Friday, September 11, 2015

Taking a Break from Your Book: When It's a Good Idea . . . and How to Know

I just spent ten days at a cabin on a lake, high in the mountains, and I didn't work on my novel.  I intended to.  I brought my laptop, the files all updated in Scrivener.  I brought the latest feedback from my writing partners, the comments and changes I was considering.  I brought a bag of inspirational books on writing and creativity.

But I didn't write.

A couple of times I opened the laptop but it always generated a weighted dull feeling, like chains around my neck and shoulders.  I would shut it and go off to the dock.  Or start a new painting in my little porch studio.  Or play with colored pencils.  Or take a nap.

I'd been exhausted for about a year, since caring for a dying aunt.  It took me months to recover from the year of tending her, and after her death, there were months of grieving and estate nonsense to go through.  All through, I kept at my book, doggedly.  It offered great relief from internal misery--to distract myself with fictional characters who were only a tiny bit crazier than my real life relatives.  So, naturally, I expected to make great strides when all tension was released, when I had nothing to do and nobody to care about, during these ten days at the lake last week. 

But no writing came.  I felt zero pull toward the book.  I didn't even feel like reading--an astonishing change for me. 

After a few days of growing guilt, I decided to not fight it.  I knew my brain was word-saturated.  Maybe the book needed a break too!  So I began to watch my creative desires each day.  Ask myself what I was naturally drawn to, each morning when I woke.  My desires would dictate the course of each day, rather than any shoulds.  

Discipline Doesn't Always Foster Creativity
I like to write every day, and I have found even fifteen minutes of touching in with my writing keeps it alive in my mind.  I believe in the routine or rhythm of creative work, of showing up at the page, of keeping butt in chair and trying.  I am a very disciplined writer. 

But discipline doesn't always foster creativity.  When we're stale, when we're exhausted from pushing a door that only opens inwardly, it may be time to give the book (and ourselves) a break. 

All week I found myself drawn to right-brain activities.  Non-linear, non-language stuff like swimming, painting, hiking, staring at clouds.  I stopped even opening the laptop after day three.  It didn't come out again until I returned home.

When I got back to my regular life, I began to think about my book.  What had come from the ten-day break that might generate some new ideas?  Today I took myself to a favorite cafe for lunch and the laptop finally got opened.  I began considering some of the feedback, make some changes, and suddenly I was completely engaged in writing again.
Best of all, I had a fresh perspective on my story.  The chapters felt like someone else had written them, and from this distance I could finally see a path to correct some of the more gnarly places.  I was excited about the book--and it was excited to have me back.  All because we had both taken a break.

Sometimes breaks are dangerous.  When we absent ourselves because of bad feedback, for instance, that confuses and derails our vision.  When we doubt our ability to write.  These are more abandonment than natural pause, and much more difficult to recover from.

My break was different.  I knew it was all about filling the creative well versus abandoning the project. 

I also learned something new about my personal creative rhythm:  it doesn't always work to write out of a sense of duty and discipline.  It's good to pause and regain inspiration--and write from that place instead. 

Don't get me wrong:  I still believe in routine:  in sitting down each day and saying hello to my work-in-progress.  I totally buy the rhythm of producing pages regularly.  But now I also have a space inside for the beauty of a break. 

If you feel the need this week, here are a few favorite "breaks" that can easily be incorporated into your daily rhythm.  They are surprisingly powerful ways to refill the creative well.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  If you are a steady writer, consider a day off from your writing project.  Work outside the story--only on writing that has nothing to do with your goal. 

2.  Walk or try an activity that is not language-based, such as sketching, doodling, or working with clay. 

3.  Take a break by reading a different genre.  If you are a nonfiction writer, read some poetry.  If writing a novel, read a play script or screenplay (search online) to see how playwrights and screenwriters have to incorporate setting without describing it. 

4.  Go aural:  Listen to a favorite book on CD instead of reading it on the page.  Sit in a coffee shop and record snippets of conversation on your phone (use for dialogue ideas later).   Play music and close your eyes for no distractions.

After your break, pick up your writing again.  What feels different?  How has your break refilled the well?   

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