When to Write and When Not to Write
Feb 06, 2020
By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Hannah Barnhart
Writers are hardly ever just writers; we are almost always something else, too. We are parents, teachers, students, editors, servers, bartenders. We are artists, but we might also be athletes, musicians, travelers, fanatics, aficionados. Whatever other occupation or hobby you might have as a writer, your life lends itself to uneven schedules—waking up with young children before dawn, working a late shift, or being slammed during the semester and having long, drawn out breaks in between. Realistically, finding and sticking to a regular writing routine when writers’ lives are so changing can be a real challenge, and despite the adage “write every day,” sometimes this just isn’t possible. Even MFA candidates, who have made an official (and financial!) commitment to writing, can struggle with consistency.
We’ve just returned from winter break at CSU and I thought I was the only one who found it nearly impossible to write during break—but as it turns out, few among us had an especially productive time over the holidays. Most of us spent our breaks visiting family members, traveling, sleeping, or catching up on Netflix shows. We read for pleasure and engaged in other hobbies; we worked seasonal jobs to supplement our incomes. Personally, I went to Telluride (where I used to live full-time) and I spent those five weeks couch surfing and ski instructing. I didn’t spend even a moment alone, which meant that I didn’t spend much time writing. And I think—contrary to popular belief—that this was good for my writing.
A semester schedule makes it easy to fall into a rhythm. When you’re in the same place every day, immersed in writing culture, surrounded by a supportive community, and meeting deadlines, the amount that you can produce is extraordinary. But four months of intensive writing practice can be draining and it can take a toll on mental health. Over break, I found it healthy, and thus useful, to entirely unplug. I found it useful to not write for a while, because when I returned, I felt like I had created a healthy distance from my work. A long, nonliterary break allowed me to reset. I returned to my work this semester with fresh ideas and renewed motivation.
As writers—especially student writers—we frequently suffer from imposter syndrome. Labeling the term “writer” as part of who we are as people seems not to fit, at first, especially when we’re just starting out or are unpublished. Am I still a “writer” if I am not “writing” in a consistent way? Is this something I’m really supposed to be doing if I’m not doing it every day?
But like all occupations, writers need to take breaks, because we are not just writers. We need to write, but we also need to live—we need to tend to the other parts of ourselves. Now that the semester is heating back up, I’ve resolved to take more breaks in the spirit of maintaining a better balance. I now have a personal rule that I spend at least one day a week NOT writing even a single word. Not thinking about writing. Not talking about writing. Not even reading! Turning my brain off. On that day, I’ll do something totally nonliterary, like I did over break—going outside, dancing, or spending quality time with people. These activities allow me to tap into a kind of emotional well that I can’t always access when I am sitting down and thinking about what words I would use to describe it.
Like most of us, I used to feel guilty for taking breaks. Now, I believe it is healthy, necessary, and productive. I believe that you don’t have to live and breathe something all the time to be successful at it.
Routines are great, and I have plenty of them. But it is just as important to break routine and do something unexpected and different. Everything in moderation: even writing.