The best idea I had for my first book came while I was raking leaves the backyard with my dog and realized that my main character also needed a dog. And then, to the soothing sounds of my rake scratching through the grass while I gathered cottonwood leaves into piles, I worked through the all the ways my character could and couldn’t acquire her new best friend. When I sat down to write, I knew exactly what she would do.
Back then, I had lots of time to think things through. Social media wasn’t a big deal yet. Streaming video wasn’t a thing. My phone only made phone calls. There was much blank headspace to be had. Even when I had a full calendar, I still got stuck in line at the post office, and we did not yet have the technology to tweet about it. My writing time felt like downloading. I’d write eight pages for writing group in a few hours on a Sunday night, because I’d spent all week thinking about it.
But the internet took over. It got too easy to fill downtime. Not just in hedonistic ways. I do most of my research via audiobook when I’m walking or cleaning, and I’m grateful to be able to learn while I’m in motion. But my free thought time has become jam-packed with structured thought. With other people’s thoughts. While I was vaguely aware of this, and somewhat troubled by it in a distant, nagging way, I didn’t realize how much of a problem all the noise was until I started sewing.
I’m writing a character who’s an expert seamstress. I’ve done a little sewing, but not much, and wanted to up my skills so I could write her with more authority. At first, I filled my sewing time with audiobooks. But then I started learning to follow a pattern. It’s a new skill for me. I couldn’t follow a book and a pattern at the same time, so I turned the audiobook off (to save for my walk – it’s a great book). I spent an entire afternoon with my thoughts and pushpins and the whir of the sewing machine. I wasn’t trying to solve anything for my book, I was just spending time engaged in a project, but my thoughts started to feel bigger and clearer. I remembered that I used to view thinking as a pastime. I got comfortable with silence. Book thoughts appeared without effort. I liked it. I sewed the next day too and the next and writing started to feel like downloading again.
I also fell in love with making things. I realized being creative with physical results fills my spirit in a different way. I used to be a maker, but writing took over. It’s rewarding to watch the word count rise, or print out a manuscript and see the stack of words I’ve written. But there’s also something refreshing about directly creating a new physical form, when I mostly traffic in ideas.
Through learning a different craft, I’ve taught myself to reclaim my mind. More importantly, I’ve realized that I need to carve out and protect space for creation that’s free from direct purpose, because it’s important to my writing process, and it’s important to my overall well-being.
What amazes me the most is that I haven’t lost anything. I don’t have less time to enjoy the audiobooks and films and tv shows and social media I love. But I have incentive to be more purposeful about what I consume, because it has to be better than spending time with my thoughts. I’ve lost patience for the empty noise, I only want the good stuff.
Many of the writers I know have hobbies and habits that fuel their writing either directly or indirectly. And, because I love talking to writers about how they tick, I reached out to some friends to ask how their non-writing time fuels their writing.
“I find that being a “flaneur” – defined as a stroller, a passionate wanderer inspired by 19th century French literary culture is what inspires me most. Simply put, I spend time wandering around in a state of wonder. Listening, looking, getting lost on purpose, wasting time. It is an entirely different experience from wasting time online. This morning I walked for 2 hours in a city I am just beginning to get to know. When it stopped raining and the sun came out you could feel the mood of people lift as the sky brightened. My own mood went from reflective to buoyant. Suddenly the world was beautiful. Lovers stopped to kiss, I could smell coffee roasting, bread baking. I heard someone playing the saxophone. I was indulging in the what the Italians call far niente, loosely translated as the fine art of doing nothing.” ~Laura Harrington
“My preferred other art form is painting and visual assemblage. In both cases, collage and erasure are important features of the work. I definitely see my visual art experiments as connected to my poems insofar as in both mediums I am attempting to reframe found objects and given forms, using ostensibly mundane reference points for exploration and–hopefully-transcendence…” ~Tony Leuzzi
“After hours of the intense concentration writing requires, I need to stretch: mentally, physically and creatively. Gardening is the only activity in this world where I can be quiet and calm. Perhaps it’s the earth beneath my knees, maybe it’s the creation of a space I love, or, as is most likely, it’s that I am, in some way, at work. Work stills my anxiety and keeps away my ever-present terrors. Gardening combines works and play, give me colors and dimension. Only when gardening is can I simple be. Without an audiobook, NPR, or even music. Gardening, for mysterious reasons I cannot fathom, simultaneously soothes my soul and feeds my need to spin activity.” ~Randy Susan Meyers
“I love art journaling! What I love most about it is the freedom from “right” and “wrong.” It’s just this free-flowing, messy, abstract art that’s totally private and not subject to anyone else’s judgment. Sometimes, if I’m in a writing funk, I’ll open to a fresh page in my mixed media notebook and start doing some totally wacko decoupage. It helps to clear my head, gets me away from my computer screen, and jump-starts my creativity.” ~Kristin Rockaway
“When the words don’t flow easily, I’ll take a break and cook or bake. The creative channel is different and there’s a reward at the end. I tend to work out my plot issues while I’m in the kitchen. By the time I get back to my project, I can usually move forward. My family likes this about me. A few years back, I took painting classes while I took a break from writing. It saved me creatively. I was able to approach my writing with a new perspective and clarity. We creatives often require other channels to express ourselves. Even before I became a writer, I was always crafty and a good cook.” ~Susan Sands
“I also play the piano. I have a handful of classical pieces memorized from the years I took lessons as a child and I love the way my fingers automatically know what to do, without my having to think at all. Now, if only they would do that when I’m typing…” ~Colleen Oakley
“I dance and figure skate. When I’m on the ice or dancing I have to be fully present in my body. This allows my brain to take a thinking break. Then on my way home from the rink or dance I begin to allow the characters to chat again. The extra blood flow and serotonin rush also helps.” ~Marci Nault
“I’m taking improv classes, which I also did a few years back. This time I’m taking one about building characters. I love it. It’s different than writing, but it makes you learn to trust your “flow” and your subconscious, which carries over into writing. And I’m learning new ways of getting to know characters, such as through physical movement, or voice.” ~Margaret Dilloway
Do you have non-writing hobbies or habits that fuel your writing?