Give Yourself A Break
Dear Friday Five-0,
When I get frustrated with my writing, I often give up and take a walk or perform other mindless tasks to numb my stress. Is this an effective tool, considering I always come back to my writing, or should I be sticking with it and working through my frustration, instead of throwing in the towel? ~ Eliza R.
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Dear Eliza R.,
I adore you. I really do, even though I've never met you and don't know you. Why? Because you've given me such an easy question to answer. By all MEANS, of COURSE you should get up and do other things to give yourself a break while writing. Don't just take it from me: take it from Pulitzer-winner William Styron, the writer I most aspire to be, except not a) male; b) alcoholic; c) dead. Styron was a great proponent of walking to inspire writing. In fact, Styron found walking so necessary to writing that he wrote an essay called "Walking With Aquinnah" (his dog), included in his collection HAVANAS IN CAMELOT. Herein, Styron advised:
"This...is the delight and the value of walking for a writer. The writer lounging--trying to think, to sort out his thoughts--cannot really think, being the prey to endless distractions. He gets up to fix himself a sandwich, tinkers with the photograph, succumbs weak-mindedly to the pages of a magazine, drifts off into an erotic reverie. But a walk, besides preventing such intrusions, unlocks the subconscious in such a way as to allow the writer to feel his mind spilling over with ideas." (Styron then cautions against strenuous exercise, warning, "...it is my view that any arduous form of perambulation [for the middle-aged non athlete, at least] must be a danger..." and cites the example of a friend who took up jogging and dropped dead immediately. Which, you must agree, would interfere with inspired cognition.)
Despite Styron's gender-inclusivity and endearingly dated references, he's still giving advice I can get behind. Walk, don't run. Don't take on anything too labor-intensive. The goal is to perform mundane tasks that free the mind.
When I was writing THOSE WHO SAVE US and was blocked, I walked by the Charles River every day with my black Lab, Woodrow--
--and once I got into a rhythm I found myself imagining who would play the characters in the movie version of the novel, what scene they'd show at the Oscars, what I'd wear to the Oscars when I won Best Adapted Screenplay. See? Encouraging flights of fancy that would not have come if I'd stayed home banging my head repeatedly on my desk.
Here are other activities I found helpful:
--the consumption of which necessitates more walking.
--the growth of which necessitates cooking, which necessitates walking. See how neatly this all works?
BRUNCHING WITH WRITER TYPES.
While you may think this method spurious--simply an excuse to slack off and socialize!--au contraire! The consumption of food and beverages with other writers lubricates the psyche, exalts the soul, caresses the creative process...oh hell, it relaxes you and sometimes you can brainstorm ideas.
COMMUNING WITH NATURE.
I find this an extremely peaceable activity. Your choice of Nature to commune with may perhaps be different than mine. To each her own.
Dag, how'd that get in there?
The point is to vary the texture of your workday, to break the creative logjam by doing something gently physical. This frees up the forebrain while allowing the subconscious to chew over and spit out ideas. I do other things, too: for instance, while writing this column to you, I did two loads of laundry and vacuumed the house. The key phrase here is writing to you. Other people happening upon me might mistakenly think all I'm doing is strolling, washing dishes, making a pie, or digging in the dirt. What I'm really doing is writing in my head. Literally. I'm trying out and rehearsing lines before writing them down.
Even when we're not actually sitting and writing, we're still writing. We're always writing.
You knew this already, didn't you. And you already had the answer to your own question, my dear. It's this:
"....considering I always come back to my writing...."
Of course. No matter what your necessary intermission consists of--window-washing, towel-folding, eyebrow-tweezing--it always leads you back home:
To the writing desk. Where, rejuvenated from your break, you can return to writing down what was there all along.
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us, The Stormchasers, and The Lost Family as well as the novella "The Lucky One" in anthology Grand Central. Jenna is also one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers. Jenna has taught for GrubStreet since 1997 ; she currently runs the master novel workshop and seminars focusing on craft and marketing.See other articles by Jenna Blum