lemon meringue pies.
So, why do we ask ourselves to bloom in the winters of our lives? We have so much anxiety around the same question of identity when it comes to ourselves. We don’t cease to be creative when we’re not producing. We don’t cease to be artists when we’re not waving our little flags on social media. We spend so much energy trying to be visible, showing up under our labels instead of for our work.
This tweet from Austin Channing quoting Roxane Gay encompasses those feelings pretty perfectly:
Getting comfortable being quiet when you’re in a quiet season—it’s a hard thing to wrap your head around. And can feel deadly for so many of us. There’s the old adage—publish or perish. But again, that’s just fear talking, and the only thing we can be sure of is that fear might keep you going for a while but eventually inspires nothing but bitterness and resentment. No one likes to be afraid, least of all of the things they used to love.
To circumvent fear and create from a place of love and compassion, we must learn to un-perform, to consciously go away and work on ourselves without an audience and without work to show. This is a really healthy part of creative practice.
We’re still peach trees, even in winter. Even when no one is watching.
Even if you have a thought that says, “I’m not creative. I’m an imposter.” It’s just a thought… it’s not the truth. You can think whatever you want to about a peach tree. It will still be a peach tree.
I won’t sugar coat it—I know it can be hard to get through a fallow season.
You might be impatient. Don’t panic just because you don’t see peaches when you thought you would. Maybe winter is lasting longer than usual.
Even during fallow times, there is important work happening below the surface, in the bark and soil. All these tiny changes and thoughts interacting and coming together inside you when put into art will eventually become (literally) the fruit of your labours.
Progress is about staying on the path and trusting the work.
You can put in the work by showing up every day and doing something small. Especially if it’s ugly, experimental, or just not good. Love it. Live it. Get cozy with it. This is the path, honey, and it isn’t always beautiful.
Sometimes you might have a freak year where the weather’s perfect, and despite your lazy efforts, giant peaches burst forth.
On the other hand, you may try as hard as you can, weeding and fertilizing and putting in the work, but in the end, the weather is crap, and your peaches are duds. So it goes.
It’s easy to get freaked out by the fallow times and wonder—have I lost my magic?
But creativity isn’t magic. It never was. No farmer would ever tell you that peaches are magic, either. They are a combination of the work put in, the environment, and the tree’s intrinsic nature. They seem magical, but only because so much work happens beneath the surface and before to make a peach happen.
You may have a bad year. It’s not personal. Harvest your peaches and start again.
You may have a good year. It’s not personal. Harvest your peaches and start again.
Whether you’re in a fruitful or fallow time, take comfort in your commitment to the work, instead of the outcome.
Give yourself that good fertilizer and don’t be in a hurry. No peach tree has ever been rushed to blossom. You go back every day, you do the work, you wait.
Know that you can only have a chance at getting those giant juicy peaches if you keep at it. Trust the practice. Get those peaches.
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