grey boxes

Frank & Ernest --

Jenna St. Hilaire has written another excellent webpartee in our blogalectic. To those of you who have been following Jenna’s blog, this is Not News. Although it certainly qualifies as Welcome Information.

‘It is very good to have a break from writing,’ Jenna says. The sheer determination needed to complete a novel manuscript—or maintain a blog several days a week—can be self-destructive.

Determination made NaNoWriMo almost easy, and made possible the first revisions by a self-inflicted deadline; of late, it’s been pushing me near burnout on the story.

A little rest from that taskmaster, be it the mildest of hobbity excursions or merely an honest day of rest (I’m still not good about keeping myself out of the book on Sundays), can put great blocks of the writing life back into perspective. Might my work be disliked? Of course it will be—different people need different tales. Might I have a hard time getting published? Even the best do. But that’s all right. Because I have reasons for writing, and those matter more than the difficulties.

All this, as I said, is excellent. But it leaves me in an interesting position. I’m now supposed to write an article about taking breaks from writing.

Taking breaks from writing is great! Really great! You’ll find your writing gets even better and better if you abstain from it every now and again. You might want to consider even taking breaks from your blog every now and then, to let your creativity grow, nourished and protected and free from stress, to flower the more fully hereafter.

Do as I say and not as I do, apparently. What do you do if you can’t stop, like I can’t?

Writing is a way of life. It’s a way of thinking. We can’t really take breaks from being ourselves, at least not without grave epistemological implications. The process of writing can be nearly continuous. Our subconscious—or, worse, our dream consciousness—continues to create, to explore, to develop, to rephrase. It’s like James Thurber said:

I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “he’s writing something.”*

The question is how to balance the quotes in the two grey boxes. On the one hand, we need to not write. On the other, we never quite know when we’re not. How do you rest from something incessant?

I think the apparent confusion is less with the process of the creative mind as with the drudge work of writing itself. We can drain our imaginations to tears if we’re beating on a single plot, set of characters, or paragraph without break. Some of the most helpful breaks I’ve taken from serious writing projects have been starting and successfully completing other, smaller writing projects.

That’s hardly a ‘break’ in the ‘rest’ sense of the work, as the mind and body are engaged in the creative, physical act of writing just the same as usual. But there is still the deliberate disengagement of my waking, working mind that allows the dream consciousness to quietly take over, so that when I return to the original problem I can say, ‘Oh, that’s how it should go.’

There’s another and somewhat separate question of taking a day of rest from whatever your work is, writing or otherwise, both for physical and spiritual refreshment. There are, too, times and seasons when writing can be more or less, when stories can be written or set aside, that touch at different angles the sacred mystery of rest and renewal. There’s also just time to let the physical side collapse in a chair and keep the creative side happy by throwing it an episode of Dr Who, or a rubbishy detective novel.

We never stop being ourselves. We never stop writing—not really. Something in us is always at it, nattering away about style and plot. But sometimes—perhaps more than sometimes—we need to stop, to rest, if only so that we can listen to it.

Excuse me while I go do what I say…

*James Thurber, “The Art of Fiction No. 10,” interview by George Plimpton and Max Steele, The Paris Review 10 (1955). (8 September 2010).


2 thoughts on “grey boxes

  1. Was it Saint-Pol-Roux who would put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door each night when he went to sleep which read THE POET IS WORKING… I think this is mentioned in André Breton’s ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1924).

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