The last of my posts for Awkword Paper Cut. It’s been a long, dry spell in the West:
Drought: What is it Good For?
In California, a four-year drought has left the landscape brittle and the people irritable. I was complaining to a friend about the dead weeds that lined the freeway and the lack of green hills last Spring. “Drought’s not all bad,” he told me. “During a drought, the exotic species that usually compete with native plants die back because they are not adapted to droughts. The native species are drought-tolerant, so they have a chance to increase their numbers.”
Mary Austin’s classic book about the California desert, The Land of Little Rain, states that “not the law, but the land sets the limit.” Like California’s native plants, we need to become more drought-tolerant. A writer’s life is subject to similar cycles: never take success for granted; expect and prepare for setbacks. To extend that metaphor a little further, a dry period is also a good time to evaluate how we’re spending our time. Are we putting all of our resources into a losing proposition? Is there a project that’s taking all of our energy but giving little in return? Are we planting lawns in the desert?
Writer’s block, rejection, criticism, financial problems – we face those things and more, on a regular basis. Depression and self-destructive behaviors often result from these dry periods. We should expect and accept these droughts, prepare for them, and develop coping skills, the way the California poppy has developed deep roots to carry it through dry times.
I was fortunate as a child to have spent a lot of time in the Mojave Desert, that area Austin writes about with the mysterious and detached voice she uses in her book. The desert teaches thrift, teaches making the most of every resource, especially water: “Very fertile are the desert plants in expedients to prevent evaporation, turning their foliage edgewise toward the sun, growing silky hairs, exuding viscid gum.”
As a writer, I’ve had my share of setbacks. In just the past few months, I received a rejection on my birthday, and another one just before I was due to give a performance. My conference proposal was rejected in favor of a similar one given by more famous writers. I’ve given readings to near-empty rooms more times than I care to remember. Like the drought-weary residents of California, I treated these periods as aberrations rather than the normal cycle of a writer’s life. Instead of learning from them, I tried my best to ignore them.
Maybe next winter will be a wet one; time will tell. If it is, I hope we don’t forget the lessons of this drought. I hope we don’t keep planting lawns and washing sidewalks. Writers need to prepare for long, dry periods, using resources wisely and getting prepared for whatever may hinder us in the future. These are not periods to squander. As Mary Austin wrote, “For all the toll the desert takes of man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.”