Harrows and Harvests

Cover of Gillian Welch’s last recording, The Harrow and the Harvest

Life has rhythms and frequencies. Lots of them. And as I get older I am increasingly sensitized to the need to pay attention to what those are. Time to consider biodynamic agriculture? I’d say we need to consider biodynamic living.

Plowing through to a goal with no regard for its particular demands of pacing and timing was elemental to the way I was raised. Being hard working, task-oriented, efficient, committed and tenacious were the qualities valued in my mid-century childhood home—values grounded in heady post war American exceptionalism and laced with a heady combination of Mormonism and the Harvard Business School.

Looking back I am convinced that a large part of my immediate attraction to art making was the need to dismantle that willful sense (or illusion) of control. Art, like nature, is rarely efficient. You learn by making mistakes, lots of them. You move forward by paying attention to the unexpected, not-so-logical, subterranean voices. Your M.O is usually subversive, playful, prankish and disruptive. Predictability, metrics and pro forma are not useful tools but creativity killers.

But after all these years I still have remnants of that vestigial stripe from my childhood running down my back. The proclivity to be productive, to strive for a sense of forward progress, to use every minute in my studio wisely and well—is still there. Talking myself down off that platform is a daily mantra.

One of my favorite passages in Anne Truitt‘s artist memoir, Daybook, is about the willingness to follow an urge even if you have no idea what it means or where it will take you. It’s like riding a horse that is galloping down a road in the dark, she said, and then you get to the end and there’s nothing there. You walk back and wonder what that was all about. I am drawn to that metaphor because it speaks to how we are constantly reminded to let go, to jump on the horse’s back with or without a saddle, with or without a bridle. That is the way you stay ready, porous, pliant.

So of course I was moved to hear Gillian Welch, musician extraordinaire, talk frankly and openly about times when her process just wasn’t working well. It’s a bit like a politician going public with an admission of depression for an artist to acknowledge that there are long, dry spells when nothing comes together. Her new release, aptly named The Harrow and the Harvest, was eight years coming.

Eight years. The thought of being in my studio, painting, and not feeling connected to my work for nearly a decade IS harrowing.

But Welch talks of this difficult phase of her life without drama. When asked why she felt stuck, she doesn’t have an answer. But she is forthcoming about her circumstances. “It wasn’t writer’s block. It was creative block. I was writing songs. I just didn’t like any of them.” She had to wait until she loved what she was writing again. The turning point came just last year. Something shifted and the songs just started to flow again.

“A creative dilemma is a spiritual dilemma,” says Welch.

Ah yes.

4 Replies to “Harrows and Harvests”

  1. Deborah, I find my own thought process and inclinations in this post. I am also one who keeps (kept) working even though I didn’t feel like the work was flowing easily or was quite on target. Like Gillian Welch, I don’t know what happened, but then there I was and it was all going towards a place that I recognized as the right one. And now it’s flowing with an effortless feeling. How can that be explained? I don’t know but I’m glad I’m there. I think you are there with your work, too.

    1. A resonating post. Dry spells are part and parcel of creativity, part of nature, the universe, life. It’s our thinking that dry spells break us or our forgetting that they are normal that doesn’t help us. I was telling a friend recently: it’s in life’s marginalia, the scribbles and the stars, the margins that things can become clear.

  2. I’m a huge fan of Gillian Welch. The creative process is a strange one, but we have to keep at it until we’re happy with the results. Thanks for posting this.

  3. I love this…it resonates…But I find, that I will stop and not work through it…even though I know it’s about continuing on…this is absolutely the hardest and it makes me feel like I can’t finish things…though I have and I can and do…but not always…I think of it as “series loss of inspiration”…it is definitely a spiritual practice in mindfulness…to continue on…moment to moment…

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