When You Aren’t Writing

I had a few topics in mind to write about, today. But when it came down to it, I had to face the facts: it is time for my February review, and in point of fact, I have written very little on the projects I intended to work on. I had also set out to write 20,000 words this month–a number I highly suspect I did not reach, given the nature of my activities this month.

So what happened?

Life, in part. I have been juggling lesson planning, job searching, trying to get into a new exercise regimen, planning vacation over the next few months, helping to build a sink…

All of this, of course, is hardly an excuse. Real Writers, after all, are supposed to write every day. Real Writers do not take a day off–they make sure one paragraph, one sentence, one word goes down a day. Real Writers plow on, and Real Writers Must Write, or else feel their own sanity begin to slip, and…

Surely, you see where I am going with this.

While the old adage of Real Writers Must Write does hold some truth, the fact of the matter is that writing every day in this busy world isn’t always a feasible goal. First of all, life happens. Things get busy, and that’s all right. Secondly, taking breaks away from the work of putting one word down after another can be just as invigorating as the act of writing itself, and can help to fill up stores of inspiration and endurance. Time away can lend perspective to a piece and it can make you all the more ready to go back and write, tomorrow.

Which brings me to a few tentative truths I’d like to set forward about writing, today, for my February reflection:

First: A Writer must not only write, but do that which is essential to writing.

On one hand, this does mean putting one word down after another, and putting in the time with the old word document or notebook. After all, novels are not finished on dreams alone.

But stories are also not written without ample daydreaming, without time to think about your characters and world, without heart put into the stakes and consequences. Daydreaming is just another way to inspire yourself–and taking the time to daydream and be receptive to your own speculation can give you the energizing boost you may need to propel your story to the next step.

Similarly, you would not run a marathon without resting the night before. Perhaps you have a ritual, envisioning the race going perfectly. Similarly, I rest, and give myself time to imagine how I will tackle my upcoming problems, and how I will focus in for the tasks ahead.

Which is to say: there have been days his month where I have not written, but there has not been a single day that went by where I did not think about writing.

In this last month, I’ve gained some new perspective on my stories, had the time to think new thoughts and ask new questions. When I put my hand to the keyboard, I have approached what I have written with fresh eyes and new vision, and a stronger sense of direction.

These things, I believe, are as much a part of writing as one word after another.

Second: Writing is little more than a dance between stubborn impulses and yielding ones–and a Writer must be receptive to both.

Now, this is different for every person. Some cannot wait to get to the page to write, and they yield to this impulse–but then they must be stubborn with themselves as they slow down enough to revise and reimagine. Some may stubbornly try to write the whole thing in one sitting–but when they reach a scene they do not yet full know, they realize they must yield to their hesitation and rest. Other writers (and I am very much of this variety) will stubbornly stick to daydreams and contemplation, but must eventually yield to the fact that they love this story, and want to see it written–and thereby tackle the page one word at a time.

(The writing-one-word-at-a-time portion can also, in my case, be accompanied by inordinate amounts of stubbornness, of the variety where “I will see this story I love written if it kills me,”–because while not all writers are necessarily hyperbolic, I certainly can be. But I digress.)

No matter how you go about it, the basis is there. A writer has to stubbornly adhere to what will push them forward, but also be kind enough to themselves to yield when things go off track. Sometimes you need more time to think, and that’s okay. Sometimes you have to give into the fact that you have to write, and that’s okay, too.

In a way, it’s about being kind to yourself as a writer. Taking into account your needs, and the story’s needs, and being able to push through or compromise as needed.

Which, in fact, brings me to my next point:

Third: Writers must be able to forgive… most of the time.

I don’t mean, “your latest significant other cheated on you and is begging you to take them back,” kind of thing. If you don’t want to forgive that, then friend, all the more power to you.

No–more what I’m talking about, here, is the ability to forgive yourself.

Did you whitewash one of your own characters in your last draft? Did you deviate from the plot halfway through and make a giant mess of your outline? Did you even finish the novel at all? Heck, have you written at all in the last month?

Listen. We aren’t Writers. We’re writers, and we’re people, too. We are going to make mistakes, and we need to be patient with ourselves. We learn, and we go forward. You now know what was wrong with your last draft. Research and fix your racist stereotypes. Add another female character to help balance out your Smurfette syndrome. Find the places where you wandered and set it back on track. Find that scene that doesn’t need to be there and cut it. Nip, tuck, tweak. Make it work.

On the other hand, if your problems are more in line with “did you finish?” or “did you even write at all?” Then, friend, I’ve got some good news for you.

There’s still tomorrow. What you did not write yesterday, there is today. Please, please do not guilt yourself over what you have not managed to do. You can do it. One word at a time, one word after another. There’s still today, there’s still tomorrow.

It is so easy to beat ourselves up over what we haven’t done. That just means we have more to looking forward to do. Yeah, it kind of bites that I wrote less than 10k this entire month–but there’s nothing I can do about February, now. Onward and onward, as ever! As my novel protagonist would say, onto the next thing.

(You will notice that as a header, I mentioned forgive most of the time. I am not going to cover that today, but I will say that I have found spite to be a great motivator for getting a job done. Nothing like some internal fury about predominantly-male casts in fantasy to propel you through 100k+ words of draft material.

But, again, digressing.)

So to bring this post to a proper close, I want to leave you with some thoughts–some things you can do when you aren’t writing:

  • read a book. Take note of what you like, and what bothers you. Creatively gather for your next writing project.
  • watch a tv show. Again, take note of what works, and what bothers you. If it’s the same genre as what you hope to write, then challenge yourself to think of where you want to deviate. If it’s a different genre, challenge yourself to think about what you could lift and incorporate into your project.
  • try something else that’s artsy. Yoga, dance, sketching, cooking or baking, playing an instrument, singing. At best, you’ll discover something new to incorporate into your story. At absolute worst, you’ll have exercised creative muscles while still taking an important rest from your current project.
  • talk to a friend about your project. Get tips and ideas. See if your own excitement for your project can motivate others towards excitement.
  • live your life. I mean it. Live your life in the day to day. Go to your day job, go to the gym, stare out a window and get bored. Every time you live, you build up experiences that you will be able to fall back on when it comes time to write some visceral details.

This is, of course, a non-exhaustive list. I’d love to hear from you if you have any favorite activities to do, when you “aren’t writing.”

All the best, folks. When next I see you, it will be March, and just over a month until Camp NaNoWriMo. Keep on writing… or not.

Here’s to it!

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