If you are a student of writing, perhaps you been told by well-meaning teachers and mentors and friends that writing every single day is where it is at. Ray Bradbury has told you this. So has Stephen King. So has Nicholson Baker and hundreds of other authors, including Madeleine L’Engle and Robert McKee and Walter Mosely and Khaled Hosseini and Anne Lamott—fabulous and productive authors, all of them. You can buy buttons and pin this reminder and get it on a bumper sticker and plaster it across your MacBook to remind you to write every day.
Or you can not write every day.
Stay with me.
I am not telling you to never write. I am not telling you, especially as a relatively young student of your craft, that you are exempt from putting in your ten thousand hours. I am not telling you that you can sail through your life calling yourself a writer and wearing a scarf and pretending to journal in coffeeshops and then magically, effortlessly, produce phenomenal writing.
I am not telling you that writing is easy and comes naturally and one day the Muse will ring your doorbell and deliver your manuscript. The Muse is not FedEx. There may not even be a Muse. Writing is hard and lonely work, and you should be doing this hard and lonely work regularly. But if you have tried to write every day, and it is causing you stress and grief and heartburn and you find yourself wanting to quit, then try this: take a day off.
Don’t write for a day. Give yourself a chance to miss writing. Give your mind a chance to relax and wander and do something else. Let’s reframe this. You are not not-writing; you are preparing-for-the-hard-work-that-is-writing-but-not-currently-writing. Shift your language, and your paradigm. You will be creative every day. You will prepare to write every day. You will be receptive and relaxed and open and work actively on cultivating your creativity.
Here is what you might do instead of writing:
• Look at photographs
• Take your own photographs
• Make a complicated recipe
• Take a long walk with no particular destination
• Dig in some dirt and plant something
• Turn off your phone
• Turn on your phone and call a friend
• Go volunteer
• Sit on a public bench and watch people for an hour
• Idly look out the window
• Shoot buckets at the park
• Watch a documentary on the honeybee
• Put on an album that you haven’t heard in forever and listen to it all the way through, the way the band wanted you to
• Rearrange your desk so that it faces a window
• Rearrange your desk so that it faces a blank wall
• Pull out that old paint set you never use
This is cross-training. This is resting your writer mind. This is gathering material. This is letting the unconscious mind solve the problems stymieing the conscious mind. This is gaining a new perspective. This is preparation for the hard work that is writing. It may not be writing, but it is important. It is being creative.
And creativity is important. It is your lifefuel as an artist. In Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, she says, “Creativity is connected to your passion, that light inside you that drives you. That joy that comes when you do something you love. That small voice that tells you, ‘I like this. Do this again. You are good at it. Keep going.’ That is the juicy stuff that lubricates our lives and helps us feel less alone in the world.” She’s right, of course. Amy Poehler is smart.
But creativity does not appear magically refilled every morning when we wake up. Nobody sneaks in during the night and tops off our creativity stores. Some days we are tired and cranky and misanthropic. We do not spring from bed filled with goodwill toward the world and ready to sit in a chair and write for twelve hours. We feel drained and stuck and that bumper sticker on our laptop exhorting us to WRITE EVERY DAY EVEN IF IT IS JUST A PARAGRAPH makes us want to throw the whole thing out the window. Again, writing is hard. Cultivating your creative self can help you when writing gets hard.
Like writing, creativity requires cultivation. Writing benefits from labor, yes, but you need the occasional break. When you do not recharge your creative mind, your processors run too hot. The mechanisms never get a chance to stop spinning, to cool down. The gears grind themselves dull. You spend too much time inside your own head. You lose perspective. You cannot tell me that this is a good thing, that it benefits your writing or your work.
Close up your journal or your notebook or your computer. Go do something from that bulleted list and then come back tomorrow.
Tomorrow, you will get back to writing. You will sit at your desk and do the hard work that is writing, the lonely and frustrating and exhilarating process of creating something out of nothing. You will invent characters and give them voices; you will revise the manuscript that you need to finish by the first of the month; you will stare down the blank page or the blinking cursor, and you will write.
Today, however, you will not-write, and you will be a better writer for it.