ANOTHER CASE FOR TAKING WRITING BREAKS
A writing friend who’s usually so prolific he’s the envy of many others wrote to me recently in desperation: “I feel stalled! The most I can do is poke around editing a few essays. Yes, I’ve got family and health issues—mine and others—but these have cropped up before and I’ve still made time for writing. Help!”
I empathized with Tim. I’ve often felt not only stalled but stale. And that signals one thing: we need to take breaks. Not just fifteen minutes flipping through a magazine or whipping up an omelet, but real breaks. This is how I encouraged my friend:
Tim replied with thanks and said he needed this kind of reminder. “I know I’ll emerge fresher and stronger.”
What Have We Got to Prove?
Tim’s dilemma got me thinking. Many of us writers have an internal engine that keeps churning twin messages: we’ve got something to “prove” and somewhere to “get.” Beyond recognition, full-timing it, and money, we press on. This drive isn’t bad and goals aren’t to be dumped; they spur our productivity. But that drive is only unhealthy when we overdo it and, like Tim, feel puzzled and guilty for stopping.
Other Writers Admit . . .
As we push toward our writing goals, we don’t like to admit we sometimes need a rest. Ignoring this need can lead to paralysis of brain, ideas, creativity, fingers. Even if we’re not physically or fingerly doing it, we’re always thinking, listing, percolating, probably judging our writing against others’. We feel dry, wrung out, and drained of all motivation. Days blur into each other, punctuated only by what we can check off the endless list of writing projects.
Spiritual teacher Catherine Ponder counsels, “Whenever you find yourself hurrying along trying to force a result, call a halt.” After halting, she notices, you “can usually accomplish twice as much in half the time” (The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity, p. 76).
Kathryn Lay, a tremendously productive author and counselor to others, says she writes, like most of us, because she enjoys it and wants to keep making progress. She admits, though, “There are times when I’m tired, when the words seem forced, when things in my life make writing a chore.” She’s learned, she says, “to step back and rest from my writing schedule, to allow myself to not write and do it guilt free” (“Become a Healthy Writer,” Writing for Dollars, vol. 12, no. 28, July 15, 2008, http://www.writinigfordollars.com/2008/vol12num28.cfm).
Another consistently prolific writer, I. J. Schecter, wisely advises:
Don’t write every day. . . . Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to remove yourself from the writing realm to recharge. Being a writer means treating writing as your first priority, but not using guilt as your primary motivating tool (“The Freelance Battlefield: 14 Steps to Thrive and Survive,” Writer’s Market 2006, p. 66).
And Writer’s Digest editor Jessica Strawser, in a great article on finding time for writing, emphasizes too that we need time for not writing: “People (yes, even writers!) need downtime. We don’t need to fill every moment with something that’s quantifiably productive. Plus, for writers, the happy truth is that downtime can be productive in all sorts of ways” (“How to Find, Rather Than Make, Time for Writing,” Writer’s Digest, March 26, 2012, http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/how-to-find-rather-than-make-writing-time).
Taking Time Out
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recognizes how hard we find taking time out. “An artist must have downtime, time to do nothing. Defending our right to such time takes courage, conviction, and resiliency” (p. 96).
She aptly labels break-taking as “Filling the Well, Stocking the Pond” and describes why we need to fill and stock:
Cameron suggests several ways to restock—listen to music, cook something outrageous, do needlework, swim, wash dishes, drive. “Think delight. Think fun.” As many creative people have found, repetitive tasks simultaneously demand our attention, rest our creative mind, and somehow often provide effortless answers to current impasses. “Solutions to sticky creative problems may bubble up through the dishwasher, emerge on the freeway” (pp. 21-22).
In a brilliant method for filling our wells, Cameron instructs us to schedule an “artist date” with ourselves. What the heck is this? An hour or two a week carved out for yourself alone, a time “especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner
artist” (p. 18).
These dates with yourself are for fun. They may be anything you choose, especially activities you haven’t allowed yourself: a long walk in the country, a visit to the beach at sunrise or sunset, a foray through an ethnic neighborhood, a horseback ride, a dabble with your dusty box of watercolors.
One of my favorite artist dates is visiting the housewares section of a department store. Nothing makes me appreciate the explosiveness of human creativity more than a wall of kitchen gadgets.
I gaze and marvel at the array of lemon squeezers, lemon reamers, garlic presses, garlic mashers, orange juicers, grapefruit sectioners, citrus zesters, egg slicers, egg timers, egg poachers, bagel slicers, cream cheese softeners, toast grabbers, coffee grinders, teabag squeezers, meat testers, fat drainers, flour strainers, cake probers, pastry blenders, burger mounders, tough-meat pounders, corn kernel shuckers, corn silk weeders, onion cubers, carrot curlers, mushroom brushes, eggplant seeders, shrimp deveiners, clam pryers, lobster pliars, pear parers, melon ballers, cherry pitters, strawberry top pluckers, apple corers, apple slicers, apple peelers, nut crackers, nutmeat extractors . . . . I might even buy something for my own mini-wall of gadgets.
So, whether it’s a great wall of kitchen wonders, a delicious buffet of stationery emporium pens and upholstered blank journals, the hardware store bins of museum-worthy copper pipe fittings and toilet valves, or any other diversion that awakens your child-delight, give your writing self a rest. Immerse in activities that please you—any of these jaunts or similar ones—fixing your bike, planting pumpkins, baking brownies, meandering through town, lingering in a museum.
The Gifts of Rest
To your probable surprise, you’ll come back refreshed and renewed. When I’ve allowed myself such leisure, I’ve found that my “date need last no more than two hours, and it satisfies immensely. Back at my desk, I always feel fresher, clearer, and eager to resume work. My editorial eye becomes sharper, and I light on flaws that eluded before and zap them. I excise, tighten, clarify. New connections pop up, and insights evolve that never would have surfaced if I’d stayed and tried to grind through.
Other writers have experienced similar effects. Writer Bridgid Gallagher notes,
Lay observes, “When I am refreshed and my creative mind has had a chance to ‘sleep,’ I find that the old enthusiasm is back” (p. 2). My bewildered friend Tim found that, after a few stints in his garden and a few more working with a trainer at a local gym, he was rarin’ to get back to his computer. “Even my messy desk was a welcome sight.”
One caution, though. Your creativity doesn’t take time out. Plant nearby a device you can catch your thoughts on—pen and notebook, tape recorder, phone with a keyboard. The more I relax, the more ideas keep scratching like kittens clambering up the sides of their box, refusing to be ignored.
Trust the Process
Stepping (or dragging yourself) away from your writing, listening to your need for rest and restocking, and acting on it lead to better work and bigger gifts. For example, if you’d kept pushing instead of accepting a friend’s invitation to go fishing, you’d never have come up with that brilliant comparison between the shiny-scaled trout slipping through the shoals and your villain’s slippery moves through the police radar. If you hadn’t resentfully made the duty call to see your second cousin’s newborn, you’d never have mentally photographed those irresistible curly toes and tiny smile radiating life’s unlimited possibilities. You know you’ll use that picture somehow, somewhere.
We need these times away for other reasons too. Engaging with the rest of life makes our writing richer, more universal. The more we consciously live our ordinary lives, the more our writing will reflect our experiences. Then we’ll relate more to our readers in all the important ways—incidents, feelings, thoughts, quandaries.
Granted, for us write-a-holics, tearing ourselves away for a while, as Cameron warns, takes discipline and courage. Watch how you try to get out of your artist dates. It’s the same kind of courage, paradoxically, we need to open our notebook, pad, or computer. Before starting to write, our censor rants and feeds us horrible waves of inadequacy that launch anxiety attacks and writing blocks. Cameron again rescues: “Leap, and the net will appear” (p. 2). This same command can urge us to leap into rest, to boldly lounge and loll.
I used to tempt the universe: So what if I don’t write? What are you going to do to me?
What did it do? Only helped me experience more of life.
When you withdraw from writing for a bit and plunge in to what pleases and rests you, you’ll be renewed. You’ll return eager to plunge again into your work. You’ll be sharper and more newly creative, and you’ll be glad you had the foresight and fortitude to take a real writing break.
Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has a hard time taking breaks, and especially entire artist’s dates. Knowing their value, though, she forces herself to go have fun. Then she retackles her writing, having 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/
With Trust Your Life, she has been invited to participate in the Unity Books “Summer of Self-Discovery,” a reading series on Goodreads with two other authors of positive messages. Goodreads members and others invited to take part in book discussions on Goodreads and free author webcasts. For more information, see the Unity page unitybooks.org/summer and the Unity Books Goodreads discussion group: http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/100799-unity-books