Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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Thoughts on Writing

#35: Gimme A Break

by Seanan McGuire

Thoughts on Writing #35: Gimme a Break.

No, I'm not suggesting that you break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar; I'm talking about down time. To expand on today's thought a little:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a break from time to time. I pretty much write every day of my life—I'm a junkie, and I admit it—but there are days where the writing takes an hour in the morning, and is then set aside completely, in favor of seeing Flogging Molly perform. Sometimes, my "writing" for the day consists of jotting notes in my planner (also known as "Seanan's second brain"). I need those pauses to reset myself, and sometimes, to find new books in the world around me. Don't hate yourself for needing to breathe.

This is one of those thoughts that seems so logical that it shouldn't need expressing—of course it's okay to take breaks! Dude, we're allowed our leisure time!—but oddly, it's also one of the things I've found personally most challenging. Writing is both a job and a leisure activity for me, and, it seems, for many of us. So how do we keep those functions of our lives split, and how do we keep from becoming so wrapped up in our work that we forget to play? Let's take a look at leisure, and how to have some without losing all our hard work. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

Lies We Tell Ourselves.

In the eyes of a large percentage of the world, writing is, and always will be, a leisure activity. It's something you do when you're messing around, it's the domain of the aimless and the fiefdom of the foolish. Since most writers aren't fortunate enough to be making a living with their work, writing is also something that tends to be shoved into the corners of our lives, occupying the space that most "normal" people reserve for playing. Therefore, logically speaking, if we're writing in our playtime, that makes writing a form of play, and all play is optional. Right? Now put down the keyboard and come bowling with the rest of us.

This is a common view. This is an understandable view. This is, as everyone who writes knows, an incorrect view. So what's the problem?

The problem is that most of us hear it so often that we will, at some point, start to believe it. Maybe just a little; maybe a lot. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that there is likely to be a stage in every writer's career where they look at what they're doing and say "wow, Bob's right; I'm just goofing off." This can lead to a lack of discipline (a matter for another day). It can also lead to intense feelings of guilt accompanying any other leisure activity. "I can't go to the movies, I've been sitting around and writing all day." "I can't go to that party, I've already spent so much of this week just screwing around." "I can't possibly justify it." We deny ourselves fun because we've decided that writing is all the fun we're allowed to have.

If you're suffering from this particular delusion, please, forget it. Writing isn't automatically leisure. Writing—real, good, professional-quality writing—is work. Even the writing we do "just because" is work. These essays take effort. That poem you wrote for your girlfriend, that love letter you wrote to your husband, those took effort. Writing. Is. Work. It's up to you to decide how much time your writing deserves, but the time that you spend writing is absolutely not spent "goofing off," and it doesn't somehow mysteriously take away your right to go out and have a good time. Anyone who's really serious about their writing, whether or not they intend to make a profession of it, will tell you that it's a job. And, like any job, it's something you occasionally need to step away from.

Recess Is For Everybody.

I think one of the true tragedies of the modern world is the death of recess. In elementary school, we're given time every day to just run out into the playground and race around screaming, or fling balls at one another, or look at interesting bugs, or whatever makes us happy. The older we get, the less recess we receive, presumably because of all that "freedom" we're getting. While it's true that I have more freedom to make my own decisions now than I did at, say, seven, I don't think this cancels the need for recess. If anything, it makes recess more important.

As adults, we get a form of recess: the "coffee break." (For those of us who don't drink coffee, it's the "get away from your desk before somebody needs to be hit with a stapler break.") Only a lot of people use their coffee breaks to...do more work. They talk about work. They plan out their next projects, or discuss their next meetings. Now, your leisure time is your own, but I find it a little disturbing to think that all those people talking about their deliverables really think this is fun. Wouldn't they rather have a big green lawn, and a bouncy red ball, and permission to run?

I think the world would be a lot less cranky if we just got fifteen minutes on the lawn (or its seasonally-appropriate equivalent) every day. I'm just saying.

Because we slowly lose our recess time as we age, it becomes something "childish." It becomes something to look back on wistfully, not something to actually do. We need to stay on task! Stay focused! Eyes on the prize, shoulder to the wheel, nose to the grindstone, clutches to the cliche!

...really? Because I find that if I take my fifteen minutes on the lawn—whether that lawn is the big hill near my house, or in the swamp, or sitting on the couch watching music videos, or playing with the cats—I actually work better. I have to do it reliably, because if I only get my recess once in a while, it is hard to get my focus back—who wants recess to end?—but when I say to myself "you are going to go and play with your hula hoop, and then you're going to finish this chapter," it's a lot more likely to happen than when I say "you are going to sit here until you finish this chapter." Writing should never be the mental equivalent of being forced to eat your broccoli.

(Yes, I talk about deadlines a lot. Yes, I say that you need to be disciplined, and focused, and willing to sacrifice sleep for the sake of finishing what you start. This does not mean that you need to wring the fun from your life like wringing the water from a towel. All work and no play...well, you know the rest.)

Find your lawn. Give yourself fifteen minutes a day, and go there. You may be amazed by what happens when you come back to your desk.

Guilt Guilt Guilt.

By the time most of us reach adulthood, we are glorious masters of guilt. If they had Olympic contests centering around feeling guilty, we'd all be star athletes...but we'd all feel so bad about it that they'd never get around to passing out the medals. We learn to feel bad about anything that isn't what we're "supposed" to be doing. Did you eat a cupcake instead of a bran muffin? Guilt. Did you watch American Idol instead of CNN? Guilt. Did you hate that book that all your friends are just raving about? Guilt.

Did you go to the beach instead of staying home and writing? Guilt guilt guilt.

I am here to tell you to put the guilt back into the closet and pack yourself some sunscreen instead. You're a lot more likely to need it while you're at the beach. Look: if you're going to the beach every day instead of writing, you have a problem, and maybe you should feel guilty. But if you've been diligently plugging along for the last two weeks, and your deadline isn't tomorrow, then yes, go to the beach. Take some time. Have a life. If you sacrifice your life for your writing because you feel guilty, you're either going to wind up resenting your writing for damaging your social life (bad), or you're going to resent your friends for trying to force you to have a social life when they should know you just can't (potentially worse). Either way, I can almost guarantee that somebody's going to wind up miserable...and somebody is very likely to be you.

Guilt is a necessary part of life, But much like we need an occasional cupcake or stupid reality show in our lives, we need to moderate the amount of guilt we allow ourselves to consume. Like baked goods and fluffy television, it's really not all that good for you.

Striking A Balance.

Everyone is different. Because of this, I can't really tell you "oh, you need fifteen minutes off for every four hours on, or you're going to catch fire." The amount of time you need is going to influence how much work you're capable of getting done, and it's going to determine what kind of a social life you have, but it's a personal ratio, not something dictated by a magical formula.

Everyone is the same. We're all trying to balance work and play in a thousand different forms. We're all trying to enjoy our lives without feeling like we're wasting all our time. Because that's true, everyone needs permission to play. I can't give you that, either; you have to give it to yourself. I recommend it. You may be surprised by how much better you can work when that's not the only thing that you're allowed to do.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a bouncy red ball, and a blacktop, and a lot of recess to cram into the next fifteen minutes. See you after the bell!
© 2011 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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