Take A Little Time Off From Writing! Refuting Your ‘Mountain of Reasons’ Why You Don’t
Especially as holidays approach, instead of editing your manuscript, you may be dreaming of sitting on the sofa with your feet up, watching the leaves swirling outside (or your current tv binge). Do you feel on the edge of burnout? Are you sighing, staring into the distance, wishing you could let yourself just stop?
Maybe, like companies that close temporarily for renovation or universities that close for a holiday break, you need to shut down your writing shop for some needed renewal.
In our age of doing, doing (and overdoing), and the pressures, expectations, and inexplicable righteousness to keep doing, it’s hard to think of quitting, much less do it. A mountain of “reasons” loom.
“I’ve Got So Much to Do!”
Like many of us, 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 you’ll finally really finish everything pushes you to do “just one more thing,” usually to exhaustion. At that point, you feel overwhelmed and sapped. Your creative freshness has palled and editorial detachment has withered.
Remedies: First, make a list. List every project you’re working on and would like to. Spill it all out. For today, choose one or two from that master list. Then hide it. When you’ve completed this project, turn to another. Focus and monotasking are the keys.
Then write out a schedule—for work stints, reasonable lunch breaks (not working), and one other activity you’d like (walk outside, fifteen minutes of delicious phone gossip, two stupid sitcoms you love). Even if you don’t stick to your schedule exactly, you’ll have a structure. And a daily treat.
But sometimes a related defense rises up.
“I’ll Get Behind!”
Inside we scream, “I can’t take a break! Every other writer is getting ahead of me! They’re writing nine hours a day, churning out articles, essays, stories, and book proposals. They’re teaching classes to make into their next book. They’re creating webinars. They’re landing hot agents. I’ll never catch up!”
When we picture other writers producing with unflagging zeal while we get the tires rotated or hover over the gutter-cleaning guy, anxiety floods us, and we push ourselves harder. Face it: there will always be other writers who produce more and collect more stellar credits.
Remedy: This truism is still true. Remind yourself that 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. Good, and even great, writing can’t be hurried. Emblazon these truths on your brain, heart, and keyboard.
Nevertheless, another cry may stop us from stopping.
“I Feel So Guilty for Stopping!”
For many of us, it’s very hard to stop—for holidays, vacations, and even for a weekend afternoon. “Many authors castigate themselves,” observe psychologists and writers Jean and Veryl Rosenbaum (The Writer’s Survival Guide, p. 165), “when they take vacation time or even when they relax from a regular writing schedule.”
We often can’t stop because we find it almost impossible to separate our writing from ourselves. We believe we are what we write. No matter how much we earn from other endeavors, how many tasks we check off on the endless lists, how many compliments we get on our hair or six-pack, none of it matters. Under our fragile self-worth lives self-worse. So we suffer the guilt of barely thinking about stopping.
Remedies: Rachel Ballon, the “writer’s therapist,” offers some admonitional tonic (The Writer’s Portable Therapist, p. 54). “Maintain your self-worth and your self-confidence based on who you are, not on how [or that] you write.”
How to maintain or bolster your self-worth? Recognize your accomplishments other than your published pieces. Take in others’ praise when you do something not associated with writing, whether it’s small or huge. Thank them graciously. Make a list of your nonwriting successes and strong points, and you may just start to accept that you are indeed separate from your writing.
But another objection may rear up.
“I’ll Lose My Ideas/Talent/Motivation!”
Newsflash: You won’t! Once, when I was drowning in a long block, I agonized incessantly that I’d lose my previously unassailable motivation, and my writing ability would dribble down the sink. Thankfully, I discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and clutched it to my chest everywhere I went, like a talisman to ward off talent-draining demons.
Faithfully I practiced Cameron’s “Morning Pages”—three handwritten pages, daily, religiously—on anything.
After the first few weeks of self-pitying laments and self-righteous complaints, as Saint Cameron already knew, an amazing thing happened. My moaning and whining yielded to passionate phrases, effortless alliteration, and fresh metaphors. Absent over six years from writing, I felt again the long-buried power I thought I’d lost. And I turned a few of those little gems into articles, essays, and stories.
Remedies: To nudge your ideas/motivation/abilities back into view, engage in good block-breakers, like the Morning Pages, writing prompts available in many writing publications, or your own journal.
After such wondrous self-discovery and renewed and exhilarating production, though, you still may need to take a break. But another objection springs up . . .
“I’ll Be Like Everyone Else!”
Ah, the writer’s ego! We know we’re apart, elite, special, whether we’ve published a single syllable or tomes. We may do all the things ordinary people do—ferry the children, wrangle the laundry, slog to the commuter job, argue with the plumber, pine over the new iPhone, 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”?
Remedy: Do you really think it matters to your spouse, child, or pet whether you’re writing or publishing? Do they yearn to sit on the loveseat cuddling under the quilt with your manuscript or the latest journal you’re in? It’s you they crave.
So dare to be like everyone else. When you are, you’ll be better able to understand other people, transmute your ordinary feelings into your writing, and move many more readers.
Our Need for Rest and Respite
Yes, we do need to get away. Many writers, especially consistently prolific ones, realize the dangers of pushing. Cameron says (p. 96): “An artist must have downtime, time to do nothing. Defending our right to such time takes courage, conviction, and resiliency.”
No, we won’t suffer from being away. Pressing toward our writing goals, in the midst of paralysis of ideas, creativity, brain, and fingers, and drained of all motivation, we hate to admit we need a rest. But respites help us recharge and reinvigorate our heads, emotions, and writing.
Of course, our downtime can be anything we dream up, especially activities we haven’t allowed ourselves: a ramble through the hardware store bins of museum-worthy copper pipe fittings and toilet valves, the delicious buffet in a stationery emporium of pens and quilted-cover blank journals, a long walk in the country, a visit to the beach at sunrise, a foray through an ethnic neighborhood, a horseback ride, a day with a friend’s six-year-old. Take yourself out for fun and give your writing self a rest.
Trust the Process
To your probable surprise, you’ll come back refreshed and renewed, possibly with inspiration from an improbable source for your next piece or the solution to that pesky hole in your argument or plot. And you’ll absolutely crave to get back to the project that earlier threatened to stifle you like a soaked wool blanket.
When you withdraw to what pleases and rests you, your enthusiasm will spring up stronger, your mind will bubble over with ideas, and your critical eye will laser in. As you trust the process and listen to your need for taking occasional or regular breaks, you’ll return—refreshed and rarin’ again to write. You’ll be glad you took a little time off.
© 2023 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com