When to Back Off

October 23, 2011 at 3:35 pm (Writing) (, , )

As writers, we stress over our projects.


We stress over the plot, over the characters, over the dialogue, over the pacing, over the anticipated reader reactions…we break the worrying down to such a fine science that we stress over individual words. Even when we’re not writing, we’re still stressing. Idea phase? Stressing. Planning/brainstorming phase? Stressing. Research phase? Stressing. At the job that actually pays our bills and nowhere near the current project? Yep, still stressing.

It’s consuming and exhausting, and most of all its incessant.

Which is why one of that hardest parts of learning who you are as a writer is learning when you just need to back off.

That’s it.

Just back off.

The first time you do it, maybe even the first several times, your hands will twitch. Possibly your eyes, as well. You might feel nauseous, or guilty- you know you’re supposed to working on it! And when you’re the only person or thing telling you that you can’t work on it…well, you might be tempted to cheat. You might even cave in to temptation. Your head will be pounding with all the story thoughts you should be getting done, and really that chapter only needs a bit of tweaking to be ready, and that stack of research isn’t going to do itself and oh, there’s that thing you promised to beta and…and…and…

When you start piling everything together, taking a break seems both self-indulgent and ridiculous. You don’t have time for this. You’re far too disciplined to let a day go by without writing!

The thing is, whether it’s for a whole day or just for a few hours, you need to take a break. All that stress? Mounts up. And while there are some people who are uniquely suited to stress and actually perform best under hectic conditions, most people don’t operate that way. That’s why in school when they’re supposed to teach you study methods, cramming all-nighters right before the test is not recommended. Refreshing? Certainly. But it’s all on the surface if you cram the morning of, without context, without deeper meaning, without the ability to appropriately reason it through into sound arguments and cogent points. And, chances are, however much you’ve been stressing over the studying, actually having the test sheet in front of you is likely to drive all those factoids you just tried to memorize straight out of your mind.

The more you stress over something, the more you’re likely to keep stressing over it. That one word that just doesn’t seem right? If you keep staring at it, over and over, it’s never going to seem right. Every word is going to feel wrong and it’s going to make you so frazzled you want to throw your notebook or computer across the room. (I don’t recommend either, by the way; the notebook may lose a few pages or you might tear the pages, and you really don’t want to have to replace your computer every time you have an artistic fit. If you’re prone to throwing things, I suggest you invest in spare tiles from hardware stores. They’re cheap, easy to clean up with a broom and duster, and make a very satisfying shattering sound upon impact.) BUT, that word still doesn’t feel right.

One solution is to put a sticky note on it and move on to something else.

But there’s only so many times you can do that until you’ve run out of things to do that aren’t sticky noted.

So take a break. Seriously. The only thing worse than getting stuck is burning out, and you don’t want to make yourself hate what might be a wonderful piece because you just can’t stop stressing over it. Yes, there are deadlines, and expectations, and goals, and all that rot.

I’m in the research phase for my current project, and with every page of notes, I’m remembering why I’ve never tried to write an historical before. I’ve already gone through thirteen books and five documentaries, adding up to well over four hundred pages of notes. I have ten books checked out from the library, totaling several thousand pages of reading. I have a stack of five books that I actually own that I need to go through. My dad, an amateur expert on some of the subjects I’m researching, is sending me a box with five or ten other titles. I have three documentaries by the TV waiting for me to watch them and another six or seven in my Netflix queue. This isn’t even planning. This is flat out research.

I’m starting to panic, really. I keep looking at how long it’s taken to me to accumalate what I’ve already got, and I look at the stacks of what I’ve yet to do, and then the idea of sitting and trying to plan the story through all this information sends me to the verge of a panic attack and I’m starting to wonder if it’s even possible that I’ll be ready to start writing by my goal date.

So you know what I did this morning?

I stayed in bed.

It’s gorgeous outside, the kind of October weather that Florida never gets, and my window is open with a nice lazy breeze coming through. I stayed nestled into my blankets and for a little while, I did nothing. Absolutely nothing. I just laid in the warm nest and daydreamed. And yes, a little of that was story connected, but I didn’t reach for a pen and paper, didn’t try to force the threads into a coherent pattern. I just let them drift. Then I wrote in my journal for a little bit. I let my cat in (he can’t sleep with me because he either settles into the worst possible position that wakes me up every time I try to roll over, or he gets bored with the sleeping and goes digging through everything in the room, also waking me up) and cuddled with him for a while. There is nothing more relaxing that a cat purr that goes along your entire spine. Then, when the cat started getting restless, I got up to let him out and got right back into bed. I picked up a book. It’s not a book I would normally read. It’s not for review, it’s not for research, it’s not even in a genre I read. But I picked it up because it was free as an ebook and you know what? I laughed myself silly. Probably not the author’s intent, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was completely mindless fluff reading. After hours of self-indulgence, I finally got out of bed, showered, put away the dishes, made lunch, and sat down to write this.

And you know what?

Now that I’m not stressing over it, now that I’m not panicking, I can objectively look at where I am in the current book and realize “I can finish this one today”. Yes, I have stacks of others to follow in its footsteps. It’ll still be one less than I have right now.

It’s hard to accept that we need to step back, harder still to make ourselves do it, but once we do, once we give ourselves a few hours to genuinely relax and think of nothing, we can come back the project fresh and energized and ready to throw ourselves back into it.

Do yourself a favor.

Back off for a bit.

Your book, and your health, will thank you for it.

Until next time~

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