I’m one of those write-every-day kinds of writers. Don’t get me wrong; writing every day does not mean I tune out polished, ready-to-publish content every time I hit a keyboard. My process starts on paper. I scribble inspired bits down on my notebook in whatever order they come to me. When I have the chance, I toss the gibberish onto a word processor so I can wrestle out the kinks. Usually, it works itself out as I spend time nose-deep in text but there are plenty of moments I sit down at my computer and stare at the flickering cursor bar waiting, waiting, still waiting for the hamster wheel in my brain to start spinning again. Writing is definitely a process and sometimes the hamster just doesn’t want to run.
It may take me time to finish a piece but over the past few years I’ve spent seriously writing, I can’t remember ever struggling with writer’s block. I have had moments where the characters weren’t doing what I wanted, or where they weren’t doing much of anything at all. I’ve approached stories unsure of where to start, what happens, or how to end it without slapping “the end” at the bottom. And honestly, I’ve had plenty of times where I just wanted the piece to fall out of my head finished and edited without any effort on my part. I’ve had plenty of those moments lately. I’ve never considered any of that writer’s block though because I’ve always been able to write beyond it. Yeah, it wasn’t great stuff and you know what they say about forcing something that shouldn’t be forced. But sometimes you need to get everything out on paper before you can really start. Sometimes you need to see all the wrong ways a story can go before the right one suddenly seems obvious. Perhaps one of the best reasons to push forward at resistance is for the sake of pushing forward. An object in motion stays in motion and it’s a whole lot harder to get in the swing of things after a break.
This last week I tried something different. I didn’t write anything at all.
I love writing. I love that twitching feeling my fingers get when I feel the words start to run on in my head and I know I have to find a pen and paper quick so I didn’t self-impose this restriction without reason. For the past few months, I’ve been applying to grad school and I haven’t just been writing daily; I’ve been writing every second I wasn’t at work or sleeping (and often at the expense of sleeping.) And when I was staring at the computer screen long enough for my eyes to wither away in their sockets, I promised myself I would take a break and play a video game or something after I finished the application process. January 2nd. Then a video game. I could do it. I sent out the first application a day early and opened up the next one which wasn’t due until the 15th. Behold: it was different from the first school’s (hindsight: duh but I was too tapped out to really think that through.) I pushed the break back to the 15th. I submitted that one on time as well, but then I remembered there was this thing called the FAFSA and I still had to finish January’s short story and then, and then, and then… That break was seeming more like a mirage than a tangible oasis.
And then something happened that I didn’t expect: I took a late-night trip to the emergency room. In between doubling over in pain and napping on a bench in the ER lobby, I scribbled away in my notebook determined to finish my latest story on-time. The night wore on, my husband and mom would take turns shaking me awake when the nurses came to check on me, and at six in the morning, I had a diagnosis: I needed emergency surgery. The doctor wanted me under the knife in an hour. I was actually relieved to have a diagnosis because it meant my problem was fixable. The difficult part to process was the sudden irrelevancy of all my plans for the next few weeks. Work, volunteering, relaxing hikes: all replaced with mandatory bed rest and strict orders not to lift anything about ten pounds, which, if you weren’t aware, is pretty much everything.
After an overnight stay in the hospital, -where they marathoned all the Indiana Jones movies so that was cool- I went home. I laid on the couch and spent a fair amount of time thinking because it’s one of a few choice activities that doesn’t require any sort of physical effort. I started to think about the vacuum of time ahead of me and immediately felt pressured to fill it up with writing. In a sudden moment of clarity, I realized my relationship with writing had started to border on the unhealthy. I had gotten to a point where doing anything but writing made me feel guilty: video games, art, binging shows, even reading to an extent. And anytime I kicked back and consumed media, a small voice told me I must not actually love writing because I wasn’t writing. That I wasn’t really serious about my work because I wasn’t doing it. Not only is that untrue: it’s toxic. It was time for a break for reals.
So I took the week off from writing and did all those things I promised myself I would do. I painted, I read books, I listened to podcasts and yes, I played a video game and it was fantastic. As the week wrapped up though, I felt afraid. That whole object in motion thing also applies to objects in rest and suddenly, it got a lot harder to stare at the flickering cursor bar. I mentioned earlier that I’d never experienced writer’s block as far as I could recall and while I say that’s still true, it was definitely difficult to get back into writing. The stamina I had built up over months of intensive writing had seemingly left the building and a few hundred words feel like a few thousand. But I wrote anyway. I moved that bar forward letter by letter, line by line until I was looking at a paragraph I didn’t completely hate and then I made a few more.
Even if it’s been hard to get back, I don’t regret taking a break. I love writing and I want to keep loving writing. We can become so focused on blazing forward that we forget burnout is not only real; it’s killed more passions than anything else. We euthanize our dreams well before the world ever gets a chance to. The solution? Recognize that sustainability is better than intensity. Taking a break doesn’t mean you aren’t serious about your passion or that you’re all used up. In fact, hourly gigs mandate breaks so if anything, you’re taking your passion more serious by allowing yourself to have a break than by steamrolling to the point of emotional implosion.
Take a break before your passion breaks you.