For the past five years I’ve kept a rigorous writing schedule. I’ve written or co-authored four books and one e-book. I’ve blogged religiously every other week, plus written countless guest posts and, for the last year, a monthly column. In my most recent book, I wrote about how to be what I call a “content monster,” knowing from firsthand experience exactly what it takes to be one. First and foremost, it means never taking a week off, let alone a month. So what happened?
Like a lot of people I know, I indulged Obsession in the long months leading up to the election. I let myself get fully sucked in and felt hard hit by the results (and yes, I acknowledge that I live in the bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area). Since election night, Obsession gave way to Despair. Never having been prone to depression, I didn’t recognize what was happening at first. But I’ve been sick more days than not in the past month, and sad and sullen more often than happy or upbeat. So it struck me when a good friend, who’s a therapist, told me that I have all the symptoms of someone dealing with trauma.
Since most of my job, and by extension my writing, is focused on encouraging—sometimes in a gentle pushing kind of way—writers to meet deadlines, write more, and generally be more prolific, it’s been interesting to come to a full stop, without being able to rely on the usual methods I use to rally myself to write. And I’ve discovered a few things in the process.
1. When you don’t show up, no one notices you’re gone. This sounds a little downbeat , I know. But no one’s been asking where my blog posts have been this month. We live in a culture where everyone is producing more content than you, and faster. This is why it’s so important to cultivate internal validation. When you don’t write, there’s plenty more to absorb your readers’ attention. The takeaway for me is to find ways to keep up without losing your passion. If you want to be noticed, you have to keep showing up.
2. Accountability works. This is the antidote to no one noticing you haven’t shown up. If I’d reached out to someone to be my accountability partner, it’s very likely I would have written in the past month. When I used to go to the gym, I always had a gym buddy, because I needed to know someone was going to be there to miss me. It was a way of guilting myself into going, too. Writing is the same way for a lot of us. If you’re relating to this whole not being able to write thing, find yourself a buddy, someone who simply agrees to receive your writing, and who will drop you a line when you don’t.
3. Emotional health is not separate from physical well-being. I already knew this, of course. I work with memoirists, and my students often get sick while writing their memoirs. Memoir writing stirs up all kinds of shit, and sometimes it knocks writers flat on their backs. I’ve been knocked down due to outside circumstances, but the results are the same, and there’s no creative magic that can persuade a wrecked body that it’s a good time to go hang out at the keyboard. When life demands you come to a full stop, you have to listen.
4. Despair begets despair. I mentioned that I indulged Obsession and Despair. I admit it, I did. I went against all the best advice out there. I took my iPhone to bed. I read the New York Times and other political blogs every night right before falling asleep. I read and engaged everyone’s posts on social media. I sought out the worst news possible. I didn’t listen when my partner asked if we could turn off the debates, even though I was the one who’d complained that adrenaline was coursing through my body and giving me an anxiety attack. Our bodies can quit on us, yes, but our conscious actions play a role here too. I didn’t support my mental health, and by extension I didn’t support my writing practice.
5. I am a writer. This is a big revelation. When people ask me if I write, I often say, “Well, yes, I write about writing.” And I do. But I always qualify my statement. This is something I’d get all over my students, coaching clients, and She Writes Press authors about. In fact, I’m practically militant that people own their writing!! Being gone for a month I realized that I missed writing every day. I thought about it a lot, and felt guilty and sad and lonely without my practice. Time away has given me this gift of perspective, and I'm very grateful for that.
What about you? Have you taken breaks from writing? What was it like and what did you discover?