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
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
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
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
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
© 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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