Friday, February 15, 2013

How to Fill the Creative Well with a Well-Timed Rest Break

There are some important signs of burn-out that writers need to attend to. 

An overactive Inner Critic. 
A feeling of the blues about one's work. 
A sense of deep depletion, despite enough sleep and exercise.

Any of these sound familiar?

Yesterday I was working on a chapter revision.  After about the fourth draft--making changes, printing out a new version, reading outloud and editing again, then inputting the changes--I noticed I was making it worse.  This is a sticky chapter, an important one, right at the end of the first act.  Everything is supposed to go down. 

It was.  But not in the story--in my own work on it.

I had a deadline.  But I wondered, was it better to take a break now, despite all the urgency of my deadline, and fill the creative well?

 Winter Blues, Winter Breaks
Winter is a great time for writing, here in New England where I live.  We just got hit with the monster snowstorm and about three feet of white stuff is in my yard.  Lucky me, to be able to stay indoors in my cozy writing room and work on the book--at last!  Summer has gardening and all sorts of other temptations.

Winter is the best time for writing, for me.

But winter can also bring most of the creative burn-out symptoms listed above.  Is it because of the incubation?  Cabin fever is another name for winter blues in my life.  Whichever--it spells disaster for the creative person, without the clean air of well-timed rest breaks.

Writers need these rest breaks.  They feed the creative side of us, fill the well again, so we can continue creating.  If you're feeling any of these symptoms, read on. 

Those Who Give A Lot Need the Most Replenishing
In addition to being a writer, you may be a giver.  Someone who works hard, who serves other people and community, who really believes in the idea of paying it forward.  Maybe you're a thought leader.  Maybe you are someone people count on for innovation, whether it's figuring out a sticky problem at work or negotiating well with a teenager at home.

If you've been stretched to the max these past months, still recovering from the holidays or school starting again or a new project at work, you may need to switch gears and get replenished. 

Take advice from prolific novelist, Dorothy Allison, who talks about the importance of "necessary boredom."

"Necessary boredom" is not the blues.  It can feel like playing, actually, if you let yourself.  The goal is to shut off the linear, get-it-done brain, and let the right, nonverbal side of yourself come forward.

Learning How to Play with Your Right Brain--My Emergency List
A good friend once helped me create an emergency list for just these times.  I keep it in my journal.  It has ways to play.  Many people don't need such a list--I do.  I need to be reminded how the right brain works!  Especially when I've been on task forever.

Here are some items on my list:

1.  Make a collage
2.  Take out the colored pencils and color in my journal
3.  Go on and look for images that remind me of my characters in my book
4.  Draw my book's main location
5.  Read someone else's book--and see how they solve a problem I'm struggling with
6.  Nap
7.  Take a long walk or go snowshoeing
8.  Clean a closet (surprisingly, any repetitive activity rests the linear brain)
9.  Listen to music or do anything with sound--sing, hum, play guitar

Feeding the Artist
The Woman's Retreat Book by Jennifer Louden is my go-to resource for more ideas.  It's packed with ways to disengage and reacquaint yourself with yourself.  This time, I turned to the section called "Feeding the Artist." 

I read the first line: "If there is one cosmic law I know the consequences of ignoring, it is this one:  you cannot create from an empty well."

When one is empty, it's hard to see that.  Many of us keep running anyway, fueled by adrenaline, and the spark gets dimmer and dimmer. 
You get the idea.

One of Jennifer Louden's most important directives in this chapter on "Feeding the Artist" is not to create while you're filling the well. Stop working on your project, stop trying to manifest anything.  Ugh, that was hard.  What about the deadline? 

I figured it would still be there, when I came back from my rest break.  I even tried one more round on the chapter, and when it was still not working, I gave in. 

Funny thing.  As I began to fill up again, new ideas started coming.  I watched another episode of Downton Abbey, then picked up a book that just came from the library and read.  I fixed a lovely lunch for myself.  I ignored the siren call of my chapter and took a short walk with my sweetie.


By dinnertime, I was feeling a lot less linear.  I began to see things of beauty around me--a good sign that the stress has lessened and the right brain is alive and well. 

When I went back to my writing room after dinner clean-up, just intending to shut down the computer and head to bed, I was pretty surprised when the chapter ideas started flowing.  A great solution emerged--and when I got it on the page, I liked it a lot.

Who knew?

This Week's Writing Exercise 
1.  Take stock.  Do you need to feed the artist?  Is she or he starving from too much output and not enough input these past busy months?

2.  If the answer is yes, can you carve out time for a rest break?  Even five hours in a day when nothing is needed of you is amazing and precious.



  1. Great post, Mary! I find, too, that occasionally taking a break from my computer/home and spending a few hours creating elsewhere--like a beautiful arboretum--is renewing. I read, sip a Starbucks soy chai latte, write down ideas, hike...heaven! :)

  2. Thanks, Cindy! So glad it's a good reminder. . . thanks for visiting and enjoy that latte!