Rotating the Writing Crops

April 18, 2022 § 6 Comments

by Kate Walter

After writing and publishing a memoir in essays in less than two years, I felt my essay ideas had dried up. I had pushed myself hard because the subject of my book – a pandemic memoir – was timely, and because I had a firm deadline from my publisher.

By the time my memoir, Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter, was released last fall, I felt completely wiped out. Not just from writing and editing and proofreading during such a short window of time, but I was exhausted from living through the pandemic by myself, which is the subject of my book. I knew I was supposed to be writing related new essays to promote the book, but I just didn’t have any in me.

I did promotional events in December (a Zoom panel, a podcast, a radio interview). I even squeezed in one in-person reading before Omicron hit. Then I stepped back to work on scheduling events for the spring. I wrote copy for flyers for upcoming events. But no essays. I had gone from churning out personal pieces to no output. I started to panic a little.

So when an editor offered me a fun assignment reporting about a museum, I accepted. It was good to be back writing and I could use the money. I also realized that I’m like a farmer and needed to rotate the crops. Give essays a rest until that soil is fertile with ideas again.

Should go back to that novel I started years ago which includes outtakes from my debut memoir? When I read part of it in my writing group years ago (when we were still meeting in person) people really liked it, especially the younger writers. The story takes place in the East Village during the 70s and 80s, before their time. They loved the details about a friend throwing down the keys from the fire escape after we called from a pay phone because we didn’t have cell phones and some tenements did not have buzzers by the door. Or should I return to that queer murder mystery? I had moved away completely from fiction during the pandemic.

The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.

The strange thing is that after I came to this conclusion and stopped pushing myself to come up with essay ideas, I came up with three ideas. This happened organically which is basically how my process always worked.

So I’ve started a new piece about what it will feel like to take off the masks in my large New York City apartment building, starting April 1. What will it be like to step into the hall or elevator without a mask? And I realized this topic compliments my pandemic memoir.

I’ve learned it’s fine to rotate away from essay writing for a few months. If I take a break, I am composting and when I do that, ideas pop into my head. What a relief to realize that.

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Kate Walter is the author of two memoirs: Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter; and Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, New York Daily News, AM-NY, Next Avenue, The Advocate, The Village Sun and many other outlets. She taught writing at CUNY and NYU for three decades.

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