Working in a bookstore, I spend the better part of my life surrounded by books. It’s a great job, filled with pleasures you might expect: leisurely conversations with customers about ideas and politics, celebrating with authors on book tours, and getting my hands on the new novels coming down the pipes a season or two before they are released to the general public. When I’m not selling books, I help people edit and market their books as a part-time writing coach. These two jobs satisfy me in innumerable ways as a person and a writer. What they don’t always do is make me want to rush home and work on my own novel. It’s the middle of August and I last worked actively worked on a chapter of my own book in June. I’m telling y’all this not because I feel the need to confess, but because I think it’s something we as writers should not be afraid to discuss. Truth is: sometimes writers don’t write.
For a long time I felt like being a writer who went through long periods of not writing was a shameful secret, one that set me apart from all of my endlessly industrious writer friends who swore up and down that they wrote 5,000 words a day come hell or high water. I felt a bit like a spouse in a sexless marriage, convinced that all the neighbors are happily fornicating like bunnies. After all, if the only thing that makes one a writer is the act of putting words on the page then I was a big old fake, at least until I managed to sit back down at the desk again.
But over the last few years I’ve paid more attention to what I like to do when I’m not writing. I realized that while my life surrounded by letters is a wonderful one, it can be deafening. I find myself seeking the solace of creating things that I don’t have to talk about (or to)–furniture, gardens–and fixing things that are easily fixed–painting walls, laying flooring, pulling weeds. In my loquacious life with my buzzing brain I am so happy in these silences, so relieved by the obvious cause and effect of a project undertaken and completed. These little efforts are so unlike my novel, which is always amorphous, bulging out at the edges of my consciousness, refusing easy definition.
All of this is to say, if you’ve ever suffered shame as a writer because you weren’t writing “enough,” just stop. Think about what you are creating when you aren’t creating in your usual medium and think about why you might need that break. If you are living your life in a full way, you aren’t wasting time. I know that the breathing room I create when I make things with my hands allows me to come back to my writing with a fuller heart. My writing feels fresher, more joyful. I enter into the act of writing without guilt or resentment.
Give yourself writer’s callouses:
- If you really are one of those people who writes 5,000 words a day come hell or high water, why not try stepping away from the desk one day a week to make something with your hands? Not handy? How about just moving furniture around in your office or living room or hang your art on different walls in your apartment. Plant something, even just a cactus. Invite movement into your physical world and discover what spaces emerge in your writing.
- If you’re a secret “slump” writer like me, forgive yourself, but don’t go too long without working. Make sure that you balance your desire for the instant gratification of physical creation with the longer, more private pleasures of writing. If you have a hard time getting back to your desk after a month or more, don’t think about how you “should” be writing. Think instead about how good writing can feel once you are really dug in and cranking. Promise yourself you will spend at least one day trying to get to that sweet spot and if it doesn’t happen, forgive yourself. Then begin again.