Writing: The Importance of Not Writing

by Alison on April 2, 2012

I’ve been writing while working full time for over eight years and if I had to sum up my approach to finding time to do this it would read something like: Forgive yourself and use the small scraps of time. And recently I added a third maxim to the list: give yourself time off.

I’ll get to “forgive yourself and use the small scraps of time” in a post someday soon. Today I want to talk about the importance of giving your brain a break, or, to put it another way, the importance of not writing.

I got serious about being a writer in creative writing grad school. I wrote every single day for the first time in my life. It felt hard and virtuous and thrilling–but it was also all I had to do. If I could go back, I’d beg the younger me to enjoy every second of this luxurious life.

The real patterns of my writing schedule settled in once our first book began to sell and others were signed up. I began to write every other weekend. I would get started Saturday morning and not stop until Sunday evening–and generally the goal was to produce 10 pages. But soon we were working on two books at once. While Book #2 was in the copyediting phase, we were actively chipping away at the first draft of Book #3. And then there was blogging on top of this. Soon I was writing every night, every weekend, all the time.

It’s no wonder I burned out. What I didn’t realize then is how much your brain and body need time off.

In the April issue of Real Simple, there’s a great article by Ruth Davis Konigsberg about women and how very bad we are at time management. We give ourselves too much to do in a day and almost no free time. But scientists have shown that free time (defined as unscheduled time off when you do something fun) is critical to being effective during the scheduled parts of our days.

By removing my weekends–and really, almost all of my free time–I was asking my brain to work around the clock. It did the best it could, but it was slowly draining my reserves and producing less and less when it was scheduled to be “on.”

And after eight years of being in always-on mode, I crashed, hard. I removed my blog from the Internet. I stopped working on all in-progress books, and I got back to the joy of living. I must tell you, it felt incredible, like I had been released from jail. For nearly a year, I just lived like a normal person. When someone asked if I wanted to do something on the weekend, I said, Sure! without anxiously checking the calendar on my phone. I went outside and spent an incredible amount of time reconnecting with nature. I caught up with old friends and family.

When I began to reformulate how my new, healthier writing life would look, I knew that I’d have to keep my weekends. I decided to start testing writing in the mornings before work. I’ve always been an early riser and it seemed like a nice way to do something creative every day.

It’s been about six months now and I’m still sorting out the bumps and glitches, but it’s better than before. It’s surprising how much you can get done when you chip away at a project every day and my weekends give me time to turn my brain off and just live. And yet, it’s definitely not a perfect system. These found hours must come from somewhere–and that somewhere seems to be from my bank of sleep hours so I’m adjusting to getting to bed earlier.

But I’m curious. How do you find the time to both write and not write?

All pictures taken during my year off, when I was finally out enjoying the world again.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Cara Putman April 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Great post! And a reminder I desperately needed as I’m in the midst of marketing a book that released yesterday. I am horrible at giving myself down time. Horrible!


Cara Putman April 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm

oh, and on the time off…what I’ve seen is that God schedules breaks for me because He knows me. I have seasons of writing hard, and then I try to grab the times of not writing and do research, read lots of novels, etc. But things I call fun.


Susan Mires April 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm

My full-time job requires some writing, but is not intensive. I’ve found it works well to do most of the work on my book on the weekends and not to stress about it during the week. That old adage about you’re not a real writer unless you write everyday is ridiculous. How would you feel if your surgeon said he was the best because he had performed surgery every single day for the last three years? You’d ask him to take the weekend off before your surgery!


Kathy April 3, 2012 at 2:59 am

I’m thrilled to find your blog, Allison. I love that you are finding a balance and that you gave yourself a break. For a couple of years, writing before work was my daily habit. I finished a couple of novels that way. But some changes in our office have crimped my style, and I’m having trouble finding the cadence again. Your words have encouraged me to figure it out!


Ellie April 4, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Great post! I’m reading this book, The Now Habit, that’s based on this idea of committing ourselves to guilt-free play. One of the tools is called the Unschedule, where you only schedule fun stuff and leave the work stuff blank. Every time you complete 3o minutes of uninterrupted quality work, you reward yourself. The idea is that we give ourselves regular breaks to enjoy life so that, when we go back to work, we enjoy it more. It’s definitely a good book for procrastinators!


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