5 Things I Discovered from a Taking a Month Off from Writing

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?

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Comment by Nina Newton on December 27, 2016 at 6:38am

Good morning Brooke - thank you for sharing your observations, and for offering encouragement to your fellow writers during times of discouragement. Although my political persuasion is a bit different from yours (and perhaps many other members of this community) I trust that we can all understand the toll that is taken on our ability to function on a day-to-day basis when we are discouraged. I appreciate being part of a community that appreciates diversity and values all opinions, so that we can learn from one another. Your words of wisdom are truly a blessing to many here who get up every day and just do what they know they are called to do.

Comment by Dhana Musil on December 22, 2016 at 1:47am

You know Brooke, barely a day goes by when I don't wonder how you keep all your balls in the air. Your clients, your courses, your articles and blog posts. Your shipping of books and teaching of conferences. Your writing books and booking venues for conferences. Your arranging readings and your own mental health. I get that the election got you down, it's done that for so many people. But maybe like Linda Joy said, you needed some down time. I don't know you well, but I have a feeling you may be a perfectionist, or close to one. In any case your are fiercely driven, and I take strength and encouragement from your drive. But even someone as prolific as you needs moments of quiet. I  hope your were reading Nepo during your month hiatus--funny, I was just working on a chapter about being at a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Kyoto and how I got busted for writing in my journal when that was against the rules. But heck, once a writer always a writer. Right? I wish you a peaceful holiday downtime with your family. Blessings to you all.

Comment by Michelle Cox on December 21, 2016 at 12:05pm

Hang in there, Brooke!

Comment by RYCJ on December 20, 2016 at 9:11pm

Really appreciate the vent...it's so relatable. I've taken a break from writing, but don't miss it as much as I thought I would. 

Comment by Jennifer Nelson on December 20, 2016 at 7:13pm

Thanks for sharing this with the public. I feel better on the days I write, so I continue to do it. It might only be for a few minutes, but it often makes the difference between a good night's sleep and feeling restless. Yet I've taken breaks from writing for various reasons, so I completely understand doing this. Take care of yourself--and keep writing blogs. I'd miss reading them. 

Comment by Vivienne Diane Neal on December 20, 2016 at 4:37pm

What a great post. I have taken a break from writing fiction, but I still write articles for my blog and other sites. You deserve to take a respite from writing in order to look back at what you have accomplished, and when the time comes, refuel yourself for future articles and story ideas.

Comment by Terry Crawford Palardy on December 20, 2016 at 3:00pm

Yes, and for too long. I do write every day - at Facebook, at my blog, and too often in my checkbook. I used to write in a spiral journal, with a pen. I used to write poetry, essays, narrations, commentary, book reviews. My writing has been impacted by cognitive issues that accompany MS. I'm half-way through the second installment in my mystery series, and find I am getting bogged down with my characters facing medical interruptions in their octogenarian lifestyle.It's not where I wanted to go, but it is where my keyboard is taking me. It's been two years since I self-published their first installment. I want to get back to them, and to the original storyline I'd planned for them. They are, as I intended, a future look at who I believe might be Rick and I, in fifteen years ...

I'm finding it hard to separate what I'd like life to be like for us from what it looks like life might be for us.

I am also concerned with what our present day president elect may bring to our lives, and not wanting to bring any of that into the story. Unlike you, Brooke, I cannot say that is what interrupted my writing ... I stopped long before he entered the political scene, but my aversion to all that he seems to stand for is not helping. My characters are living their happily ever after in spite of the infirmities of age, and a great deal of their happiness comes from the small community in which they live, and the kindnesses their neighbors offer. I want to get back to the story ... I need to tell a positive story to this present day world of anger, hatred and fear. I have to 'tell it right.' I don't want it to be a fantasy ... I want goodness in people to be real.

Comment by Brooke Warner on December 20, 2016 at 2:45pm

Thanks for all your kind words, insights, and encouragement. It's so helpful. I know how important downtime is, and yet there's so much about our culture that discourages it! Apparently a knock-out was needed. I too appreciate this sentiment about the dry spell, Mary Beth. Thank you.

Comment by Kathryn Meyer Griffith on December 20, 2016 at 2:27pm

Mary Beth, that thought was so beautiful: "So I don't get too anxious when I have a "dry" spell. It's not dry; it's just that the river has gone underground for awhile..." And sooo true.

I, too, pray that 4 years after my brother's death I will feel as you feel. For me, a year after my brother's passing it is getting better. My Christmas Magic 1959 short story was written for my brother.

Comment by Linda Joy Myers on December 20, 2016 at 2:24pm

Writing comes from the well of Self within, and if we are depleted or suffering, it's harder to reach in there. Sometimes we feel there is no "there" there. But as a therapist and writer who has worked with writing and healing for many years, I propose that we can't produce and move outward all the time. If we are depressed for a while, it does not necessarily mean we are ill, though our culture urges us to get happy and upbeat immediately. It means we need to be quiet, to go within, to rest. To recover, whatever that means. As a memoir writer, of course there were many times when I couldn't write, but I was working on something deep down at the time, even if I didn't realize it then. We need silence and the absence of words sometimes.

Last year, when I realized that 85,000 words of a draft of my memoir did not have the voice I wanted, I decided to stop writing and go silent. I spent about a month not writing, not much anyway, and certainly I stopped what I call "production writing." I fiddled with a journal, but mostly I rested my mind. I read poetry. I spent a lot of time in silence cultivating inner listening but trying to stay away from words or the urge to capture them. After a while, the voice I wanted showed up kind of magically in my head, and I began to write again. In about 9 months, I finished my memoir Song of the Plains. I'm glad that I was able to realize that I needed silence before I could find my way back to words.

I think, Brooke, that you needed a rest. Yes, there was trauma, and there is most likely also a deep healing process going on, and it needs quiet. I hope you enjoy your holidays and find some space to just dream.

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