Fifteen years ago, I made a commitment to pursue my dream of becoming a published author. This commitment was backed by a promise to write every day. The next morning, I woke before sunrise and got started. As the week progressed, I squeezed in time wherever I could. I lived up to my promise for a solid week. Maybe two. And then my commitment began to waver. Daily became biweekly. Biweekly became sporadic. Soon my abandoned writing goal was met with the same self-criticism as an abandoned diet.
Like dieting, my promise to write every day was the first of many goals I would quit and restart over the course of my writing career. For years, I oscillated between the high of setting a new goal and the low of abandoning it, lamenting my lack of discipline every time I entered a period of not writing.
It has taken me three published books and dozens of articles to realize that writing isn’t always writing. Sometimes, the hours I don’t spend at my computer are as valuable as those I do. When I’m not writing, I’m often having experiences that fill my creative engine with the fuel necessary to power the work itself. Without the not writing, my creative engine runs dry.
Once I realized and accepted this truth, I bought myself a coffee mug that says, “I’m not daydreaming, I’m plotting.” I keep this mug next to my computer as a reminder that not writing is OK. It’s more than OK; it’s essential. The world around us is rich with the ingredients we need to tell powerful stories, and sometimes we have to step away from writing to experience it.
Earlier this week, I took a break from writing this post to check out a new Toastmasters group in my area. During the meeting, my eyes settled on a petite woman sitting in front of me. She was wearing a straw fedora with a black bow, a fitted leather jacket, jeans with lace accents, and beige patent leather slingbacks that added an inch to her five-foot frame. Her hair and makeup were carefully styled, her fingernails polished red, and her colorful leather handbag was tucked neatly beside her.
All of these little details told a story about this woman. But then she stood to speak and her words told a different story. She regaled us with a tale about a time she had hunted a wild hog. She’d used the wrong firearm for a running animal, a rifle instead of a shotgun, but thanks to her incredible accuracy she had managed to kill it in one shot. She beamed as she relived the animal’s quick death and the surprise on her fellow hunters’ faces. I felt the surprise on my own face as my mind scrambled to reconcile her lacy jeans and her hunting rifle. As she walked back to her seat, I noticed a canister of pepper spray attached to her belt loop.
That woman has been on my mind all week. Why the pepper spray? Does the hunter feel hunted? What other surprises does she possess? What surprises do we all possess? What do we outwardly project that doesn’t match our interior worlds? How can I recreate that kind of contradiction and surprise in my characters?
As you can see, that hour of not writing provided an experience that tested my assumptions, challenged my worldview, and filled me with questions—all of which is the kind of fuel a creative engine needs to work.
If your writing has lost momentum or you’re feeling stuck, you might benefit from a little time spent not writing. Here are seven ways to write while not writing:
1. Read a book.
For writers, reading a good book can be like seeing a magic trick; we want to know how it works. Take some time to deconstruct one of your favorite books. Highlight sentences that move you and reread key passages until you understand the author’s sleight of hand. Once you do, consider how you can employ similar techniques to elevate your own work.
2. Watch TV.
Yes, I’m suggesting that watching TV might improve your writing. Of course, it depends on how you watch. If you watch passively, without paying attention to the storytelling techniques at work, this activity won’t help you. But if you watch actively and challenge yourself to identify your favorite show’s formula and figure out how (and why) it works, it can build your skills as a writer. Once you understand a show’s formula, compare it to your own writing and consider how your story would change if you implemented a similar formula.
3. Listen to music.
Songs are the ultimate short story. Try listening to a few different songs while reading their lyrics online. Study how the musicians tell their stories. Pay attention to word choice and rhythm. What do you notice? How might these observations translate to your project?
4. Take a field trip.
When we visit a new place, it’s a sensory experience. We hear new sounds, smell new smells, see new sights. That’s because all that newness requires us to be fully present in order to navigate the unfamiliar surroundings. Take some time to travel to a new place, even if it’s just the next town over, to activate your brain and take in the world around you. What captures your attention? What do you feel? How can you use these observations to make your story more compelling?
5. Talk to a stranger.
The world is filled with fascinating people, and some of them probably enter your orbit every day. Next time you’re on an elevator or waiting in line, try striking up a conversation with the person next to you, and see what you learn. I did this the other day and ended up meeting a former monk who’d grown up so poor his mother had to feed him donkey milk so he didn’t starve. You never know when a random conversation might spark a new story idea or be the missing piece to your plot puzzle.
6. Make something.
Spend time with your favorite nonwriting hobby or try a new one. Whether knitting, playing guitar, gardening, or something else, a nonwriting project will challenge your brain to think differently, giving your writing muscles time to rest and recharge. I enjoy painting as a counterbalance to writing because it requires me to tell a story without words, and it presents a different set of challenges. Instead of preparing an outline, I need to consider composition. Instead of word choices, I’m faced with color choices. Sometimes getting unstuck can be as simple as focusing on a different creative challenge.
7. Look up.
For one day, resist the urge to distract yourself with your phone when you’re alone with no one to talk to and nothing to do. Instead, look around. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? When we distract ourselves with our phones, we miss out on so much. Once, while riding on BART in San Francisco, my cousin was playing a game on his phone while he waited for his stop. A few minutes into his journey, he received a text message that said, “Look up.” When he did, he saw his father standing in front of him. What are you missing while you’re looking at your phone? Spend some time looking up, and consider how the nuances of the world around you can make your story world more authentic.
By shifting my mindset and beginning to see not writing as a contribution to my writing process, I have freed myself from guilt and muted the little voice that casts judgement when I go a few days (or weeks) without writing. And when I return to my computer, I don’t feel bad if I haven’t been there in a while. Instead, I feel the excitement of a creative engine that’s fueled up and ready to work.
Is not writing part of your writing process? What activities fuel your creative engine?