Occasionally you’ll see advice out there that writers have to keep to a schedule, have to write X words a day, have to write every single day because that’s what it means to be a writer. That’s what writers do. You’re always supposed to power through, always keep moving, always push push push.
I’m sure this works for some writers. I am not one of them.
Not only do I simply not have time to write every day, I wouldn’t even if I could. I can’t write every day. I can barely write two days in a row.
Writing is tiring, it’s hard, and it’s easy to get burned out. After full a day of writing I feel physically and emotionally drained. It takes immense concentration. Coming up with new ideas is hard work. And blocking out all distractions takes willpower.
But it’s not just that. I need time to be distracted.
Distractions, the good kind, can come in many forms. They can be a friend who calls spontaneously one afternoon, a walk through the park that beautiful weather demands, a trip to a museum, or just a day doing absolutely nothing.
Sometimes you need to recharge. Sometimes you need to be inspired. Sometimes you need to just let yourself experience life.
I feel like as a writer it’s so important to listen to yourself. Don’t listen to the lazy you, the one who never wants to get anything done. But do listen to the Writer inside you (capital ‘W’), who writes because life is so interesting and amazing.
You can’t write if you don’t live. You can’t write good books if you’re a writing machine who doesn’t take time to live life fully outside of your work.
Some of the best inspiration comes precisely while you’re distracted, while you’re actively not thinking about writing and just noticing life.
Let yourself be distracted. It can be your most productive time.
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BL Bonita says
Great post, Nathan! I'm doing just that today–getting distracted by everything BUT writing, and enjoying the freedom. I'll worry about hitting the keyboard tomorrow. 🙂
Absolutely true! I couldn't agree more.
Terrific post. Thank you.
On the topic of taking breaks and resting, I'm sorry I gave you such a hard time last week. Please take care of yourself, even if that means moving to a m,w,f schedule or vacations. It's important!
Other Lisa says
@alana, super-interesting notion, and one with which I agree.
I do best when I write regularly, nearly every day, but for a couple of hours a day. I'm happy if I write 500 word. Sometimes I can do better (if I'm in a groove, I have multiple writing sessions), other times I struggle to write a few sentences. I also have projects (generally editing) when I am just powering through all day to the exclusion of much of anything else.
That said, I depend on having creative fuel. In other words, an actual life that includes interesting experiences and plenty of time for reflection.
Now, back to work.
Cathy @ Abnormally Paranormal Reviews says
I completely agree with this. Just the other day I decided to re-watch The Lord of the Rings since I hadn't seen it for a few years, and what happens? I get one of the most amazing ideas to add to a story I came up with a year ago. It was lacking in one very important area, and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't fix it. Interesting that just watching a popular movie suddenly help me do that!
I write most days, even if it's only 200 words, it keeps the creative juices flowing. The rest of the time I just sit back and ponder!!!
Matthew C Wood says
I agree entirely! Just like you I find my best ideas come to me when I'm not necessarily thinking about my work. Long walks in the sunshine have, traditionally, been the best source of good inspiration – as have long trips on the train or in the car.
Plus I simply can't write about a place unless I've seen it.
Life is too full of amazing things to tease our creative minds to shut it all out. Besides, how in God's name can you claim to create realistic characters and environs if you never experience them?
Anne R. Allen says
What a wonderful post. Couldn't agree more. And most long-time professional writers I know say the same thing.
Creativity guru Julia Cameron calls it "filling the well." You can't keep taking out if you don't put stuff back in–stuff like love, joy, grief, anger, and staring stupidly at the clouds thinking nothing in particular. All the stuff that happens when you're away from the computer.
And I emphatically add blogging to that. Blogging every day empties the well way too fast. Blog slow. (Or smart, like Nathan did yesterday 🙂
J. T. Shea says
My thoughts on distractions are…oh, look! A passing cloud! Distractions are…nice looking woman passing…back to distractions, which are…a car…another car…another woman…another cloud…must close the blind…distractions are…nice-looking blind…but regarding distractions…what's that tune again? What was the subject again? Oh, distractions.
Sorry, Nathan. I'll give you my thoughts on distractions after I rearrange my sock drawer. Again.
Thank you. Although I rarely write anything of substance many days in a row, I'm always thinking about writing in some form or another. Even if I'm just living life.
J. T. Shea says
Anonymous 8:25 am, of course we can all promote ourselves on the comment thread! I hereby promote myself to Supreme Lord High Master of the Known and Unknown Universe, First Class, with Oak Leaves!
Chris Phillips says
This post went in a totally different direction that I thought from reading the title. I suppose you're right so long as distractions you mean socializing and being outside of your home rather than on the interwebz.
Dawn Pier says
Yes, yes and Yes!! I knew, somewhere deep in the writerly recesses of my being that this was so. I keep track of my productivity and it is up down up down down down down and then I take a break and the next day, whammo UP UP UP! I too am someone who needs to get away from it for a day or two to recharge. Thank you for giving voice to what my intuition has been telling me these lOOOONG months of trying to write every day.
Alana Roberts says
All hail, J.T.!
In related news I hereby promote myself to the post of Great Defendrix of Beauty and Truth Throughout the Realm, which realm is comprised of pretty much the same territory aforementioned, plus a number of Imaginary Places. No Oak Leaves for me, please – I insist on at least a one-piece bathing suit, preferably with attached shorts.
Amen, Nathan! I've always said the same, but who am I. 😉
By the way, my son and I are about halfway through your book and we're really enjoying it.
Must be nice to be rich. If you have a contract for a book a year– which is about the only way to make a living from writing fiction – you'd better be gluing your bum to the chair and getting those hours in.
Kristin Laughtin says
YES YES YES. No matter what genre the book is, writers write about life. It's impossible to do so without taking breaks to live life, gather inspiration, work through problems, and rest. You might be able to crank out a few books if you glue yourself to the chair and do nothing but write, but eventually they will become stale because you're not out there living.
@Anonymous 4:17: I don't have a contract (because I haven't tried yet), usually write a pretty long book per year anyway, and still find plenty of time to do other things. It takes dedication, but not slavery to the chair and computer.
I am so with you here, Nathan! I always have marched to my own drummer in this area– I write when I can make the time and when it feels right to me– which is pretty often, but certainly not everyday. I think it's important to listen to yourself and take your own writer's pulse… if I'm in a great space for writing three or four times a week, I'd rather put all of myself into that time than force myself everyday– and yes, great ideas come in the relaxed in-between times. Enjoying the process is super important and you can't do that unless the writing is integrated healthily and joyfully into your life.
Becky Mushko says
Most of mye story development—writing—takes place in my mind. I can be anywhere for that to happen. Plus, I have to mull over the idea, re-think, etc., before I sit down at the computer.
To sit and star at the computer screen while waiting for a BIG IDEA is a monumental waste of time for me. Anything you're doing other than sitting in front of the computer screen typing as fast as you can before the idea is gone is research.
The saying "life is what happens to you while you are doing something else" also applies to writing.
Sa. Swaro. says
Totally agreed! There are distractions, then there are distractions… the big ones are the good ones. I write in spurts, not in measured daily doses, and I always welcome the big distractions (though not while I'm IN THE MIDDLE OF WRITING … that just throws me off!).
I just wish I could find a better way to deal with the little distractions – like Facebook, ha ha… or the entire Internet.
Neil Larkins says
Thanks for this, Nathan. Relieved a lot of pressure. For years there have been "suggestions" and "helps" for the writer. I remember hearing about one years ago, long, long before I got into writing. It was from a writer himself, a columnist I believe who is quite possibly passed on. Sorry I can't remember his name, but I remember what he wrote, or at least think it went like this: The guy said that often his best ideas came in the middle of the night but by morning he had forgotten them. They were great ideas, he was sure and it was making him crazy that he couldn't remember what they were. Then, he heard or read a suggestion to keep a pad of paper and a pencil by the bed. That way, if he had a dream or an inspiration, all he had to do was jot it down and the next morning it would be there for him to read. Well, he did just that and that very night had a revelation. He woke up just enough to write it down and went back to sleep. When he awoke he remembered that he'd had a thought and also recalled he'd written it down. Thinking it must be brilliant, he grabbed the pad and read, "Women are monogamous; men are polygamous." [Maybe you've heard this story too and remember who it was wrote it.]
Great post, Nathan. This is what I do. Mind you, I first had to set up a writing discipline, which took me a whole year to achieve. Now that's not a problem and I don't need to force it.
CJ Black says
Very well said! I agree completely. I think it would stress me out if I had to write every single day all day and sometimes, it's just impossible. Bills must be paid, errands must be run and many things happen. There's the 9 to 5 and sometimes, I really don't feel like it. Forcing your muse will usually result in poor work.
Charlotte Sannazzaro says
I agree that the many times the best ideas come when you're actively not writing. They just drop in out of the blue when you're doing chores, exercising or in the shower! Then it's a made rush to get to the keyboard before you forget your inspiration. Always keep a notepad by the bed, because if you're like me you won't remember in the morning.
I think keeping busy with life is a healthy and necessary distraction.
I'm so curious, though. I wonder how many repeatedly published authors, including the ones who comment here, have kept their day jobs (as you did, Nathan), and if so, how they manage to write when they are also now publicizing their work. Talk about distraction!
jenny milchman says
I completely agree! Let yourself be distracted, zone, dream, vegitate. Some of the best writing will come from it.
tanya grove says
Deborah Serravalle says
Julia Cameron in The Right to Write, suggests we need to refill our tank. I agree. Often when I can't write it's simply that I am depleted. Getting out into the world recharges me!
I addressed this issue in a post entitled Serendipity, Writer's Block and Chocolate. If you're interested, check it out at http://www.deborahserravalle.com
Finally, it was affirming to hear you also find writing draining. Just sayin'…
Kathryn Magendie says
So true. I once read where a writer said, "I never watch television! It cuts into my writing time and makes me stupid." Well, I like a little TV – it's the complete way to zone out and Not Think. But, when I first heard that advice, I felt as if I were lacking as a writer.
Then, I thought, wait, didn't you write a novel? Didn't you write more than one? Isn't that what a writer does?
I don't write every day but then sometimes I do write every day if I'm really into the heart of my novel and getting into it. What I always do is make sure I'm not "avoiding" – that's the danger for me. Otherwise, I know I'll get it done (of course, having deadlines now assures I better get it done! 😀 )
Colleen Walsh Fong says
I have many epiphanies on how to resolve "stuck places" during downtime–especially if I take it on a day I had planned to write.
Emily Wenstrom says
I totally agree … and I totally disagree.
Agree: As a writer, it is so important to soak up life. And it’s important to
Disagree: I work in the creative industry. Me and all my coworkers have to show up and create awesome ideas every day. No matter what mood you’re in. No matter if it’s Monday. Or if you’re super busy. Or don’t like the assignment. The way you get to be able to do that has nothing to do with an innate creativity. I’ve worked with some people who have incredible natural creativity, but can only produce maybe once a week. They’re ruled by their inspiration instead of the other way around. The people I really admire as creatives got that way by developing a habit of that state of mind, not waiting for it to come to them. I’m a big fan of Chuck Close’s mantra “inspiration is for amateurs.”a
I probably don’t need to say that I write every day. And it doesn’t exhaust me. Maybe the difference is that I only write an hour a day instead of huge bursts. My progress is slow … but it’s steady. I don’t wear myself out, and it helps me keep my story fresh in my mind so that when I do have bursts of inspiration, I’m ready for it.
I suppose everyone is different, but I think it’s something every writer should at least give a good fighting shot for a few months.
Cindy Little says
This is absolutely true!! Plus I find that my brain continues to "write" even when I'm not at the computer. Some of my best ideas have come to me while I've been "distracted".
Great post, Nathan! I have been battling with numerous distractions this Summer and have been beating myself up about not writing every day. So thank you for this shift of perspective…
Ishta Mercurio says
Living life fully gives you something to write about.
And for me personally, taking time to recharge and give my mind a rest actually gets me out of writer's block faster than trying to "power through". (Although sometimes, that's just the lazy me not wanting to get anything done. You have to know the difference.)
Daniel McNeet says
Good and new ideas come from interacting and socializing with others whom have something to say. If you are a good listener the new ideas will fill your head with every conversation. Good ideas are always being presented; it is the ability to recognize them that takes the talent.
Caitlin Vincent says
This was such a breath of fresh air. You're absolutley right: you can't write if you don't live. Well said.
J. M. Dow says
I totally feel this. I can't wait until my paycheck starts coming in so I can start really experience life again–my adventures have been seriously reigned in due to lack of money for admission, gas…breathing…ha ha.
Adore the shit out of this post.
E. B. Davis says
I agree with you, but then that's my nature-cyclical. However, I try to fight that nature because I don't feel that I'm being productive. It's a constant battle.
When I am productive, I think why can't I do this everyday or at least every other day. I'm not sure my "down" time helps. Everyday life distracts–it doesn't help my script–unless to remind me that my mc can have car troubles, home maintenance issues and relationship problems too.
But then, most of that is boring and doesn't propel my plot.
Emily Strempler says
I don't know. I'm one of those sit down and write every day authors… and I love it. It may have something to do with the fact that I also enjoy improv theater and unscripted debate. I do get what you're saying, though. I tend to do my best thinking on the bus, or over coffee.
J. T. Shea says
Congratulations on your promotion, Alana! Beauty and truth always needs defending, particularly in Imaginary Places. One piece with shorts, hold the oak leaves? No problem!
Thank you Nathan. I just lost a beloved aunt who I'd spent the last year taking care of, while I juggled my responsibilities to my own aged parents. A few days after my aunt's funeral my mother fell and once again I was sidetracked. I so much want to get my work published and be a productive writer, but I think that neglecting these sweet ones would have been wrong. Thanks again for the pass.
ann elwood says
Janice Steinberg, a writer friend, suggested setting a timer rather than counting words. That really works for me. I set the timer for an hour, and during that time I do nothing but write (or do nothing). After that, I can keep writing (and often do) or not. This method prevents the writing of junk to fill a word count and, more important, it alleviates guilt over not writing ALL THE TIME. https://rttetc.com