Taking a Writing Break ≠ Quitting: Why taking breaks is important for your creative process
Whether you’re deep into drafting your ninth book or your starting on your first, I can guarantee that you will hit hard parts where your project feels heavy and messy. It’s possibly gone in directions you weren’t anticipating or you’ve written it “out of order” and now piecing it all together feels imperative and really hard. You might just feel stuck and overwhelmed and unsure how to move forward.
I’ve felt these challenges, frustrations, and overwhelm as a writer as have my clients. In fact, this whole article was inspired by a talk with a client who, after hitting the midway point of her book, feels like she needs to pause and step back because the writing feels hard and overwhelming. But, she’s concerned about being a “quitter” if she takes a break from drafting her first book.
Here’s the question, if you set a project aside and don’t power through your resistance, does that make you a quitter? This is what we often hear in our productivity-addled world, and it’s adding a ton of pressure to this new writer. Yuck!
I’m going to argue that taking a break does NOT make a writer a quitter. It might be exactly what you need. Only you can decide if you should fight through your resistance, or if a break would be the best option for your brain.
Become Aware of the Stories you’re Telling Yourself About Your Creative Resistance
First, know that writing is hard. A book is a big, long, challenging project, so honor that, know that. Every writer ever has faced challenges and creative resistance.
Also know that the messy middle or Act II is often where resistance hits the hardest. That’s normal. There’s not one right way to deal with creative resistance or get to the other side of the hard parts of writing. It would be so much easier if there was, wouldn’t it?
I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong which is about becoming aware of the stories we tell ourselves when we’re face down in the arena, feeling like we’re losing a battle.
Hitting the messy middle of a book and feeling inadequate about finishing is absolutely a “face down in the arena” moment. To get through it, she asks readers to become aware of the stories we tell ourselves in these moments because at tough times, that’s what we do. “Our minds go to work trying to make sense of what’s happening. This story is driven by emotional and the immediate need to self-protect, which means it’s most likely not accurate, well thought-out, or even civil” (78).
When it comes to creative work, the less than civil story you might be telling yourself may include things like:
- I’m not smart enough to do this/figure this out/write a whole book
- Who do I think I am to write a whole book?
- What experience have I had in terms of writing to do this? NONE!
- You chant in your head, “I’m stuck. I’m stuck. I’m stuck. I want to move forward but I don’t know how and I’m not good/smart/creative/experienced enough to figure it out. I’m stuck.”
- I have no idea what I’m doing.
- I’m not a writer.
- I’m not an expert.
- Who’s going to read this anyway?
- And on and on and on…
The above comments are things I’ve said to myself and comments clients and writers have made to me. We’ve all been there. One of the first steps to getting through it is acknowledging that these are just stories we tell ourselves to explain our pain, our feelings, and our decisions, like the story that if we take a break, we’re a quitter!
The next step is to capture these stories. Dr. Brown suggests writing yourself a letter, get it all out and get petty. See your story on the page. Then, you can start seeing your fear for what it is and begin to move forward, embracing your creative brilliance. This is the “rumble” part of her Rising Strong framework.
When I first started reading Rising Strong, I didn’t realize how much of it applied to creatives, but I recommend it if you keep hitting the wall of creative resistance. There are so many places resistance comes from and as many ways to deal with it.
Without knowing it, I’ve used Brene Brown’s process as I’ve journaled about my frustrations and struggles. I’ve also had success with embracing my inner critic, expressing gratitude to her for keeping me safe from the vulnerability of creating and sharing my creative work, and moving on.
Or you could power through the energy that is repelling you, give it the metaphorical finger, sit down, show up, and do the work anyway. For more on this approach, I encourage you to read Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art. The author argues that to be a pro, you show up every day, you show up whether you’re inspired or not, and you stay there, committed to the work until it’s done. This works. I can promise that you’ll make progress, but it’s not the only way to get through to the end.
Julia Cameron offers some exercises in The Artist’s Way on dealing with our creative monsters.
I am a writer. I identify as a writer and have faced my share of creative resistance, and the gentler approaches work better for me. Mr. Pressfield’s approach exhausts me. (I also wonder if he ever had toddlers or teens — “minor” distractions — encroaching on his “show up and do the work anyway” time. But I digress.)
Find what works for you. We have to find our own way in and through to reach the other side.
Discovering YOUR Creative Process
We live in a quickly moving world that prioritizes and celebrates productivity and achievement. I’ve fallen deep into the rabbit hole of trying to “write faster” to increase my output and publish more. What happened during those experiments? I learned that I don’t like to write that fast. It’s no longer fun or enjoyable, so I lowered my expectations for myself and writing became fun again.
Does this make me the “amateur” stuck in the land of creative resistance that Stephen Pressfield rages against in The War of Art? Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter.
I’ve learned, over the course of writing five novels and blogging for well over a decade, what works for me. I’ve also now got the confidence at midlife to approach my creative work however I damn well please without worrying if I’m doing it “right.”
I invite you to discover that for yourself as well.
The creative and writing process is an iterative one in that it changes from person to person and even from project to project. Embrace that.
When we’re students in school, we learn that the shortest distance from Point A to Point B is a straight line, and much of the lessons we’re taught are organized in a very linear fashion. A big piece of curriculum design is figuring out the steps of a process, so it can be taught at scale. This is where “THE WRITING PROCESS” comes from. It has five steps to follow that make it easy for teachers to teach and grade: prewriting, drafting, revision, editing, and publishing. I had a poster that I was required to hang on my classroom wall that highlighted these neat and tidy steps.
But here’s the problem, while every piece of writing does generally go through these steps, they do not occur neatly, one after the other. The idea that it’s a straight line from prewriting to publishing is patently false.
This neat and tidy linear process completely ignores ideation and incubation, two steps that reappear over and over and over throughout the writing of a book. It ignores the fact that we dip in and out of all the steps repeatedly as we write.
We get a new idea and go back to our draft or our structure and figure out where it might fit in. We ponder it and think about it on walks or while staring out the window. We read the last section we wrote and revise and edit before starting on drafting the next section (which I recommend despite the common advice out there to only write forward).
What writing might look like
There are so many ways to tackle the actual work of writing a book. We often think that starting a book at the beginning, writing daily, and drafting your chapters and sections in order until you reach the end is the way to write a book, to get through resistance. But it’s not the only way to work.
- work on sections that feel good, or easier, or harder depending on the day
- work for longer periods of time like a few hours at a stretch several times a week
- work in 20-30 minute increments throughout the week
- start a book, then pause, let it marinate a bit, work on something else, and get back to the original project
- have several projects going at once in different stages such as ideation, drafting, or revising
- focus on one project from beginning to end before diving into the next
- take shorter creative breaks like a walk in the middle of a writing session
- take longer breaks to fill that creative well
My point here is that you don’t know how you best work until you’ve gotten a full book (or three) under your belt. And even then, your creative process is an iterative, living, thing. It could change on your next project.
Creativity and Our Brain
The creative and writing process is much more of a spiral as we dip in and out of ideas. In her book Your Creative Brain, author Shelley Carson discusses both the deliberate and the spontaneous pathways to creativity and the neurology behind it. Sometimes we sit and deliberately ponder a problem in our writing or our drafts; we work consciously on a solution. Other times, we wake with the solution in our brains, our subconscious having done its job.
This is called insight (we’ve all experienced it). They’ve actually tracked the region in the right temporal lobe that lights up at the moment of insight which is kind of cool.
Different parts of our brains “light up” when we are doing either deliberate creative work OR spontaneous creative work. Pausing and taking a break is an evolutionary process that our brains have developed in relation to creativity and creative output. They both work.
But here’s the key, spontaneous creativity only happens during the incubation phase of the creative process. This is the phase where you rest. You let the problem go. You stop focusing on it.
According to Dr. Carson in The Creative Brain, several things happen during this time when we’re resting and taking a break:
- The rest gives you a chance to recover from mental fatigue
- We allow ourselves to forget about solutions that haven’t worked but that we’ve become fixated on as the only possible solution or route forward
- Focusing on other matters allows our brain to generate solutions and ideas in our subconscious while our conscious attention is focused elsewhere
- The break allows us to focus on things that are unrelated to your current problem but that might provide the exact solution that you need. You’re opening yourself up to finding new solutions and making connections in to seemingly unrelated areas that may lead to the proverbial “Eureka” moment!
What does this tell us? That if we’re struggling with our writing, a break may be exactly what our brains need to work through our book problems, the ones that are making it feel heavy and challenging.
This is a gift! You can take a deliberate creative break from your project in order to take advantage of spontaneous creativity and find your own creative process. Perhaps you need to build breaks into your writing process.
This doesn’t mean you’re a quitter or an amateur.
It means you’re working in the way that works best for you.
If you’re writing your first book, play with your process. Give yourself permission to see what works for you. If your book project feels heavy, set it aside for a few days or weeks. Go on walks. Take a break. Do not judge yourself and feel like a quitter. See if that break helps your process. Work on something else, perhaps a shorter piece like an article, short story, blog post, social media posts, or just journal. Write for your eyes only, not for others to read.
Then, get back to your project. Does it still feel heavy and hard and messy? Or have you found new inspiration and insight to move forward?
If it still feels challenging, try a different strategy. Embrace Stephen Pressfield’s method of becoming a Pro and doing the work whether you feel inspired or not. Show up at your writing desk anyway, even when it feels hard, heavy, and messy. See how that works. Does that get you through the hard parts? Is facing and working through your resistance more effective?
You can also try a few other strategies that I outline. None of this is about quitting. It’s about playing with and discovering what works for you.
Track how you feel and how much progress you make on your book as you play with these strategies. Journal it. Find YOUR process.
Even if you take a break and never get back to that project, you’re not a quitter. You will have learned a ton about writing, about yourself, what you like to write, and how you work.
This is all valuable exploration and work. The creative process and the writing process are just that, processes. And we get to decide our own best process and we need to allow ourselves the space, time, and flexibility to do that.
And honestly, most writers who’ve been writing for any length of time have half or fully completed manuscripts in files on our computers. I have them. My writing friends do. My critique partners do. Tere is ZERO shame in having partial manuscripts.
Are we quitters and failures? Nope. We’re writers, open to exploring our craft and our processes.
What’s your favorite way to break through resistance? Share in the comments!
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