What’cha gonna do when the river runs dry, oh babe?

Years ago, in another life, I played the piano for a fellow music student who performed a catchy art song that began with the question in my title.  The answer, by the way, was: “I’m gonna stand on the banks and watch the crawfish die, oh babe,” an image I didn’t fully understand until I moved to Louisiana years later. 

Em at Shen small.jpg

I’m not sure why this snippet stuck with me through the years.  Maybe my close association to the Shenandoah River and Valley through the Shenandoah Album novels brought this memory back. And that is the Shenandoah River behind me in the photo.

Maybe, too, the phrase remained alive because when I moved from music to writing, rivers running dry took on a whole new meaning for me. 

Creativity in any form is like a river.  Sometimes it rushes so fast, all we can do is leap out of the way before we drown.  Sometimes it slows to such a sad trickle we have to trudge upstream to see what’s damming progress.  Sometimes it dries up entirely.

I’ve never been able to predict what my own creative river will do.  I can see patterns.  Creativity flows fast and free at the beginning of a novel.  Usually.  Creativity begins to trickle by the middle.  Most of the time.  At the end creativity dries up and old-fashioned perseverance and instinct finish the novel for me.  This is not a bad thing.  If I’ve written 600 pages working toward my conclusion, and suddenly the river detours and takes me along with it, that new tributary may well lead to rocks and whitewater, certainly not toward bringing my book in on deadline.  So dried up rivers have their place in the scheme of things.

I finished my latest novel, Happiness Key, at the end of October.  I emailed it to my editor, hopped a plane for Houston where I signed books at the International Quilt Festival and at two lovely bookstores, then came home and immediately staged two parties. 

Now, I’m finally ready to begin coaxing my trickling ol’ river back to health, so that I can begin the next novel with an enthusiastic gush of ideas.  I’ve opened a new folder, and a few ideas have occurred to me already.  More will come.  I trust the process.  The river will soon flow freely.

What do you do when your own river seems to be running dry?  What restarts the flow for you?  What keeps your imagination, your spirit, healthy? Please share if you have the time.

I’m going to pay attention to my own river in the next weeks and tell you my thoughts.  But last night, depleted and alone for a few days, I sat in front of the television and watched three old episodes of Murder She Wrote–thank you, Hallmark channel–and followed those with The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young.  I spent these hours with Nemo, our beagle puppy, cuddled beside me and a baby blanket I’m knitting in easy reach. 

Lesson One, for river health and renewal: Rest.  Stop thinking.  Figure out what makes you smile and indulge yourself.

I woke up this morning with a new idea.  In the distance I can hear the sound of water flowing. 


  1. Joanna Campbell Slan on November 17, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Fabulous new website, Emilie. Just mouth-watering. Color me pea-green!
    And your post was very timely. I’ve been doing some “stinking-thinking” and I need to STOP IT now!

  2. Linda on November 19, 2008 at 6:30 am

    Your post is lovely. I have just finished reading Touching Stars, so seeing the river was very timely.

  3. Diana Michael on November 21, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    I now live in Roanoke, VA. I was born and raised in the Shenandoah Valley. I lived for 23 years in Richmond, VA. I found you in the VA State Library under VA authors and have not been able to draw myself away from you. My husband is a minister in Roanoke, VA. You are my second source for mentioning The Bishop’s Wife, so I have to see it. I love rivers and songs about rivers. I especially like the words, “I want to be where the river is flowing”. I am enjoying your new website. I love quilts, but have never made one. You may inspire me.

  4. Emilie Richards on November 22, 2008 at 7:57 am

    Thanks Joanna and Linda. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the post and my site.
    Diana, my husband’s first ministry was in Roanoke, and we lived there for four years. I hope you’re enjoying everything about your stay there. We still miss it. The Bishop’s Wife is great fun, but you may wonder why “your” congregation didn’t provide you with servants, the way David Niven’s did. Hmmm. . . .

  5. Tristan Shepherd on February 6, 2018 at 10:30 pm

    If you’d like to know or don’t know, the name of the song is The Crawfish song. I’m currently singing that song as a solo and came upon your website trying to find a recording of it. 🙂

    • Emilie Richards on February 7, 2018 at 7:45 am

      Thanks, Tristan. I once accompanied someone singing The Crawfish Song, and still remember it well. Hope you enjoy singing it yourself.

Leave a Comment