Taking a Break from Writing
I really needed a holiday this Christmas. I will admit I am somewhat bad at holidays. As a small consultant who juggles several projects at a time, not to mention my writing, the stars practically have to be aligned in terms of my deadlines for me to take a week off, and I have to spend the few weeks leading up to the ‘week off’ working like a mad woman in order to clear my desk. Often even when I have scheduled a week off, work creeps in and I end up having to do a day or two of work on my holiday. Taking two weeks off is unheard of. Before anyone thinks I am totally whining, I only work 25 hours a week most weeks, but I have two young children and I write, and volunteer at least 4 to 8 hours a week.
This fall was particularly challenging. I took on too many contracts after a stressful summer of managing the fundraising and installation of a community playground. Then I was signed me by an agent so I (very happily) added editing my manuscript to the to do list. By December 13th, I had not taken a single day off (not even weekends) since the beginning of September. I had held everything together, but exhaustion was setting in. Then within the course of a week, my computer died, my back up hard drive died, I blew up someone else’s computer, the computer I had to give a public presentation on was non-responsive and I still had to make one hundred Christmas cookies for a cookie exchange. Clearly I was giving off some bad energy. Perhaps the universe was sending me a message. Take a break.
I read about the rejuvenating power of holidays, about the importance of vacations for reducing stress, increasing your immune system, boosting your creativity and generally making you more pleasant to be around. Watch Stefan Sagemeister’s Ted Talk on the creative power of time off. He actually takes a YEAR off every seven years. Okay, I get it. I need some time off. I just need the stars to get their ass into alignment.
But taking a holiday from writing is more challenging. The general wisdom is that writers write every day, even on holidays. In Stephen King’s On Writing, King observes “The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, Fourth of July, and my birthday (at my age you try to ignore your goddam birthday anyway).” Note however that King says ‘when’ he is writing, implying that he is not always writing.
Yet realistically, if you have a family, especially one with young children, holidays, such as Christmas or going to Disneyland, come with a whole host of other obligations that get in the way of writing. As agent Rachelle Gardner observed,
“I’ve noticed the holiday season can lead to frustration when we’re trying to juggle work and family with the increased demands the holidays put on our time. For writers, the time available for your writing dwindles and you start to feel behind and get stressed that you’re not meeting your goals or deadlines.”
At Christmas, one must often decorate, clean, host dinners, Christmas shop, bake one hundred cookies (what was I thinking?). When in Disneyland or at the lake, one is expected to turn up at the theme park of the day with one’s family at a reasonable hour. Fitting writing into a holiday schedule can be very difficult.
I have nevertheless generally speaking for the last five years subscribed to the “write every day” or almost every day philosophy. I have taken weeks off before, but rarely. There is value to the practice of writing every day. It allows you to develop momentum, keep your head in the story and become a better writer (think Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours). It is like exercising every day, or several times a week. It is easy for a few days off to become ten, and then a month. Writing at least four days a week has allowed me to pump out and edit over a thousand pages of fiction in the last five years.
Tanya Golash-Boza provides fascinating statistics on the productivity of academics who write every day versus those who write in spurts or blocks. Those that wrote every day and held themselves accountable to someone weekly wrote almost ten times as much over the course of a year and produced more creative ideas than those who wrote in spurts. This is based on the Clockwork Muse idea - that if you write on a regular basis, your muse will show up whenever you sit down to write. I certainly know from experience that writing every day was essential to finishing my dissertation (and getting it started really for that matter).
Yet, here I was, on December 21st, computerless, apparently unable to touch a computer, considering taking two full weeks off of everything – including writing (after all it was potentially the end of the world so it seemed like a good idea to at least take the day off). Of course, despite advocating writing every day, Golash-Boza says that you need to take time off (at minimum four days at a time), and that you should take that time fully off when you do. However, she is an academic, not a fiction writer, and didn’t get the memo that fiction writers must write every single day that they breathe – including holidays.
Aimee Bender considers this problem from a different angle. She advocates establishing a writing contract in which one writes every day, but only for a certain amount of time (two hours), with scheduled vacations and even, for some people, weekends off. For Bender, and some of her colleagues, this takes the fraughtness and guilt out of the writing schedule. You simply show up, do your allotted time, and then move on. Even when she is on a roll, she does not generally continue writing beyond her allotted time. Bender observed,
“I figure that if I'm on a roll, it's partially because I know I'm about to stop. I believe Hemingway's great advice, about leaving the work when the going's good so that there's excitement when the writer sits down the next day. Plus, if I start modifying the rules, the whole system begins to erode, and with erosion comes the fast return of dread and guilt. The integrity of the system itself is actually more important to me than the daily content, because content will return, and it mostly needs a reliable container in which to put itself.”
One of her friends further observed, "I can actually enjoy the weekend now... Because I am not allowed to write on the weekend."
I can see the value in this approach. I feel guilty when I am writing, because I should be doing other things, and when I am not writing, because I should be writing. Perhaps a contract would alleviate some of this guilt. Of course knowing me, I would probably be tempted to include weekends in my contract and double book myself.
So how did I resolve my holiday dilemma? For seven days I went to parties, skied, slept, Christmas-shopped and read books. I didn’t even think about my current WIPs, imagine scenes or dream about the characters (well okay, except for one particularly attractive one). On day eight or nine, I felt compelled to edit two chapters of my first novel. I did more work on day ten and eleven and then took four more days off. I will return to work and writing tomorrow feeling not quite refreshed (there was perhaps too much celebrating and tree skiing for that), but more focused on my priorities and a bit more relaxed.
I still believe in writing every day, or almost every day, but even writers need holidays of some sort.
Photo Credit: Claudio.Ar via Compfight http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/