Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What Recharges Writing?



Probably unrelated?
I’ve been wondering a lot lately about how to recharge writing. There are some people who never seem to stop – Stephen King infamously told the public he took three days off a year, only to reveal he’d lied and that he wrote on those days too. At Viable Paradise I was awed at how Elizabeth Bear could hit her laptop in-between lectures, critique manuscripts while jogging, and always seem to maintain writing progress even in crowded rooms of people who wanted her attention. She reported something like 200,000 paid words last year. From afar, King and Bear seem like model authors.

Update: Bear responded on Twitter that she takes breaks all the time.

I’m not like them. Based on an informal survey of professional authors I’ve been conducting, most aren’t like them. Most who would disclose their beliefs believe in significant periods of recharge, whether it’s a day or weekend off, or a few weeks or months after finishing a novel. More authors wouldn’t disclose or couldn’t come close to pinning down their processes.

Vacations don’t help me very much. In recent years I’ve kept data on myself around when I take breaks from composition and editing, and there’s very little correlation between a break and output at resumption or upon starting something new. While my recent novel-writing campaign started amazingly, it was one of seven projects I took significant breaks between in a three-month period, and was one of only two that seemed to jump out of the gate. The others ran on will power and routine until I could build up the steam.

Perhaps more importantly, I notice I don’t feel mentally refreshed upon returning to work. Most recently I was derailed from my novel by bronchitis, and then had to leave home for travel. As awful as bronchitis was, I was relieved to stop work because of anxiety about whether I was executing the novel correctly. After weeks off, I resumed yesterday and felt absolutely as incapable of getting it right as I did before. This morning I awoke feeling like I had nothing left inside of me, which is disturbing for a living being to believe.

It wasn’t until I helped a mother in a check-out line that the feeling changed. A joke fell out of me, and she laughed, and seemed a little relieved despite the child kicking her hip. It was as though giving someone that little relief temporarily validated me, and I felt like if I had a keyboard right then, the clouds would part.

This isn’t a whining session. It’s an invitation to you, friends, fellow readers and writers.

What do you do to recharge?

We know that it’s something taxing, partially on the body and partially on the mind. It’s something that everyone needs to pause from, and walk away from for the day. It may be that everyone has a different recharge cycle, or a different set of recharge cycles – surely some full-timers take the occasional afternoon off while also taking periodic vacations, while others are more idiosyncratic. That leads us to question what we do in those periods that restores us.

I’ve tried both avoiding reading anything and reading a great deal, and within the latter, reading narrowly and broadly. None of the above seems to change things. Do you read to recharge? If so, what? Is it research? Is your reading compartmentalized?

Many of my breaks have been around my home. If you know my health, then you can figure that I don’t travel often. Yet when I do travel, returning home doesn’t seem to have changed anything, whether I departed for family emergencies or to hang out with friends. Do breaks work on you? What is it about them?

There are authors who juggle 8- and 12-hour jobs and write in excavated free time. There are authors who are full time parents and still hit the keyboard every day of the week. Is there a shorter recharge cycle there? Do the Kings and Bears of the world recharge primarily in shorter runs, in breaks to jog or have dinner with family? If so, how do those refresh cycles operate?

A few questions for you. Perhaps too many. Feel free to drop any answers you have, even the partial ones. Most of the writers I’ve talked to about it seem to live on partial answers.

21 comments:

  1. How do I recharge? When I figure it out a way to do that, I'll let you know.

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    1. Please do, Tony. It's something we all need to pay attention to.

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  2. For me, it's housecleaning. Which is weird, because I hate housecleaning, but as near add I can figure it's because:

    * if I'm on a roll with writing, I don't clean as often
    * it's physical but mostly brainless work. What little brain work is required is strategic, ie: if I run the washing machine now I can run the dish washer while the sheets are in the dryer. Sure there's a routine, but there's always variables.

    John Gardiner mentioned housecleaning, or even just folding laundry, can help work off "I can't write" anxiety.

    The other thing I do is take a walk, but the weather in my area has been making that difficult of late.

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    1. Gardener was a fountain of good insight. My dread of late is that no activity, including cleaning the bathroom and doing the laundry, seems to trigger the recharge time. Do you feel yourself recharging as you engage in other activities, or is it largely unconscious? I presume the latter, but wanted to ask.

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  3. I'm still working on this, but I find that taking weekends off and writing slower helps both physically and for mental space. I also avoid writing close to bed time or my mind will keep spinning too fast for me to sleep. The mind needs time to wander, and the subconcious sometimes likes to take its time. Maybe it's not so much refreshers that I need, as a writing schedule that's sustainable/healthy long term.

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  4. I do something like what TS Bazelli says above. I write at a comfortable pace (which varies depending on what I'm working on), take weekends off, only spend a couple hours a day actually writing. I read (fiction, non-fiction, research material), play video games or watch them being played, go to the pub, exercise.

    Basically, I don't let writing take over my life.

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    1. This approach is very interesting to me and seems entirely valid. I particularly like that you seem to have some structure to reinforce accountability without applying so much that you overtax yourself. Does this cause you to generally feel able whenever you do write? Possibly indicating you are seldom in desperate need of a charge resulting from your method?

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  5. I couldn't write every day. It's draining.
    Playing my guitar recharges me. I'm inspired by music and my imagination tends to roam at that time.

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  6. I don't know what to tell you. I rarely have enough time to really get into my writing for longer sessions, so when I do its a treat. I used to write for hours, but I had to stop because physically it created pain issues. Now I just do what I can, when I can.

    However,I can say when I'm stressed that taking a break helps, usually immersing myself in a good story through book or screen.

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  7. I work full time Monday through Friday at a pretty brain intensive job that I like a great deal. I write almost exclusively on the weekends. What I've found is that I need to take a full day off about every two weeks. In other words, I can write on Saturday and Sunday one weekend, but need a day off the following weekend. Taking a full weekend off actually seems to slow me down as it's been too long since I connected with my writing and it's scarier to start.

    By a day off, I mean a day with no "work work" and no writing and ideally a few hours to do something satisfying in another way, which for me is usually playing with fiber or clothing.

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  8. PS: re Bear and writing and breaks: She has a tag in her livejournal dedicated to post-novel ennui.

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    1. That tag is supremely handy! Going to leave it open as a tab for a few days, I think.

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  9. I am in awe at all writers. And suspect that their recharge needs and methods are as idiosyncratic as they are.
    I recharge in the garden, or at least outside. Or doing voluntary work which gives me life (me?) some meaning. Or comfort reading - which I know you don't do.
    If it works - do it.
    And thank you, and all the other writers too, for the hard yards you put in. I am more than appreciative.

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  10. I've got a diary I've been working on since 2007. So far I'm at only around 320,000 words, some 450 pages. If you could read it, you'd know it's better than King or Bear. I wouldn't sweat it too much.

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    1. Is this your Mary Sue insertion into Proust?

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  11. I don't know how I recharge. I do know I can't write every day. A really good writing day is always followed by a day of nothing. I just feel draining and uncreative. The most I can do is take advantage of the good days when they happen and knit on the other days. Although, now that I mention knitting, that is something that helps me. It's very stress relieving and since I can't write while stressed, it's a good way to get myself in the mood. Maybe that's my recharge.

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  12. I struggle with this too. There seems to be a law of diminishing returns in play, the harder you push yourself the less you get done, which can be quite demoralising. I find I'm most active when I'm engaged with other writers in some way, whether it's talking over ideas or critiquing stuff, but even that has its ups and downs. No answers for you I'm afraid, but you certainly aren't alone.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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  13. This is an interesting thread you've started. For me, it's a whole host of things. Often I'm frustrated if I don't write for a day or two. Having said that, when I feel burnt out I find running or walking helps. Or seeing friends and eating good food. Most of the time though I find the writing nourishes me so long as I don't push it too much.

    It's a bit like exercise. If I do a little bit but often all is well but if I push it, then I'll pay the next day.

    One last thing. I've noticed that when I'm really struggling to write and there's nothing in me, it's not always because there's nothing in me. It's actually an instinct telling me that something isn't right with the story or that I need to do more research. I find that a good chat (normally with Emma) which roots out the problem is what I really need, rather than a break.

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  14. I have to find peace to recharge. Sometimes that's found on a road trip with my family or on a 30-minute walk by myself or 20 minutes of silence at Starbucks or 10 minutes meditating. Sometimes through reading something for fun--not historical, not research--just entertaining, like watching back-to-back episodes of Modern Family.

    Because I work full time and have a teenager (which makes me chauffeur to the masses) and Carlos's mom lives with us and he has a grandson, I get very little quiet time. I try to write as often as I can in the quiet time I squirrel away, but sometimes I just need to sit somewhere, anywhere, empty my head and absorb the peace.

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  15. Well I use to write a lot more than I do now, I turned out stuff for my website every other day, now I stick to maybe a writing goal of two things a week. I found not pressuring myself to keep producing has helped me a lot. A go for a walk most days and if I don't feel like writing I don't. These tiny breaks seem to do it for me, at least for now. Although I have given away the idea of publishing another book for a long while. ^_^

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  16. I have no idea. Sometimes it's reading, sometimes going for long walks helps. Of late nothing seems to help. *shrugs*

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