On the Benefits of Not Writing

Confession: I am a writer who does not write.

    I haven’t even been trying to write. My routine has gone from steady, to iffy, to pretty much imaginary, to absolutely nonexistent over the past month. I have been working hard and playing hard, but making too little time for my own creative endeavors. It’s comforting, I suppose, to know that I’m not the first writer who is caught in a cycle of avoidance and guilt. In Gloria Steinem’s words,

“Writers are notorious for using any reason to keep from working: overresearching, retyping, going to meetings, waxing the floors - anything.” 

    But I am actually here to argue that, as writers, we shouldn’t always feel guilty for a lack of productivity. Let’s be honest, creativity and productivity have this weird sort of inverse relationship governed by the whims of time and influenced by the unpredictable variables of coffee, insomnia, and late-night T.V. People are often most creative when they are at their least productive.

Thinking about how I’m not writing reminds me that I had the privilege one evening in college of dining with a writer who was a guest of the university. There were several other students and professors eating with this writer, and one professor asked our guest what he had been working on. He responded, “Nothing. I’ve been teaching.” His ability to end a conversation with a few words was unmatchable, and his answer made quite an impression on me. I’d been taking writing classes where my professors told me to write every day. Now here was an author who had published several collections of short stories and poetry, admitting outright that he was not working on anything at all. He was not even apologetic; he did not seem upset about it. The other professor paused, somewhat taken aback, before changing the subject.

The way I see it though, within a reasonable amount of time, taking a break from writing to do other things can be healthy - and necessary. The periods during which I did not write have been, for me, times to gather material for writing later. And as one of my friends mentioned today, creativity often comes in waves or spurts which are difficult to control.

I am not advocating constant procrastination; having a consistent routine is a vital part of the practice for any writer. But on so many blog posts and writing advice articles recently I see the mantra that writers should write every single day. That, frankly, can be exhausting and even detrimental to creativity. Not only that but the feeling that one should be writing whenever one is not inspires the guilt and depression that writers are famous for. I agree that a steady routine is a necessity for the work of drafting and revising. But a break in routine can often be just what a writer needs to get the juices flowing once more.