Not Writing is Writing

Cover photo by Blair Speed

This summer I had a single goal: finish the first final draft of my novel. I spent June and July in the tunnel with my spoon until I had a functional manuscript complete. Finishing felt a like a surreal combination of relief, excitement, dread and estrangement.

But hold the champagne and cake. If I’ve learned anything about writing it’s that the process is anything but linear. While I have a functional manuscript, there’s still work to be done. I joked to my friend the other day that I feel the tunnel calling me back and I’m clawing at the earth, refusing to go back in.

This is hyperbole for humor’s sake, of course, because if there was really that much resistance I’d like to think I have the sanity to not write anymore. What I’m trying to say is I finished a big push. And what did I do? Did I dive right into editing?

Hell. No.

I didn’t write anything beyond blog posts. I didn’t even sniff the manuscript. I gave it to a few readers and went into the literal woods. I read other books within my genre. I got caught up on a year’s worth of National Geographics. And I tried not to think about the book much at all.

You may be thinking, ‘Scuse me but wat? Aren’t novelists supposed to be, I dunno, noveling all the time?

Here’s the point, friends: not writing is writing. It’s actually a very important part of writing.

When I taught workshops, I often stressed the similarities between writing and activities viewed as “physical.” Would a runner perform at her max year round? Would a climber? No. Every body needs rest from max physical exertion. The same is true for writing.

During the rest period for an athlete, muscle rebuilds itself. Synopses are solidified. The body repairs and prepares for the next push.

In my experience, writing is a physical activity. Very physical. The body and mind work together to create, and often times I’ll finish a three or five hour writing burst feeling like I just ran a mountain.

When a writer finishes a really big burst, like the two-months I spent “performing” at my max, I believe it’s time to rest. Just like the athlete is being active during rest, repairing and preparing, the writer’s body and mind heals and gathers energy (and inspiration) for whatever is next in the process.

A rest for an athlete is often encouraged to be “active,” though not exhausting. A climber may go on some light runs during his rest week. A runner may go to more yoga classes than usual.

Active rest for writers, in my experience, involves a little reading and lots of daydreaming. When I’m in “the tunnel,” I don’t read a lot because our brains are porous and the language of another’s writing often bleeds into my own if I’m reading. So I don’t. I strive to hone my authentic voice when I’m in the tunnel.

When I’m not writing, I tend to read a book every few days. I’m just so freaking excited to be reading again. I also often sit in chairs, preferably outside where sunlight filters in green though leaves, and let my mind wander. During these periods of “not thinking,” I tend to have my biggest breakthroughs in sticky plot points or character developments.

Bottom lines: Not writing is writing. Active rest is essential for the quality of one’s work.

These are philosophies guiding my writing process, and though they are not unique to me, they are not universal to every writer. Some writers thrive off of writing without breaks.

With a large project like a novel, I find the ebb and flow of work and rest the best way to ensure quality work and the longevity of my writing practice. I encourage many writers, when taking on their own big projects, to pencil in time for not writing. It may be the thing their writing needed all along.