I was just reading this thing on NYT Opinionator that author Bill Hayes wrote: “On Not Writing.” As the title suggests, he talks about how he stopped working on writing for a long while. He was warned that it might never come back:
I can’t say this didn’t scare me a bit. What if I really never wrote or published again?
I wouldn’t be in bad company, I told myself. After “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Joseph Mitchell published nothing new in his remaining 31 years. E.M. Forster published no more novels between “A Passage to India” and his death 46 years later. And then there were those hall of fame figures: J.D. Salinger, who published nothing for the last half of his life, and Harper Lee, whose post-Mockingbird silence should be enough to canonize her, the patron saint of not-artists of any discipline.
This is something I obsessively worry about. If I go three days without writing or editing at least a couple pages I start to grow paranoid that the creative part of my brain is crumbling. Sometimes when I’m stressed out to the point that my friends can see it in my face they’ll say, “Maybe you should give yourself the day off tomorrow. Go do something relaxing and just step away from the writing.” These aren’t non-writer friends saying this to me, but friends who are also working on novels, poetry collections, freelance work, etc. Friends who understand the need for me to stay disciplined, to keep my strict routine.
I always brush it off — the idea of taking time off from my stories horrifies me. It’s bad enough when it happens by accident. I push myself to write every day but obviously there are days when it’s nearly impossible to find the time. Some years (like the year that you buy your first home, coordinate a really stressful move to said home, get married, have a few too many travel plans, have to deal with a major death in the family, develop a seriously heightened fear of cockroaches) it can just be so frustratingly slow and emotionally challenging.
The last several months have been an extended lesson in learning to be fine with moving at a snail’s pace, occasionally getting interrupted for a couple days at a time.
And then in his piece Bill Hayes likened writing to fitness training:
To make fitness gains, whether in strength, speed, stamina or whatever your aim (see Principle of Specificity), you must take ample time to recover.
I had been working out as long as I had been writing, so this last principle was not new to me. Overtraining without taking days off can lead to injuries, chronic fatigue and, frankly, pain. But I had never observed this rule very strictly when it came to working on a piece of writing. Just as the body needs time to rest, so too does an essay, story, chapter, poem, book or a single page.
That’s the part I found really interesting. Hadn’t I been thinking so much about how my writing practice is just like my yoga practice? And in Ashtanga there are built in rest days: Saturdays, moon days, the first three days of a woman’s cycle. So why is it that I can never forgive myself for taking a break from writing?
I very obviously need the breaks, because sometimes after an accidental period of rest from writing I’ll wake up (like I did early this morning) with a shock of ideas in my brain and find myself jumping out of bed to scribble down notes.
This wave of new thoughts and solutions for whatever I’ve been working on almost always comes after a break following a period of feeling stuck. I don’t like to coddle myself when I hit a wall. I try to push through, look at the problem differently, maybe skip ahead to work on another section for a while. But sometimes it’s simply that feeling of being stuck that prevents me from doing good work.
Clearly the breaks are allowing me to recharge. So if I hate myself for the accidental interruptions, maybe the trick is to have built in rest days. Like in a fitness regimen. Like in my yoga practice.
Here begins a new experiment: I’m going to start scheduling in regular writing breaks. We’ll see what happens.