Crop Rotation: Make Something Else

Photograph by Jenae Weinbrenner

This is an excerpt from my fall book release, Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff. I’ll be posting further excerpts on my blog throughout much of the summer. 
—Justin McRoberts

I’ve spent more time recently on prose projects (like the one you’re reading) than I have on musical projects. I’m comfortable saying that I am currently in a season of writing prose. And thinking in seasonal terms keeps me from freaking out at having so little happening musically. A few years back, I might have been afraid of such a thing; wondering if I was letting my musical gift rot somewhere while I fool around distractedly by this other thing — I’m primarily a songwriter, after all. Prose work is new and exciting. But because I know it’s a season, I can attend to the planting, tending, and growing of prose work. 

Prolific songwriter Sandra McCracken likes the image of “crop rotation” when thinking of creative seasons. It’s an image she borrowed from Joni Mitchell who somewhat obviously borrowed it from the agrarian tradition. In short, crop rotation means that a farmer grows different crops in different seasons in the same land. If she doesn’t rotate her crops, the soil of her fields loses its capacity to healthily produce, which eventually compromises the quality of her primary crop. I am learning to plant different seed and make different work during different seasons so that the creative soil of my life remains healthy. If I plant the same seed in the same field over and over again, I eventually ruin my creative soil and my “crops” will grow unhealthily. 

As an avid hiker and jogger, I’ve learned to listen to my body for cues concerning changes in my physiological seasons. My knees generally let me know when I’ve been spending too many hours climbing (descents can take a pretty serious toll). But instead of reading knee discomfort as a sign that I ought to cease from physical activity altogether, I know it’s time to change things up — go for a bike ride or swim. I will always return to the hills, but there are seasons when it’s best for me to adventure elsewhere and in different ways.

It is likely that, if you’ve been making art for a while, you have felt the seasons change but might not have had the language or permission to see that seasonal change for what it was. It may have felt like things had simply dried up — that rain wasn’t falling and the ground was hard. Everything took ten times the effort and even when your efforts did bear fruit, that fruit was sour. 

Certainly, it is possible that such signs are symptomatic of a dry creative season. There are seasons when letting the land lie fallow and unseeded is appropriate as well. But I think those seasons have more to do with exhaustion. My experience has been that I mistake seasons of “creative dryness” for a season in which it is time to make something else. So, rather than simply waiting for the next moment of inspiration or the next deadline to move you into creative work, move yourself out of your normal discipline and do some painting, drawing, shooting, playing, etc. After all, you are a creature who creates — that is the core of who you are. What you make is secondary. 

I’m not suggesting that you run out and randomly take up a new practice, per se (though that might be a fun thing to do). Instead, it might be the case that you already have creative practices you can make more intentional; practices that might deserve whole seasons of their own. A solid example from my process has been writing sermons and essays. Because I teach regularly in my faith community (and have since 1999), I have generally written and publicly taught something once each month, if not more often. For many years, I had thought of my prose work as “this other thing” I was doing when it was really part of the same creative process all along. Reading my past through the filter of Sandra McCracken’s crop rotation image, I can say with some confidence that writing those sermons and essays has enriched my songwriting process. For instance, there are images and phrases I’ve found deeply meaningful in writing sermons that I would likely not have discovered or valued while focused on lyrics. Also, the more I learn about the importance of cadence and pace in sermon execution, the more I can feel the tempo and movement of a song, even as I shape its words.

So, consider . . . what other seed might you plant? 

Blogging? Painting? Playing an instrument? Those are a bit obvious. I’d also suggest that being a mother or father is a creative practice as well — playing imaginatively with your children is every bit as much a creative endeavor as playing piano. Whatever it is, approach it intentionally, letting that season be a season that you enjoy fully, rather than a distraction or a waiting period between seasons of “real creativity.” 


Justin McRoberts is a singer, songwriter, author, pastor, and teacher living in the East San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow him on Twitter and find more information about his other endeavors at JustinMcRoberts.com.

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