Fallow Fields

It is still 80 degrees in Texas, but summer is over. Hay bails dot fields beside the road. It’s chilly in the mornings. Time to start carrying a jacket. Five months of gray skies and brown grass ahead. I don’t enjoy fall and winter weather, but I understand its value. The world can’t grow all of the time. A fallow field rests to restore its nutrients and prevent exhaustion. Mother Nature needs a break.

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Fall in Texas–brown grass and one leaf in my yard.

Our reading and writing lives cycle through productive and restive periods, too. We scribble notes and start drafts that don’t go anywhere. We linger in our last book—unready to leave it behind. Reading and writing help us understand and navigate our lives, but readers and writers need time to experience reading and writing without producing all of the time. The connection between our literacy and our lives travels between periods of growth, harvest, and dormancy. We must learn to appreciate and navigate these stages if we are to remain readers and writers throughout our lives.

I take breaks from reading, but they don’t last long. If I go without picking up a book for a few days, my bookshelves Siren call me back to them. My mind splinters when I don’t read and I feel it. I’m off-kilter and out of sorts. I don’t always finish the books I start, though. I dip into parts and fall back out for long stretches. I have several books on pause at the moment. Some books blind me to all others. Some books take longer to warm my interest.

I go longer periods not writing. My blog goes dormant. I lose my notebook for a few days and don’t miss it. I beat myself up about not writing, but Don doesn’t think I should, “You’re always mulling over ideas, reading articles, talking with your friends. You’re always writing. You’re just not always writing it down.” He’s right. Being a writer has a lot to do with looking at the world as a writer. Writing demands observing. Writing demands time to think. Writing demands time to wallow.

We don’t commit to reading and writing once in our lives. We recommit to reading and writing again and again. We travel between seasons of dedication and neglect. Seasons of interest and apathy. Seasons of high productivity and low. We wander through fallow seasons and benefit long term from the rest. When reading and writing call to us again, we return.

In my early years of teaching, I failed to recognize my students’ needs to linger in books they loved, to pause between books, to go days without reading much. I didn’t reflect on my students’ need to percolate ideas, to revisit their writing, or to write without finishing anything. I do these things. A lot of readers and writers do. Some readers and writers need incubation. We need reflection. It makes our reading and writing better in the end.

Prescribed charts defining THE writing process crowd out the necessity for every writer (and reader) to find a process that works for them. There’s no lock step progression through a reading and writing life. We amble and wander and stop in various stages, as needed. We each must find our own way.

When we limit young readers and writers time to think about what they read and write, time to reflect on their reading and writing experiences, time to plan for future reading and writing, or permission to step away from reading and writing at times, we miss opportunities to model and teach our students strategies that enrich their literate lives and help them find their way back into reading and writing again when they stray.

Not all who wander are lost.

Examining the seasons of our own reading and writing lives provides insights that improve our ability to mentor young readers and writers. How do we see ourselves as readers and writers? Are there temporary or long term obstacles limiting our reading and writing lives? If so, what are we going to do about it? Which books lure us into reading binges and which books take dedication on our part? How do we handle these reading experiences differently? What do we do when our writing is stuck? How do we unstick it? How do we maintain and sustain a reading and writing life? We must give ourselves grace when we read and write less. Embrace time to dawdle and wallow, and value our students’ need to do the same.

Writers write. Readers read. We cannot wear these identities unless we actively read and write. That’s true. But writing and reading aren’t solely productive acts, they’re creative acts that require feeding to flourish and bloom. Readers who push from book to book leave themselves little room to savor a book’s meaning. Writers pressured to write on demand at all times miss opportunities to follow threads to where they lead. To every thing there is a season. Writing and reading have seasons, too.

Without this time, it’s difficult to find personal relevance in our reading and writing lives. If we want reading and writing to matter to our students, we must value the non-productive aspects of reading and writing that foster long term ownership and growth. We must recognize the difference between resting and floundering—providing encouragement and gentle pressure when required and backing off when necessary.

Fields in constant production deplete their resources and lose the ability to sustain life, but fallow fields lead to rich harvests in the end.

42 responses to “Fallow Fields

  1. I’m pretty fallow here. Was just sitting on our Oregon deck reading in the sunshine when my grandkids showed up. Had to take a break and send a photo to my former co-teacher who is surviving day two of snow in Pennsylvania. Was at the Oregon Reading Association Leadership meeting yesterday, so thanks for this post–permission to sit and think about what we discussed is much appreciated. I can dive in later!

  2. Oh, goodness….such a wonderful post. Yes. Life…even the resting bits are rich for those who read and write. What a lovely way to consider the time between “crops”.

  3. Reblogged this on pizzos3 and commented:
    Wonderful piece on the literate life. Puts things in perspective for those of us who need to keep pushing. It’s ok and necessary to breathe, refresh, and begin again.

  4. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I am in a lull with my reading. I can’t commit to one book. I have five that I’ve started. I have been stressing about this for a while. Writing is the thing that I do daily and if I don’t I feel lost. I LOVE this post and I will be sharing it. I just finished reading my sixth graders first reflections on themselves as readers. Honest. Insightful. Inspiring. Today I listen to them and to you. Thank you for this permission and reminder.

  5. As I packed yesterday morning for parents weekend at my daughter’s college, into my bag went three magazines, two middle grade novels and one novel on my iPad. I just returned home, slightly disappointed, that I didn’t crack open any of them. Yet in two days, I enveloped my child in love, reflected as I walked the historic streets, and lingered over good conversations. Ironically, the keynote address was entitled the Evolving Reading Brain in a Digital Culture, by Maryann Wolf, which was very insightful. So, I didn’t read, I didn’t write, but I marinated in my literate life. This post was a beautifully written acknowledgement of the inner journey that takes place inside every reader and writer. Thank you!

  6. Oh, Donalyn, I think you’ve just helped to stave off a bit a guilt from quite a few reader/writers based on these comments so far! Before I began my reply, I glanced over the five others that were already here and realized we are all feeling much the same way. I started the year in a blaze, firing on all cylinders in August, and here at the end of the first quarter, I realize my reading has slowed and my writing– at least via my blog– has become nonexistent. This has happened primarily because all of my energy has gone into school– some useful things related to my kids, and a lot of not-so-useful things that just have to be done.

    I love what Don says to you about “always writing, but just not writing it down”. I know that is me. I’m constantly thinking, talking, considering– that’s my “drafting”.

    I want to get back to my blog, but almost feel as though I don’t “deserve” to, because I haven’t been “faithful” to it over the last few months. (I know, crazy talk, right?) I’m going to take your advice, and use your post as my “permission” to write again– though maybe not quite so often–on my blog.

    Thank you for your encouraging words!

  7. I thought about you all the way home yesterday. Three hours from Yakima to Tacoma trying to figure out how I can get my students to read. Thank you for your insight and your dedication.

  8. Such an insightful post, and encouraging. I went for months this summer without posting a comma on my blog. I was so sick and depressed (often the stuff of great writing), and eventually got pneumonia. But I couldn’t get my thoughts, and there were quite a few, out of my head. Thanks for the perspective!

  9. Just love this Donalyn! Writing and reading does take reflection time!

  10. The thing about any worthy endeavor is that it takes time. I think you’ve made a beautiful case here for slowing the constant roll of topics and techniques and skills that we ask students to aquire. I say let’s bring back nap time and recess. We all need a chance to change states.

  11. Yes!!!! I needed to hear this. . . .and I need to share this with my students too. A few days ago I finished I’ll Give You the Sun…. and I haven’t picked up another book …. I wasn’t ready… Then, at the library with my students yesterday, I saw several books I wanted to grab and bring home to read… but I made myself put them down because all my spare seconds need to be spent packing to move. So sad. I wonder how this translates to my students… and how I can best help them recommit after dry spells. 🙂

  12. “To everything there is a season. Writing and reading have seasons too.”
    This is so true. A wonderful piece this is!

  13. The analogy with fallow fields was enlightening. I totally agree with you that the more we observe, the better our writing becomes. And this post will help a lot of people to understand the value and importance of fallow periods in their life. Really good post. 🙂

  14. Such A Wonderful world…. Nice article ❤️❤️❤️❤️👍

  15. As it is said that writing is never a part-time thing. A writer is working 24 hours a day, observing thing, taking hints and inspirations, even in his dreams.

  16. This is amazing because I wrote a post with a similar theme just today… Thank you for reminding me that I am ALWAYS writing, just doesn’t always make it to the page.

  17. I don’t know that I agree with this entirely. I sometimes write when I’m not feeling like I really want to. If you were trying to learn guitar, you’d practice everyday. That’s what I try to do. But I did take a break on a recent vacation. And I will say books deserve to be savored and sometimes they need a little time to settle. I agree with you there.

  18. “You’re always writing. You’re just not always writing it down.”


  19. Beautiful post. Reminds me of my first move to the south USA from the north, I expected if it was warm year round it meant the seasons would be different as far as growth but of course I was wrong. Even in southern most Florida autumn occurs though mild and as you said, nature takes a break and starts over.

  20. Oh how I love this. It is so very true. And it serves as a reminder to keep our heads up and keep pushing through when our minds run a little blank at times!!!

  21. this is so true!
    most of the time, i laze around surfing internet and i go blank over whereabouts my books, notebook to jot down. “You’re always writing. You’re just not always writing it down.” now this line seems so convincing.

  22. This editor/reporter/photographer read your post and took it to heart. My times of not writing are as valuable as my times writing. Thanks!

  23. Loved this. Too often I put pressure on myself to produce when I know deep down that observing, appreciating, and thinking as a writer are just as valuable contributions to the craft.

  24. I liked reading your post. I can definitely say that the writer in me was dormant for quite some time, but I am ready now. Thanks for your words.

  25. Brilliant and well said.

  26. Lost my muse a few weeks now. Thanks. I understand the situation better now. Great post.

  27. I can totally relate to what you said about writing, “You’re always writing. You’re just not always writing it down.” Whenever my blog goes dormant, I beat myself up for not writing, but then I understand the situation I’m in and try to make the best of what I have.

  28. I love how everything is inter-connected. I just started writing (on my blog), I’ve never really done that before except for school. And I started reading when I decided to improve my English skills. So you could say I have a weird relationship with books, because I’ve never really read anything in my own language. Is that weird? Am I strange? Should I leave this blog?? Haha

  29. “The connection between our literacy and our lives travels between periods of growth, harvest, and dormancy. ” Worth citing and I hope it goes viral.

  30. Sometimes I think “If I get any more fallow, I will probably be dead.”

  31. I’m just attempting to start my second blog (the first one tailed off a few years ago) and this is the perfect attitude to begin with. I’ll endeavour to not worry if my mind goes blank and won’t let this blog slide.

  32. i was listening to the audiobook version of kite runner early today at the gym and i had to hold back my tears when i got to a certain part as i didn’t wanna look like some wimp crying over nothing in the midst of all the other men lifting weights. that would have been embarassing. anyways it touched me so much that i thought of creating a sad twist to a story i have been trying to write. now here i am, trying to stick to my nightly schedule for writing and i can’t seem to figure out what happens next to my story. i was already beating myself up over not being able to foresee what happens next to my dear characters so i decided to read around and found this. i guess if i sit here and not figure something out i’ll let it go and take a night off and it should be fine. thanks for writing this, i thought i was the only one experiencing this(as i just recently took up creative writing as a hobby) but seeing that even seasoned writers such as yourself get “pressured to write on demand,” i feel reassured that i’ll be fine, that my story will be fine, even if i took a day or two off.

  33. Such an insightful post, thanks for sharing it.

  34. Brilliantly put. There are times to grow and cultivate and there are times for fallow fields.

  35. So simple, but SO POWERFUL! Thank you for this. In college, students are constantly pressure to produce stories, to read, read, read, to write, write, write.

  36. Wow!! An amazing article, it prevents me from beating myself up from not writing frequently! It has being a long time since I blogged, but I have for not one moment stopped reading and commenting on articles I read! All-in all it essentially answers the questions a writer has to face when he doesn’t read or write! The analogy you have cited about incubation for good things is also perfect! 🙂

  37. I too have books on pause, some will never be restarted I fear..There are so many that I would like to read that at this point in my life, I step away from those that leave me cold. Blogging is something that I do to take my family and friends along with me on this journey.

  38. Wonderfully articulated! You put words to my thoughts. Part of my career involved writing, and I always beat myself up for waiting until the deadline to submit my project. That is, until I realized…by the time I actually wrote it down, I had already finished it in my head. Your very beautiful essay was validating.

  39. As a reader, I have often found, especially as life gets busy, I put my persona books down first. It is shocking to me though, as it is the one thing that calms and relaxes me. Why is it that reading can seem to be the most daunting as the stress piles up? Your post reminded me that the book will still be there waiting for me to pick it up and start again when I am ready. There isn’t a need to question my own reasons for this, it is all a part of my personal reading journey.

    I think it is important to let students know about this ebb and flow as well. We do not have to be readers and writers all of the time (even though I really wish this was the case.) It is okay to put the book or the pen down, as long as we know it is there waiting for us. The bear trap gets us when we let too much time lapse, and the pages collect dust. It is important to teach the balance between a break and all out abandonment. Even though those familiar pages will always be waiting, it is best not to let the collect dust on the side.

    “We don’t commit to reading and writing once in our lives. We recommit to reading and writing again and again.” This quote resonates with me on a deep level. Just because I have stopped reading or writing for the moment, doesn’t mean I can’t go back. The door is always open. It is not an “all or nothing” when it comes to reading and writing, it is something we need to work at, but also something we need to respect. This is a journey after all, not a destination, we should celebrate each step and honor the work and the rest that comes with it.

    Thank you for the reminder to be gentle with ourselves and for this amazing post.

  40. Writing is a simple word but the process of writing requires time and reflection and we should not rush ourselves to write. Well written.


  41. I just stumbled onto your blog and am so pleased because I love the Book Whisperer. It took me through years as a lower school teacher and helped me reteach my kids to love reading. Now as a middle school learning specialist with struggling readers in my care, I’m happy to read your thoughts on how our reading lives have seasons, readers need percolation time, and writers don’t always write everything down. Thank you!

  42. After reading your books, following your blog, and listening to you speak I have come to associate you with “keeping it real.” I so appreciate your enduring insistence that the we help students create reading and writing lives that reflect authentic reading and writing experiences. As I read this post I couldn’t help but kick myself thinking of all the times I pushed a student to move onto the next book, to add that next entry in their reading log, while generously allowing myself days to rejoin the real world after getting lost in a good book. I think of my own writing notebook, stuck in my desk drawer going on six months, yet I nag my students that go a single writing workshop (or even ten minutes) without producing.

    As educators, I think we can become caught up in the standards, data, and assessment of students (all practices put in place for valid reasons and with good intention) ultimately losing sight of our goal in the first place of creating life-long readers and writers. The culture of accountability in schools leaves many teachers with a feeling that everything our students do must be measured and that all learning must be quantified. I know I have let the anxiety of this culture lead me to push my students forward, without carefully considering where they might be at in their reading lives- how could I possibly allow students time to “wallow,” time to reflect, time to go internal, when there are standards to be mastered and test scores to raise? It can be difficult to value the non-productive aspects of writing when no one (well, no one evaluating my performance at least) is asking us about them. However, it is our responsibility as educators to value it and create a space for it in our classrooms. Doing so has the potential, as you said, to “foster long term ownership and growth,” an end result arguably more important than any reading or writing test score.

    Thank you for reminding us to keep reading and writing in the classroom authentic, relevant, and real. Thank you for sharing your own “fallow” moments from your writing life, modeling how we might do the same for our students. Thank you for giving teachers permission and a purpose for allowing students time to reflect, time to linger with a good book, and time to problem solve and own their own reading and writing lives.

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