On not writing

Up until recently, I’ve been a non-active writer. Not because of writer’s block, the dreaded phrase indicating a lack of inspiration to fuel the fire. Not because of writer’s slump, when there’s plenty of fuel but little motivation to do anything but poke around at sad coals.

Because it was a conscious decision. Because I wanted to walk away from the fire to explore the world, gather better kindling. Maybe even let my bones get a little cold, so I can better appreciate the warmth when I return.

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t that counterproductive? What happened to the age-old writing advice: “write every day”?

My argument, for your consideration: “write every day” is a misguided method. Its intentions are good, if you’re trying to stay on track to finish a first draft. But there are times when you need to get off track. There are times when you need to put the pen down and walk away.

Like a gift, this time presented itself to me somewhat serendipitously, when I was invited to join a local writing critique group shortly after finishing my manuscript. At least, it felt “finished” enough — but I needed more eyes on it that weren’t mine. I needed new, diverse perspectives to weigh in on my writing in order to achieve a more balanced, more informed perspective of my own.

Setting aside a piece so you can come back to it afresh is understandable, but I also chose not to write other original fiction during this time. I allowed myself distance from writing altogether — and I can see why some writers might shudder at the idea.

But here are some reasons why not writing, as crazy as it sounds, can actually improve your writing:

  • Every intense exercise needs a period of recovery. My husband and I love to run and lift weights, and created a schedule for our fitness goals. We’d probably hit the gym every day if we could, which sounds healthy in theory, but it’s not. Muscles need a break to repair themselves between workouts, so I blocked off my weekends for rest and yoga. As the body needs a period of recovery, so does the mind. You’re only human, and writing “every day” doesn’t take into account your mental health. Giving yourself a break also reminds you to be playful. Writing no longer feels like a chore, but can be paused and returned to as necessary. How long you measure your recovery depends on your personal goals and what you want to get out of your work.
  • It’s good to reflect on your mistakes, instead of ignoring them entirely or trying to fix them right away. By wanting to go full steam ahead on a manuscript, it’s easy to slap it down and call it done. It’s much harder to slow your roll, to be objective, to say, “you know, I really need to consider what could be changed about this.” Alternatively, if you suffer from perfectionism, it’s important to learn the difference between aimlessly tinkering with the writing versus creating any actual, nuanced revision.
  • What’s old to you is made new again, through subtle deception. Fiction writers are frequently asked, “How do you come up with your characters?” This is a hard question to answer, due to the way it’s phrased. I don’t so much “come up” with characters as let them come to me. Sounds like pretentious writer crap, I know. But actively seeking characters is like trying to approach a stranger, asking them 50 questions about their personal life, and waiting to see what they’re willing to reveal. When the process is more passive, you’re allowing a stranger to approach you, tell you their truths, and accept your counsel on their own. Taking a hiatus from writing allows the latent issues of your draft to reveal themselves anew. Treat it as an experiment in reverse psychology, and you might find that the characters magically devised their own development while you were away.

Writing is about the approach as much as the execution, and taking time away from it isn’t necessarily going to be the best approach for you. For me, it was downright difficult. Fledgling writers are usually preoccupied with getting into the “habit” of writing. But when it’s already an established habit, how do you get out of it?

Joining a critique group was the answer for me. Their thoughts are my kindling for the fire. At last evening’s meeting, a fellow member commented that my dialogue tags seem so natural, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I have a tendency to write all the dialogue in a scene first, so the stream of conversation flows naturally — the tags are almost an afterthought, added in later.

It’s amazing what you’ll discover about your own writing when you stop engaging with it, even for a moment. Stop writing, and listen. Learn and grow. Come back. Write again.