The Value of “Down Time” for Writers

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“Libellago lineata male-Kadavoor-2015-08-21-001” © 2015 Jeevan Jose, Kerala, India is used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Oatmeal once gave a very good piece of advice: if you want to succeed at something creative, think about it really, really hard.

Then forget about it.

This has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. When I am able to work on something, I want to keep working on it. When I’m not, I constantly feel as though I should be.

On occasion this has led to me producing prodigious word counts – only to burn our and subsequently be unable to produce anything for weeks.

This was recently graphically illustrated for me in the difference between November and December.

In November, after a long dry spell, I was suddenly able to write three short stories. I hadn’t been planning these – it started with an attempt at curing writers’ block by writing a single sentence that came out of nowhere. Within a few hours my brain had constructed a short story around it. I was able to repeat this two more times in the space of two weeks.

In December, I set a goal to do the same thing.

I couldn’t. And I couldn’t. And I couldn’t.

It seemed that the more I thought about producing, the less I was able to produce. Several ideas I’d had for a long time just wouldn’t gel into something usable. This went on for three weeks until I reached extreme heights of frustration.

And gave up.

On December 21st, I got sick. I decided that December was clearly a lost cause. If I’d produced nothing in the first three weeks and now had two major holidays, a family birthday, and a flu, there was no way I was producing three short stories by the end of the month. For three days, too sick to go to work, I did basically nothing but play computer games.

On December 24th I wrote one short story and started a second.

In theory I had learned this pattern before; I frequently produced by best work at times when I wasn’t supposed to be writing. When I was supposed to be meeting someone and they canceled at the last minute; when I was supposed to be sleeping and I had insomnia.

Something about not actively working on writing seems to be essential to my creative process.So how do you intentionally not think about something?My current experiment is to mandate a certain amount of computer game time each week and hope for the best.What do you do when you need to not think about your work? Is that something that other people struggle with?

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