The Fear Chronicles: Searching for Duende and a Way out of the Drought

Photo by Joe Sass

I’m experiencing a very real and very long writer’s drought. Thank goodness for Today’s Author, because otherwise the only writing I’d be doing would be the feedback on student essays.

I’ve been through droughts before: long, yawning months, with nary a line of poetry written. The desire is there, but the impetus, not so much. It is during these droughts that I look forlornly at books of poetry on my bookshelves and wonder at the pure productivity of those poets. It is also during these droughts that I am almost loathe to come across any poetry I’ve previously written. I am reminded of current inaction. It’s like staring into the face of what I once was, only to be reminded of what I am now: dry, stuck, inert. Time and time again, I’ve come out of these droughts, and written. Once I do, I tell myself, this is the nature of your process, self. Just accept it. Ebb and flow. A time for all seasons. And so on.

Of course, being firmly planted back in the drought makes all those previous platitudes seem sophomoric, at best. And lies, at worst.

Notice that I haven’t used the word “block” to describe my state of being. I have not said, I have writer’s block. I dislike this phrase almost as much as I dislike the term “Chick Flick.” Neither sit well with me. I don’t feel blocked. I have ideas, but these ideas are being born and dying quickly because I do nothing with them.

In a speech given at the TED Convention in 2009 (Gilbert Speech), author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about, among other things, the spirit of writing and the way writers, and she in particular, use that spirit. She tells a story about poet Ruth Stone who felt as though her poems came “barreling down at her over the landscape” and that she had to race to a pen and paper so that she didn’t lose the poem. Gilbert says that Stone would “catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page.” I love this image of catching a poem or an idea by its tail, before it disappears. Stone felt if she didn’t catch the poem, it would pass her by and visit a more worthy, or more ready, poet, and be lost to her forever.

I am not, of late, catching my poems by the tail, this much is certain. They are flying at me, and I am letting them go. I recognize the ideas as interesting, as usable, but I don’t “show up,” as Gilbert would say, for my part of the process. I don’t engage in the spirit of writing.

I’ve heard the spirit of writing referred to in different ways over the years: inspiration, drive, will, muse, duende. This last term is particularly interesting to me. A couple of years ago, I attended the AWP Conference in Chicago, and there was a panel discussion about this term. I had never heard about duende before, but from that discussion, I learned that it has to do with the spirit of writing—it’s the force that wells up in us, as writers, to create, but it’s stronger than inspiration, typically more fickle than the muse. Some of the panelists said they had only experienced duende once or twice; another panelist said she was constantly in a state of duende, and that for her, it was overwhelming and often overpowering.

In his article, “Theory and Play of the Duende” (Duende), poet Frederico Garcia Lorca explores the definitions of this term. He says, “the duende has to be roused from the furthest habitations of the blood,” and that, for writers, “the true struggle is with the duende,” not the muse. And finally, capturing or experiencing duende is “not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.”

As I consider my drought, I think about what Gilbert, Stone, and Garcia Lorca have to say about this very odd and very important business of recognizing, harnessing, and wisely using inspiration. I think about “the furthest habitations” of my blood. What does this mean for me? How much rousing must I do, and what does that actually look like? And why must I rouse at all? I want to be like the one panelist who is in a constant, unyielding state of duende, who has to turn away from its intensity to do the mundane and necessary tasks in life. So, I’m on the lookout for my “culture of immediate creation,” for “the furthest habitations” of my blood, because I want that kind of brightness.

4 thoughts on “The Fear Chronicles: Searching for Duende and a Way out of the Drought

  1. Great insights. I believe in the law of the harvest…there is a time to sow and a time to reap and a time to lay fallow. All help the work to grow.

  2. I am definitely in that drought phase, too. I went through an extended drought several years ago and when I came out of it, the writing was rapid, frequent and sometimes fantastic. I had somewhat given up on the possibility of my writing drought ever ending. Then one day there was a seed of an idea and it mixed with a drop of inspiration, and from that several dozen stories and poems sprouted. It was exciting and the memory of that is keeping me going whilst I struggle through another drought. We’ll both get through it!

  3. I love this post and will read it again. Those fearful moments of brittle stillness wait for my duende to awaken.

  4. I enjoyed this post so very much.
    Thank you.

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