The Art of NOT Writing: Breaks, Blocks, & Boredom

A lot of blog readers have asked– in some form or another– how I deal with writer’s block, and also what I do when I simply don’t feel like writing.

First of all, I must admit to you that I wrote almost every single day from spring 2008 to winter 2013. In January of this year, my wunderkind writing guru Judy Hougen gave me permission to not write, and I started to take some much-needed breaks.

Secondly, you should know that I did not write from fall 2003 to fall 2006. I had just graduated from a creative writing program which had required me to put my heart through a meat grinder, and I was exhausted.

With those disclaimers out in the open, let’s dive in.

not writing2

BREAKS.

I think there’s a time and place for taking a break from writing. I have never regretted my three-year hiatus after finishing undergrad, but then again, it was still a creatively productive time. I used those three years to read like a maniac. Of course, I had read a lot of incredible work for my English major, but it was so good to start reading for pleasure again and not for homework. I devoured books during those three years, and I did it with purpose. I always felt like a writer during those three years; I merely viewed the time as a season where I was cultivating my creative soil for future planting and growth. And that’s exactly what it was.

These days, I take a purposeful writing sabbatical on Mondays: no writing allowed, and the time is devoted to reading. It’s been a good experience so far. As I said above, I have only recently (this year) allowed myself breaks from writing, and for me, it’s essentially a spiritual practice of trust. For so long, I was worried that if I took a break, I would “lose everything.” But that’s not true: taking purposeful breaks allows me to trust God that my gifts won’t fly out the window the moment I open my fist.

Middle-range breaks (staying away from my manuscript for 2-6 weeks) can be a little hard for me to bounce back from, but I’m learning it’s less about the talent disappearing and more about fear showing up.

All that to say, is it okay to take breaks from writing? Yes. For me, it’s best when they are purposeful and still used to intentionally foster creativity.

BLOCKS.

I have to be honest here: I don’t get the traditional writer’s block anymore– you know, where you sit down to write but nothing comes. I can remember that, though, from high school and even in college, and it’s a horrible feeling. These days, I have built such a strong writing routine that it’s quite rare for me to experience writer’s block the way many people think of it.

Of course, I still get stuck while I’m writing, but it’s different. At least, it feels different to me.

Regardless, the following are things that I do when I get stuck/blocked.

1. Pray/brainstorm. For me, this is sort of one thing. Parts of my prayer journal could easily be mistaken for a writer’s processing notebook. This all happens by hand (basically the only writing I do away from the computer anymore) and in my bed, and often involves scrawling HELP!!! in giant, frantic letters across my journal. Then God and I brainstorm. It’s honestly one of the most amazing and satisfying parts of my writing life because, well, I am imbued supernaturally with ideas. Truest’s byline really should read

written by God Almighty

with Jackie Lea Sommers

because it’s such a team effort, and he has the best ideas.

2. Freewrite. I take whatever topic/area is stumping me and I make myself write about it for ten minutes. Natalie Goldberg and her “Ten minutes. Go.” have given me a perpetual exercise in beating back blocks. In freewriting, I have to type and type and type without stopping for ten minutes. There’s almost always one or two gems that find their way onto the page when this happens.

(Freewrites are also what I do when I’m out of sync with writing and need to loosen up that writing muscle again. They work. They really do.)

3. Have conversations. I hope you’re as lucky as I am to have such selfless friends who are willing to have long, drawn-out conversations about fictional people and situations and choices. When I get stuck, I will ask my friends to dialogue with me about whatever is stumping me. These conversations help me push through barriers and also help me know and understand my friends more deeply. (I’m so grateful.)

4. Make a plan. What do I need to do before I can dive back into my project? Maybe I’ve realized that I don’t know enough about the history of my characters to write an honest scene about their friendship. I’ll put a sub-project onto my list: “Create history for X and Y.” Then I’ll take a time-out from the manuscript to write up a whole separate history for my characters, much of which will never make it into the novel but which needs to exist before I can move forward.

BOREDOM.

What if I just don’t feel like writing?

Well, you’re going to have to assess the situation. Are you in need of an intentional break (#1) or are you just being lazy?

Writers write.

When I get in these moods, I do the following:

1. Freewrite. See above. This is the answer to so many writing questions, I believe.

2. Research. And when I say “research,” I mean spend time learning about things that are fascinating to you. I will click the “random article” button on Wikipedia until I land on something that gnaws on my brain. I will read through incredible quotations. I’ll spend hours on the internet finding something that clobbers me and drives the boredom out of my life because it’s just so amazing that I have to know more and want to write about it. Ideas wake me up.

3. Get away. Get out of your house or apartment and hole up in a coffeeshop or the back corner of Panera. Sometimes I’m not bored by writing, but I’m distracted by everything else. If I can change my setting and eliminate distractions, it will help me get back into the zone.

4. Read. Something so incredible and delicious that the excitement (and envy) starts building in my gut. Something where the characters make me laugh and cry and fill me with questions of How can I do that in my own style

5. Switch projects. Not entirely. I just might need to set aside the novel for a while and do some blogging instead. Or maybe work on a poem or something completely different. Although, who am I to say? For some people, this might mean abandoning a project entirely. If it’s not keeping your attention, there’s a good chance it won’t keep others’.

But mostly …

6. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Sometimes I just need to put on my big-girl pants and fake it till I make it.

Image credit: Unsplash, modified by me

This blog post first appeared August 19, 2014.

4 thoughts on “The Art of NOT Writing: Breaks, Blocks, & Boredom

  1. Great post. I’ve been in the middle of a month long break from writing and even though in the beginning I felt awful about it, I now know it was completely the right decision. I didn’t want to show up to my MFA program completely burnt out on the process … now I’m excited for classes to start next week so I can get back to it!

  2. Wonderful advice, Jackie 🙂 I *try* not to write on a Sundays, but if I’ve missed a couple of days during the week because life’s been hectic, I’ll squeeze a little time in. A lot of people say write everyday, but I think writing six days is much more practical advice. I don’t really get writers block either. If a scene is stumping me, I’ll walk away from it and work on something else for awhile. It’s usually while I’m washing the dishes or doing similar domestic work later that the answer will come to me.
    Sometimes, when I don’t feel like writing, I’ll grab a pen and paper and just start. After about ten minutes I’ll really get into it. Sometimes the computer can be so draining and I just don’t feel like getting on it, but I really do love writing by hand and need to go back to it now and again.

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