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Losing One’s Marbles

86847631_bd5ec1e4dd_m [1]You’ve all heard the big news: 9 out of 10 dentists agree that the path to publication requires sitting our tush in our writing chair and putting words on the page at least once a day. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when we have writer’s block. Even when we are busy working two other jobs and have a new baby or an untrained puppy or an ill child or aging parent . . . or all of that at once.

I’m no dentist, but I do agree we writers need to develop a habit of regular writing–preferably every day. That said, I also know there are seasons where we must allow ourselves a break, lest we lose our all-important marbles.

Here’s the catch: we need to know why we are taking a break, and it better not be one of these boring old excuses.

Excuse 1: Writing’s just too hard. Yes. It is incredibly difficult to create a solid story out of air and imagination. But it’s not as hard (Cheryl Strayed said [2]) as being a coal miner. Or as hard (I say) as being a corrections officer, a lumberjack or a medieval leech collector. So let us don some big girl/big boy undies and embrace the challenge.

Excuse 2: I keep getting rejected. Fabulous. You are now one of us. I have so many rejections that when a kind soul says (in an attempt to encourage me), Remember how many times Harry Potter got rejected! I consider popping her in the face. Rowling got rejected twelve times. Twelve! I have gotten rejected about ten times that. Here’s the deal: if you get rejected, it means you are putting your work and yourself out there, learning (ideally) from the feedback and the experience. Rejection = Potential for Growth. Plus, if you are an author who never gets any rejection, none of us will like you. We will roll our eyes behind your back and pretend not to buy your book.

Excuse 3: I read what I wrote yesterday, and as it turns out, I am a crummy writer. Pishposh. Everyone is a crummy writer. Everyone hates what he wrote yesterday. With practice and effort and the willingness to seek and receive feedback, we all get better. Get to work.

Excuse 4: I don’t have what it takes. When I was in labor with my son, I realized I didn’t have what it took to be a mom. But it was too late. Much like parenting, being a writer requires on-the-job training. And a willingness to get pooped and spit-up on. But a novel will never leave its athletic cup on the kitchen counter. A novel will never ask you to spend many hours and dollars making a Rainbow Parrot costume that, come Halloween, she refuses to wear. Maybe you have what it takes. Maybe you will have what it takes if you keep working. So keep working.

Excuse 5: I don’t have time. Really? So get up early. Your characters may be at their most interesting in the morning. Conversely, they may be most interesting late at night, or in that 60-minute slot when you usually plant yourself in front of lousy network television. Stop watching stupid TV or surfing Facebook. Set your alarm. Make time.

Excuse 6: It’s too hard to get an agent. Yeah, it is. It’s even harder to get published. But let’s hearken back to life in the coal mines. I’ve never known a writer to die under a collapsed mine-shaft. And your stack of rejections will make us like you a whole lot more than that gal who earned only twelve rejections. Twelve rejections is so lame.

That said, there are valid reasons for break-taking. At least, that’s what I told myself when I took a three-month break from writing this summer. Here were my excuses:

Excuse 1. My mental health issues were punching me in the schnozz. I needed to reduce stress before I was reduced to a lumpish, onion-eyed, hedge-pig. I imagine more than a few of you are familiar with mental illness and the importance of taking good care of yourself when it suckerpunches you.

Excuse 2: School, in case you are unawares, is closed in the summer. In other words, I wasn’t allowed to leave my children there. Furthermore, it occurred to me that my children would start abhorring the mere sight of me in roughly 12-24 months. I needed to spend time with them before they realized they couldn’t stand me.

Excuse 3: A work project (one that paid actual money) landed in my lap. I don’t know about you, but if I want my kids to take violin lessons and wear shoes that fit, I have to take paid work when it comes my way. Paid work trumps unpaid work.

You may say Pishposh! to my excuses, but they were valid in my mind. I wasn’t taking a break to avoid writing. To maintain at least a handful of my marbles, I picked the thing on my list that was least pressing and dropped it. Or rather, I put it on “simmer.” The cool thing? When I returned to my regular writing schedule, I was able to look at my novel–which was more of an word-embryo–with fresh eyes. I could see what was good (not much!) and what should go in my Junkyard.doc file. The distance allowed me to see which genes were missing from the embryo and how I’d give this book a chance at survival.

That said, my writing muscles atrophied over the summer. Where before I could write for a few hours without a break, I suddenly had trouble staying in my writing chair for more than fifteen minutes before I was distracted by something really pressing: My computer screen needs cleaning! Hey, I should French braid my hair! Where is my yearbook from freshman year? Oh! There’s the mail carrier! I must to the mailbox, posthaste!

But I bet ten out of ten dentists recommend good self care. When (not if) we find ourselves in a season where the pressure of daily writing feels as dark and dank as a coal mine, it’s OK to take a breath, take some time, take a hike, take care of our self. Today, 11/12/14, I am only 70% back in shape, stamina-wise. But I didn’t lose my marbles, I earned a few dollars, and my kids and I laughed at least 42 times over the summer.

Your turn: If you find yourself in a not-writing phase, are there legitimate excuses you have discovered, or are all excuses (even mine) just flimsy versions of procrastination? Has a break from writing ever been surprisingly helpful? Or unfortunately harmful? Thank you for sharing with the WU community! I adore you all.


Marbles photo compliments of Flickr’s Eugenio [3].

About Sarah Callender [4]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.