I’ve spoken before about the importance of taking time away from your writing. Today I’d like to elaborate on this notion.
I know that it’s hard to take a step back from something you are passionate about, especially if you are waist-deep in a project. Writing can be all-consuming, feverish. It fills you up, makes you YOU, and when your work is flowing it feels impossible to stop. And when you do, there is a certain despair that crawls inside the creative hole within you. When I’m not writing, it feels as though I am slowly going insane. I am anxious, restless but purposeless. I get depressed. Things have no meaning. I waste entire days dicking around online. I hate not working.
But, as difficult as it is to accept, taking time away from your writing is absolutely necessary for the creative process. It gives your brain room to breathe. It allows your subconscious self to solve problems you would never have solved had you continued to poke at them under the spotlight.
The thing it took me forever to realize, however, is that taking a break from writing does NOT have to mean that you are condemning yourself to days/weeks/months of being unproductive. On the contrary, it is an excellent time to cultivate your other creative pursuits, non-creative hobbies, or to become a consumer and “fill up the creative well,” so to speak.
This article on the Brain Pickings website about Henry Miller revolutionized the way I thought of my writing breaks, and it also entirely eliminated the guilt I felt over not using my other creative abilities. I graduated with an art degree and have some measure of artistic skill, and when I turned to writing I felt as though I were ignoring/abandoning the visual-art portion of my soul. However, I never wanted to draw for a living, so I could not justify spending time on art. This article changed that, and made me realize that I could embrace both aspects of my Self (Writer and Artist). Art became a solace when I was resting my writer-brain.
I urge you to read the whole thing. Even if you don’t particularly like Henry Miller, it’s fascinating. But here are the parts that were most helpful to me, in case you don’t feel like visiting the link.
“…for [Henry Miller] was among the famous writers who were drawn to the visual arts, producing such lesser-known treats as J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age etchings, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors, and Nabokov’s butterfly studies …”
(Did you know that these writers liked to draw and paint? I sure didn’t!)
Henry Miller is quoted as saying, “I turn to painting when I can no longer write. Painting refreshes and restores me; it enables me to forget that I am temporarily unable to write. So I paint while the reservoir replenishes itself.”
The author of the article then goes on to note:
“This, of course, is a strategy that many celebrated creators used — Madeleine L’Engle read science to enrich her writing and Einstein, who termed his creative process“combinatory play,”, is said to have come up with his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks. But it also makes sense under more formal psychological models of how creativity works, all of which require some form of incubation period,or what Alexander Graham Bell called “unconscious cerebration” — a stage during which “no effort of a direct nature” is made toward one’s creative goal and the mind is instead allowed to perform its essential background processing.”
And, lastly, Henry Miller again: “When one is an artist all mediums open up… Every artist worth his salt has his [hobby]. It’s the norm, not the exception.”
So, as you can see, it is extremely common for writers to have hobbies to turn to when they need to rest their writing-brains. And, as stated above, these hobbies need not necessarily be creative. When you take a break from writing, you can read some research wholly unrelated to your current subject, which may open up new ideas or even give you twists to use in the project you have temporarily set aside. You can pursue art or music. Just make sure that you use your “hiatus” wisely. I struggle during mine, sometimes, because the internet can be such a siren of temptation. I try to combat the time-wasting lure by consciously realizing when I’ve spent far too long mindlessly scrolling Facebook. Instead I will read some articles on subjects that interest me, or sign off altogether and read a book.
Another favorite “hiatus past time” of mine is to become a consumer. When I am actively creating, I try to whittle down the things I am consuming so that I am not influenced by every little thing. (That’s a huge problem of mine…I get so ‘into’ different things that writing can become something like cooking a dish in which you wholly intend to follow a recipe but people keep handing you delicious sounding ingredients that you feel you MUST include because YOU LOVE THEM, and then the entire thing is disgusting and pointless and you throw it in the garbage). However, when I am NOT writing, it’s a freaking free-for-all. I read whatever I want, I watch all of the TV and movies I didn’t have time for before, I play a shit-ton of video games, which usually feels like a guilty pleasure but which, during a hiatus, feels like I am being SO PRODUCTIVE. I always come away from these consumerist days feeling relaxed and refreshed, creatively energized, and ready to jump back in to my writing.
You’ll begin to recognize the “right” times to take breaks. For me, there are two types of hiatuses. One is when I am in between drafts and I need to put the work away for a month or two in order to come back to it with fresh eyes. The second is when I am up to my eyeballs in plot problems (this usually occurs very early on in a new project). I cannot figure out any solutions, I am getting frustrated and ready to throw away the entire project, my head is spinning, I can no longer think…….time to put it away for awhile. Those hiatuses are shorter, usually a weekend or two. Just enough time for me to get some distance and let my subconscious work on the problem by itself.
I DO NOT take breaks when I “don’t feel like” writing. That’s just simple procrastination. Know yourself. Be HONEST with yourself. Allow your breaks to have purpose.
I am currently on a hiatus…the very last one for this project, which will hopefully go out on submission soon (in fact, I will be discussing it with my agent today, so keep your fingers crossed that she thinks it’s ready). Right now I am using this time to do Inktober, which is an art event in which you draw one ink drawing every day in October! You can check mine out on Instagram (I’m @eggsaladserra). I’m very rusty but I’m hoping that by the end of the month I’ll have limbered up and will have gotten some good pieces out of it.
Until next week, creators!