CAN YOU STAND NOT TO WRITE?
My friend was suffering from writing fatigue, yet she couldn’t let herself rest.
Like her, many of us, myself included, keep driving. We ignore the signals and eventually reach similar physical, mental, and creative states of exhaustion. But we push on with a heap of ingenious excuses for not taking needed breaks.
Let’s look at some of our justifications, and some tentative tonics.
1. “I’ve Got So Much to Do!”
You’re probably surrounded by a mass of hydra-headed ideas, notes, and projects on paper, post-its, pdfs, and in your head. The deceptive dream that we’ll finally finish everything impels us to do “just one more thing,” even to the moment of collapse. At that point, our creative freshness and editorial detachment have vanished.
For those of us who work at home, the problem can multiply. Writer and writing coach Anne Wayman knows this: “We can work a twenty-hour week or an eighty-hour week. It’s so easy, for instance, to work through lunch, eating at the computer, or to start an hour earlier than usual or work an hour or two later.” Too much of such a schedule, Anne confesses, left her “feeling stale, and uninspired” (“Finding Balance in Freelance Writing,” About Freelance Writing, http://www.aboutfreelancewriting.com/ 2009/02/ balance-as-a-freelance-writer/ http)
An innovative treatment is offered by consultant and copywriter Damien Elsing in “How I Turbocharged My Freelance Writing Productivity” (Write to Done, http://writetodone.com/2013/02/28/how-i-turbocharged-my-freelance-writing-productivity/). Master copywriter Eugene Schwartz, Elsing reports, recognized that when we work too hard we “go stale.” Schwartz “would set a timer for 33 minutes and 33 seconds, and when that timer went off he would stop whatever he was doing—however important—and take a break for a few minutes to clear his head.”
This “33-Minute Rule,” says Elsing, not only makes you move around and stretch computer-frozen limbs but “makes you really appreciate those 33 active minutes. You focus and use them effectively. When you’re conscious that you’re working inside a finite block of time, you make every minute count.” And of course you know you can take another break in 33: 33.
Sometimes, though if we do manage to stop for a bit, another plea stops us from resting effectively.
2. “I’ll Get Behind!”
Something inside screams, “Everyone’s getting ahead of me! They’re all writing nine hours a day, churning out scintillating essays, poems, stories, and book proposals, getting agents to bite on their queries, blogging brilliantly, and teaching classes to make into their next book. I’ll never catch up!”
Examine this assumption. Anxiety floods us when we picture other writers producing with unflagging zeal while we’re getting the tires rotated or hovering over the gutter-cleaning guy. Face one of the hard facts of the writer’s life: there will always be others who write more and collect more stellar credits.
But think. How can someone else really “get ahead” of you? You alone—individually, uniquely—can write what you write. You alone possess your vision and sensibility. You alone can express what you need to, in the ways you need to, in the time you need. Emblazon these truths on your brain, heart, and keyboard.
Nevertheless, another cry may get in our way.
3. “I Feel So Guilty for Stopping!”
Taking a break creates guilt if we don’t write. Psychologists and writers Jean and Veryl Rosenbaum observe, “Many authors castigate themselves when they take vacation time or even when they relax from a regular writing schedule” (The Writer’s Survival Guide).
During my worst blocked period, I wrote nothing for a whole year at a time. At every birthday, I’d force myself to scrape out a journal entry or morose poem, sometimes just making it in the frantic five minutes before midnight. Full of self-pity and rage that my life wasn’t “letting” me write, I believed those productions were meant to support my mistaken belief that “I write; therefore I am.”
Often, we find it almost impossible to separate our writing from ourselves. No matter how much we earn from other kinds of work, how many tasks we check off on the endless list, how many compliments we get on our hair, none of it matters. Under our fragile self-worth lives self-worse. So how can we even think of stopping?
A case in point: Recently, inundated with client deadlines and not having planned my schedule too well, all I wrote for a whole week were additions to the grocery list. After daily ten hours of client work, I couldn’t keep myself propped up at the computer to put in another hour on my latest essay. Eyes tearing, neck cramped, fingers aching, and left elbow sore despite the cushioning square of a spare mousepad, in my head beat only one refrain: “I should be writing.”
Then I discovered admonitional tonic from Rachel Ballon, the “writer’s therapist.” “You must separate yourself from your writing. . . . Most importantly, maintain your self-worth and your self-confidence based on who you are, not on how [or that] you write” (The Writer’s Portable Therapist).
This advice prompted several questions. Do we ever credit ourselves with accomplishments other than, finally, acceptance of a piece? Do we really hear others’ praise when we do something not associated with writing? Especially if it’s difficult, smart, kind, thoughtful? Make a list of your non-writing accomplishments and strong points, and you may just start to accept that you are separate from your writing.
Alas, another objection may rear up.
4. “I’ll Lose My Ideas/Talent/Motivation!”
Drowning in my long block, I agonized incessantly that I’d lose my previously unassailable motivation and watch my writing ability bleed down the sink. Thankfully, I discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and clutched it to my bosom everywhere I went, a talisman to ward off such catastrophes.
Faithfully I practiced Cameron’s promised magic, the “Morning Pages.” You write three pages by hand, daily and religiously—on anything (see The Artist’s Way, pp. 9-18).
For the first few weeks, all that surfaced were my self-pitying laments and self-righteous complaints. In the process, as Saint Cameron already knew, an amazing thing happened. The moaning and whining eventually yielded to—where they came from I knew not—passionate phrases, effortless alliteration, and fresh, perfect metaphors. After over six years of absence from writing, the power I’d long ago felt, and thought I’d lost, surged again.
Lost it? Lose it? Afraid of losing it? Never! (In fact, on an audiotape of The Artist’s Way, Cameron points out that if we yearn to write a novel at 20 and haven’t, we’ll still yearn to at 80.)
So, when you take a break from writing, whether it’s wholly conscious or apparently dictated by life’s exigencies, don’t be afraid of losing what’s in your heart. It burns there, maybe smoldering at times, but always warm. Just go quiet, make time, make room, and fan the flame. Your ideas/talent/motivation will leap up in all their fiery splendor.
But . . . we may still invent another roadblock, more subtle perhaps that these, that keeps us from taking a needed break.
5. “I’ll Be Like Everyone Else!”
Ah, the writer’s ego! We know we’re apart, elite, special, even if we haven’t published a syllable. Our desire and refusal to give into ordinariness make us so. We may do everything others do—ferry the children, wrangle the laundry, slog to the commuter job, argue with the plumber, pine over the new HDTVs, rush to the latest action flick before our friends see it—and yet . . . we’re writers. Can we stand not to write and still murmur, with modestly lowered eyes, “Yes, I’m a writer”?
A major virtue of taking some respite is that we dare to be like everyone else. With this move, though, we slam into our usually shaky sense of self-worth if we’re not writing (much less publishing).
Ballon’s reminder deserves repeating: It’s not what we do but who we are that matters. We find it almost impossible to disengage our beingness from writing, a hard lesson, I must say, I’ve still to learn. The other day, my husband said to me, You think that anything you do that’s not writing is not worth it. He was write, er, right.
Let’s ask, though: Do you really think it matters to your spouse, child, or pet whether you’re writing or publishing? Do they love cuddling under the quilt with your manuscript? It’s you they crave.
The Courage Not to Write
Admitting our resistance to taking needed breaks from writing helps us face and conquer, or at least assuage, them. When we realize what’s at the heart of our resistance, we can begin to correct our thinking and give ourselves rest. How do the five rationales here apply to you? As you recognize their familiarity, use the suggestions to give yourself some respite. You’ll see that you can stand not to write, at least for a little while.
Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle battles all the great excuses for taking needed breaks from writing. When successful, she’s returned refreshed and has published over 300 fiction and nonfiction pieces in print and online venues. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has guided doctoral candidates to completion of their dissertations. Based on this work, her current project is a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook, Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation—Finally—and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. In her published book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com/