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On Taking (Non-Productive) Breaks

Categories: This Writer's Life.
Hello friends,

I hope you–like me– found time over the holiday to reflect on the year that was and consume nearly twice your daily recommended caloric intake in Lindt chocolate truffles and kind-of-gross, kind-of-really-good alcoholic Egg Nog. But now that I’ve New Years Resolutioned Up and thrown away anything and everything even vaguely brown in my apartment in favor of leafy greens and Guava Goddess Kombucha tea, and I’m finally ready to be back in my normal writing routine, I realized something: I’m kind of rusty.

Due to the holiday and some unforeseen family stuff, I didn’t get a chance to write for two weeks. And so today, when I sat back down in the familiar confines of Espresso Royale, after attempting to nod tentatively at the regulars (you know: the hippies, the college age dude in a bowler cap who is always reading one of the free alternative weeklies and tracing something on a pad, and the loud, unpredictable counter-culture girl with multiple piercings, an eerily normal looking boyfriend, and either a drug problem or an unusually small bladder), I tried to pick up where I left off on my novel re-writes and discovered, to my horror, that I couldn’t, well, do anything. Ideas were vague, plot connections muddled. I couldn’t remember the name of one of my central characters. I spent a terrifyingly long 45 minutes re-reading back chapters just to get a sense of what I was writing about only to find that when I finally remembered, I didn’t have anything creative in the tank. So I went and ordered a Turkey Avocado Club on a sesame bagel.

And while I was sitting down to slay said lunch treat (I know, I know, bagels are terribly caloric), I started to think about why I was rusty. Unlike writer’s block, (which– I should point out– is usually just my excuse to watch “The View”), it wasn’t that I couldn’t get anything on the page, it was more that I was forgetting what I needed to put on said page. Which reminded me that writing a novel is just like speaking a language. If you stop working, you lose your fluency, your momentum, and your ability to remember the names of secondary characters that play vital roles nearly all the way through the book. Of course, sometimes breaks are good, and necessary even, to clear your head or give a draft another look with a fresh set of eyes. But not while you’re in the thick of things, and not when you have to turn in a certain draft of said piece of work to a certain thesis adviser in a certain amount of days, and you only have another 44 minutes of battery on your laptop, and the hippies are hogging the tables by the power outlet.

So, in conclusion, my break, while important were I to ever need this excess weight during hibernation, was not what experts might call “smart” or even “logical under the circumstances”. Let me know if you suffered the same fate of holiday-induced indolence or feel free to heap on the guilt by telling me about the thousands and thousands of words you produced while your relatives were talking. Either way, drop it in the comments.

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10 Responses to On Taking (Non-Productive) Breaks

  1. Angela says:

    I took a short one week break from writing that has lasted over almost four years (granted due to grad school and a major illness, but still four years???). Only recently have I attempted to take a look at my writing and to say that I’ve forgotten the characters is a mild understatment. I decided just today to start fresh and begin anew…here’s to a new year of writing – and perhaps eating Lindts truffles…

  2. Kristan C. says:

    I too dealt with the insanity of NaNoWriMo in November, and treated myself to a break over December. I did try to amp myself up for January’s UnNoWriMo (that would be the "Unofficial" some crazies in my town decided to do). Um. Please don’t ask if that has happened.

    Maybe if I were a loud, unpredictable counter-culture girl with multiple piercings, I’d be more in the mood. Instead, I just want to take a nap…

  3. Tom says:

    I didn’t have any hard plans for writing over the holidays…which, uh, may be why nothing has been done? No, that can’t be – gotta be some other reason.

    The only thing I’d thought was "I should get another short story out there before the rejection comes back on the one I sent in mid-November." With no concrete plan for that, I find myself sitting here trying to finish something to send out, and my rejection should be arriving any day now.

    And all these comments are making me feel guilty for not being 3/4 of the way through a novel. Maybe I’ll start one this weekend and then I’ll feel better about being behind on it.

  4. Kevin Alexander says:

    Kelly– I’m sorry to hear about your father but it does sound like you’ve managed to make the best of the situation.

    As for others: I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who can’t remember names of their characters, gets caught up in thinking about getting the book out rather than focusing on the task at hand, and feels like October through February should maybe be some sort of writing respite, possibly at the Lindt Chocolate Factory in Zurich. You know, safety in numbers. Or maybe this is a bad thing…

  5. Mary says:

    Another slacker here! After the insanity of NaNoWriMo, I took a well-deserved break – which is still ongoing. Granted, I am writing, on another project, but I was thinking about this very thing the other day – how I am going to have to reacquaint myself with the characters, the tone and the setting of my book all over again.

    Or should I say write a few pages of crap before I am back in the swing of things again.

    And I agree with Genevieve – Lindt chocolate truffles rule!

  6. After taking a four week break this summer I began the nasty little job of rewriting. Color me stupid when halfway through the rewrite I realized not only had I changed the last name of my main character but somehow along the way, she aged a little too fast.
    It reminded of my school years when I’d have to refresh my memory on assigned subjects, this due to excessive partying and lack of sleep but now it’s just plain old…getting old.

  7. Kelly Guris says:

    Not to be a "Debbie downer," but I had to put all writing on hold since Thanksgiving to deal with my father in the ICU. Although I am frustrated at any lack of work completed recently, I have a new found appreciation for family and plan on using this as inspiration for a new short story.

    Good luck with all New Year Resolutions!

  8. Rebecca Adcox says:

    I’ve been using the holidays as an excuse for my sloth since Halloween – the official beginning of the holiday season. When the season ends after Valentine’s Day, I’ll get back to work, I promise.

  9. Genevieve Cancienne says:

    I sympathize as well. I intended to finish my book before Christmas, but I’ve still got two chapters left becacuse (and I should have known this was going to happen) the ending that I had originally planned is just slightly different enough to change the last few chapters entirely. Including one I already wrote. So I have definitely learned my lesson about sending out query letters before the book is done. I just got swept away with the excitement of being nearly finished. Anyway, now I’m trying to focus on just making the book something that I’m happy with and enjoy writing, which means of course that almost all I can think about is the agent who’s waiting to receive the finished manuscript and worrying that it’s really not any good. It stumps me sometimes in the middle of writing and throws off the flow.

    I liked your comparison of the practie of writing to speaking a language. I’ve never thought of it that way before but it makes sense. Also, dark chocolate Lindt truffles are to die for.

  10. I can sympathize. I was supposed to be about 40,000 words farther than I currently am in my novel, not to mention editing and sending a previous one to a publisher. Instead, the previous one sits gathering virtual dust in my hard drive and I’m only halfway done on my novel instead of 2/3 of the way done…

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