Today’s guest, Kathleen McCleary, is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ladies Home Journal, More, and Good Housekeeping. She has written three novels: House and Home (2008); A Simple Thing (2012), and most recently Leaving Haven (2013). Kathleen has taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University, and she’s an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit that teaches creative writing to kids. She has also worked as a bartender, barista, and bookseller—all great jobs for providing material for fiction. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.
Writers so often hear the advice that there’s nothing like putting your butt in the chair day after day in order to get something done. And that’s true, but it’s not the ONLY truth. The other truth is that creative work requires periods of rest, time during which all those things that simmer beneath the surface can percolate and bubble and burst or ripen. Rest is a necessary part of the creative process, and one we too seldom grant ourselves.
Taking a Break
For the nine years I’ve been writing fiction, I have read (and written) plenty of advice on how to write and complete a novel. But it wasn’t until recently—after finishing my third novel—that I understood something elemental about writing: It’s equally important to not write. At all. For an extended period of time.
Writers take breaks every day—churn characters and situations and obstacles over and over in our brains until we have that moment (typically in the shower or out walking the dog) when what needs to happen next springs into place. That’s the process—put your butt in the chair for so many hours, walk away for a while, and put your butt back in the chair to forge on, the hokey-pokey of creation. But you never leave it for long.
I sold my third book before I wrote it, based on a first chapter and outline. At the time the deadline was more than a year away—very doable. Until my elderly mother moved to town and my “easy” teaching gig turned out to be hard and my kids needed the time and attention kids need. I missed the deadline, but my editor understood. I missed the next deadline, too.
I wrote all the time, and when I wasn’t writing I was thinking about writing. I wrote on vacation—at 5:30 a.m. before my family awoke, huddled on the porch when it rained, on my laptop at the Laundromat. I wrote on the train to New York and the plane to Oregon. I wrote in hotel rooms, in a dorm room during my college reunion, and in coffee shops. Finally, with the deadline looming in my rear view mirror like an out-of-control semi, I wrote every single day in November, through ten days of houseguests and hosting Thanksgiving dinner for thirteen.
I meant it. I had nothing else to say, no characters lurking in my brain, no stories waiting to be told. I picked up more hours teaching. I started to update my resume.
Three months later, I hadn’t written a word. July arrived, and my family and I left for two weeks in the Adirondack Mountains. For the first time in five years, I wasn’t working on a novel while on vacation. Instead, I read six books, devoured four chocolate malts, surprised a heron when I rounded a bend in the creek, fell asleep in the sun, zoomed around the lake in a motorboat, picked wild blueberries, floated, talked to friends, and enjoyed my kids.
To my surprise, my fourth book came to me. Three characters showed up, settled in, let me get to know them. I didn’t write them down, I just witnessed them. The story began to unfold. The setting bloomed. It was like standing barefoot on the beach and feeling the tide come in. When I got home, I started to write. And it was fun.
So this is my new mantra: I will be a better writer. And I will be a better writer by not writing at all for at least part of every year.
Have you ever taken a break from your writing? (Or wanted to but just couldn’t?) What did you do while you didn’t write? What happened after the break?