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: [Read more…]