Thursday, March 11, 2010

Go Make a Cup of Tea: The Art of Taking a Break from Writing

It is hard to stop writing when you are focused on a project.  Given the way my mind works, I am almost always very focused.  Once I get started, I don't want to stop.  I don't want to eat, get the mail, and I certainly don't want to sleep.  I've had terrible insomnia since I was a kid; I have never wanted to stop doing.  When things are clicking, when the words are flowing and you are in the zone, anything that takes you away feels like intrusion, punishment, torture, or all three.

All of this usually translates into an inability to leave work at work, so to speak.  Given I write from home, this makes it even harder.  It's a mixed blessing, working at home.  I can sit down any time I like and write, following the lead of my muse and inspiration.  But it also means it can be a challenge to set boundaries about your writing schedule and then keep them.  If getting a cup of tea is a challenge, what about that weekend trip out of town?  That week long cruise vacation?  If it means leaving the laptop behind, I'd probably rather not go at all.  What if I get a great idea on the road?  I'll end up having to write it long hand, and after all this time on the computer I can barely read my own handwriting anymore.  And I just can't write fast enough that way.  No, too frustrating.

And yet we all know perfectly well what burnout feels like.  Even when things are flowing beautifully, burnout is always a possibility.  Too much energy, excitement, and too many ideas.  It starts to become tangled, murky.  Exhausting.  Then drab and lifeless.  And then you think, "I need a break."

I've learned that I do have to take breaks from writing.  Real breaks, where I willfully turn my attention to something else, even if only for ten minutes.  During the day, I do have to get up and move around, even if the ideas are boiling madly in my head.  I'm always afraid I'll lose them, but that actually happens very rarely.  Instead, a break usually helps to put a little distance between me and my own thoughts, and they tend to come out a little smoother.  And as desperately as I love my pet sci-fi universe, I have to leave it now and then, and let it grow and percolate on its own.  Leave it for a day, a weekend, or a couple of weeks.  And every few years, I need to leave it for months at a time.  When I come back to it, I find my characters have done interesting things, that new conflicts and resolutions have been spun between differing civilizations, that new technologies have been developed, and much more.  My universe seems to need some time to itself to do its thing, just like I do.

So taking a break it is an art to me.  Almost like meditation can be an art; the willful turning aside from something either pleasant or painful.  I turn aside from the intense place, and mentally redirect myself somewhere else.  The art is seeing this act of redirection as positive, not an intrusion at all.  Instead to focus on how the redirection is actually another aspect of fuel and growth for the writing.  To see the beauty of the entire process of writing, which includes the stumbling around, the burnout days, and even the breaks. 


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