I am practically rubbing my hands together with glee right now, because this has got to be one of my favorite writing topics of all time.
There is so much emphasis in writing culture on how much time one spends writing, how quickly one can write, how many words one can churn out in a day. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do think it’s possible to become needlessly caught up in this, our North American way of pushing and pushing and leaning in and constantly achieving and then measuring our achievements so we can question why we don’t achieve more. I recently came across an article highlighting how many more hours Americans spend working than people in other countries, and I don’t remember the specific numbers, but I do remember they were staggering–we spend hundreds more hours at work every year than people all around the world. I don’t know if we’re leading the entire pack but if not, we must be close.
If you’ve been following along with me then I’ve probably already made this clear, but I think it bears repeating: I am not a person who leans in. I am not interested in clocking my progress through a novel, or anything, for that matter, and I don’t want to write for hours and hours (trust me, the quality will fall off) or even write every day just because someone else told me that’s what a real writer does.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, and I hated it. With my kids in school and my forgiving schedule, I really had no trouble putting in a few hours a day to get my words. I aimed for 2000 a day so I would finish ahead of schedule, and I did. And by the time I finished, I had absolutely poisoned myself on the idea I’d been working on. I went through what I had and scrapped a good forty of my fifty thousand words, leaving me with ten. And I didn’t even like those very much. I ended up abandoning the project. A woman from my writing group asked me, when I told her about it, was it not better to find out in only one month that the book wouldn’t work, than to spend many more months working on it only to find myself in the same place? Maybe, but I’m afraid it’s impossible to say. If I hadn’t been in such a rush, if I had more time to sit with ideas and let them percolate instead of rushing along, dredging up experiences from my own life to fill the page, just fill and fill and fill the next blank page, it might have turned into something I loved. I suspect not, but I’ll never know for sure.
I like to take long walks and think about things, think about my characters, and let ideas come naturally. I simply can’t work at that breakneck pace, and I don’t want to. If anything could ever kill the joy of writing for me, NaNoWriMo was it. And I think in my case it’s partly because I don’t like to plot things out in advance. I figure things out as I go, and the pressure of writing fifty thousand words in a month doesn’t leave me enough time to think. It doesn’t leave me enough time for NOT writing. It may sound strange, but all that time I spend not writing is when I’m actually getting a lot of my writer work done.
I think part of this post is supposed to be about what kinds of things we do for relaxation, how we like to recharge, but I don’t think my list is all that interesting. Like most writers, I love to read. I love going for long walks, to the movies, bingeing Netflix, and hanging out on Twitter. I love sitting with a stack of holiday catalogs and thumbing through them while I drink a glass of wine and let endless reruns of Gilmore Girls play on my television.
But over many years of writing, I’ve learned one thing about what down time or not writing really means to me: it’s the space that lets me really enjoy my writing. I can be sitting flipping through catalogs when an idea for my current book pops into my head, and then I have to grab a notebook and start writing. Good ideas rarely come to me when I’m hunkered over a computer keyboard, forcing myself to pound out so many words. I seem to need the down time, the walks, the not writing, to do my best work. Leaning into something like writing doesn’t work for me. I can’t force it. And that’s just me. I know some people need to put the ass in the chair, or go for so many words a day, because otherwise recharging will take over; they won’t get any writing done at all. But if you’re like me, and you find the pressure of NaNoWriMo to be a killjoy and know that your best work only comes at a tortoise pace—well, just know that you’re not alone. We’re out there. We’re not leaning in. We’re kicking back. We can still get our writing done in that position.