Taking a Break

Photo by Matthew Paulson, Flickr’s Creative Commons Community member

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.

Follow Kathleen on Twitter @KAMcCleary and Facebook, and check out her blog.


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.

16065476I finished the book. Then, of course, my agent asked about the next book. This is my job, after all. And I thought, I don’t want to write another book. I’m done.

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? 


About Kathleen McCleary

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.


  1. says

    I can understand that. And one of the advantages of self-publishing is that you don’t have agent or publisher breathing down your neck and bombarding with questions about what’s next. You can take time to be part of the ‘normal’ world and let the ideas flow naturally.

    • says

      I would like to “like” this comment twice. Once because I choose to self publish and once because I breath down my own back hard enough. I don’t know what I would do if I had someone else breathing down my neck as well.

    • says

      There’s a lot to be said for writing to your own schedule and your own deadlines. I think it’s extremely hard to do creative work on a deadline. Glad the column resonated for you.

  2. says

    I love this post. I try a lot of the advice given but the best advice I ever received was “Try everything, keep what works.” I’ve gone a year or two without writing and that period always ends with an idea almost completely formed. I never call these periods of not writing ‘breaks’ because nothing is broken. Often, it’s that something is brewing. I give over completely to my unconscious mind and I’ve never been disappointed, more likely I am pleasantly surprised.

  3. says

    I love how you describe your rhythm… butt in the chair, then out being in life. I think that as writers, we’re are always ‘on the job’, sifting information thru our filters. I can’t untwist a plot-knot while staring at the screen. I have to walk (okay, maybe I pace) by the river or in the woods. Someone else might need the white noise of Manhattan rush-hour traffic. But the stories are in us. In the most unexpected moments, everything stops and we hear them. I think the trick is to to cultivate the space for those moments to occur. Wonderful post!

  4. says

    I have been on ‘break’ for several weeks now. One morning I awoke and simply felt overwhelmed by life, family illnesses, deadlines, social media, etc. And the death of a dear friend. So I made the conscious decision to back away and to chill out and relax. My break will end soon, but it is what I need at this point in my life. I will return to my first love–writing–and will feel a renewed sense of purpose in all phases of my life.

  5. says

    Oh, yeah, sometimes we just have to walk away. For me, taking time to read, to contemplate, to enjoy, gives me the distance and perspective I need. Eventually the words come, and I can’t do anything but write them.

  6. says

    You are right. There is so much advice out there, it’s overwhelming and as a new writer I wasn’t sure which piece of advice to follow and which to discard. I find the “taking a break” or “taking a time-out” a suggestion well worth listening to. Life gets in the way and the boulder following us down the path sometimes seems a bit too close to our heels. I want to have a happy mind when I’m starting a book and sometimes that means stepping away from the writing chair and forgetting all the should’s and such and listening to my own advice. Time away from thinking about my writing usually gives me a yearning for it that, when it arrives, tells me it’s time to get back to it.
    Thanks for this Sunday opening to my day.

  7. says

    *sinister laugh* You can’t escape the story. It will find you. It will devour your mind. Take a break if you must. Breathe. Relax. But if you try to leave. It will haunt you, hunt you, and find you. *sinister laugh*

    I take breaks from writing, but not from the stories. I see them everywhere. I see them in books, audiobook, movies, plays, songs, home, work, FRICKIN grocery stores, RAHH IN PUBLIC RESTROOMS FOR THE GODS SAKE.

    The crazy thing is I never see them in my dreams. Bah, go figure.

    Writer’s Unboxed is the perfect place to hang out when I’m not writing. I haven’t gone to the extreme of Kathleen, but I don’t have any dead lines either. I probably don’t write enough to go through the Kathleen syndrome. I might experience it after my youngest son graduates from high school four years from now.

  8. says

    Crap, I forgot. I thank you Kathleen. Your post was thought provoking and very necessary. It has the feeling of conflict, hope and triumph, like a story.

  9. says

    This is great advice! I have found myself being forced to take a break from writing due to family issues and a lack of interest. I called it “burnt out”.
    I still have ideas, but they seem blah and uninteresting. I have a novel and a couple of short stories in different stages of editing, which I have no interest in doing either.
    I feel guilty that I am not doing my job of writing. However, everyone needs a vacation, right?
    Besides, I think my house needs some attention to detail. You know, laundry and dishes and stuff… LOL
    I may even take some time to, I don’t know, play or something… :-D

  10. says

    Yes, writers need to take a break occasionally and renew themselves. I found myself avoiding writing for several weeks last year, and then I was hit with not one but three stories that had to be written. It’s been hectic, but I do believe that as a writer I come to a point where my unconscious wants time to “think” and deepen the story. All I can do is wait. I can try to write but I find that I edit out most of what I write doing those moments of forcing the work.

  11. says

    Thanks for a great post. I’m taking a break right now.
    Sad to say it’s not your kind of break, which makes so much sense. This is just one of those everyday breaks when you get stuck…the kind where you are easily distracted from your writing by the Sunday newspaper or a horn honking outside or a chocolate eclair beckoning from the kitchen. Or the Internet…where I found your post.
    Thanks for your wisdom. Back to work now.

  12. says

    This resonates so hard with me. Some people have been assuming I must be “blocked” because I’m not writing at the moment, but I’m a binge writer, and I write when it’s time for me to do that. In the meantime I’m writing other things, but not really working on any fiction. Very recently I’ve jumped into a couple short stories, because it’s manageable, but I’m having trouble imagining that I could be comfortable working on another novel while also in this emotionally exhausting period of my life. (I’m on submission to publishers. Waiting is tough.)

    I’m very tired of the message that we’re broken or unproductive if we aren’t writing all the time. And I won’t accept it. :)

  13. mrkoczwa says

    You mentioned letting your characters settle in. I find this to be one of the most important steps in the creative process. You have to let it sink in. Allow it to grow, change, or even leave. This helps you form better characters and ideas.

  14. says

    Thanks, Kathleen, for putting the writer’s life in context.

    Everything we write–no matter how different from our experience it may seem–comes from what we’ve lived. So the writing depends on our having lived, and we need great doses of living to keep seeing and feeling ourselves, our characters and the conundrums of life.

    And we need rest, because it’s exhausting work. “Resting” provides both fodder and rest.

    Which means we creative people are at pains to prove we are never not working. (Funny, because others doubt we ever are!)

  15. says

    I really needed this thoughtful post and all the wonderful comments in order to get over the guilt of taking a break. I was at a huge family gathering yesterday and so many people asked me how the writing was going. I stumbled over my words and gave lame answers that I swear made everyone’s eyes glaze over. Why couldn’t I have just said I was taking a break? Answer: I felt guilty and I was too burnt out to find the right words.

    Thanks for the terrific insights, I’m going for a walk now:)

  16. says

    I quit writing for three years but it actually turned out to be a break as I got this idea of writing a book about writing a novel under the tutelage of John Grisham. The book is being published in February along with the novel I wrote with him. So in my case it certainly paid off for me to take a break.

  17. Terry White says

    Thanks for easing the guilt I feel when my fingers are idle. If I listen closely when my fingers are quiet, I hear what must be said.

  18. says

    My first book came out in 2011, and I have every expectation of having the next one completed in 2012, getting to market in 2013.
    I took a longer break than intended. Promoting the book wore me out. Mentally, I was drained. Now it’s the end of 2013 and my book is not quite finished–I’m doing the 2nd edit and changing it to the Christian series. My goal to have it done by end of October will not be met, but hopefully only by one week.
    I’m curious to see how well this book will do.