Food for Thought: How NOT Writing Can Actually Help You Write
I’ve only been doing this “professional writer” thing for a couple years now, so I’m going to tell you straight up that I don’t have all the answers. I’m still learning, right along with anybody who came to the Swoon Reads Blog looking for writing advice or conversations about the craft. And hopefully even the writer who’s been doing it professionally for fifty years is still trying to learn new stuff. If I’m lucky enough to still be writing books that are publishable in fifty years, I hope that I’ll still be trying to figure it all out. Because there aren’t any perfect answers when it comes to writing or art or filmmaking or music or whatever your creative passion is. The only way that really works is the way that works for you.
All that being said, it’s still nice to have resources, like this blog, to go to when you need help or inspiration. I know that one of my favorite things to do in high school was find author interviews on YouTube. It didn’t matter if I’d read the author’s work or not. What mattered was that they were speaking about craft, their process, what inspired them. And as a result, it inspired me (and then I almost always went out and bought a copy of that author’s book). I picked up so many great, solid pieces of writing advice from videos and articles like that over the years, little nuggets of authorly wisdom, some of them recurring in multiple interviews with different authors, that I carry around with me to this day. Here’s one of them: If you’re having trouble writing, do something that has absolutely nothing to do with writing.
When I first started writing The Soul Keepers, I worked like a well-tuned machine. I was up at 5:30 in the morning every day, Monday through Friday. I’d write for at least two hours, sometimes more. And then my kids would get up, and my wife would start getting ready for work, and I’d make breakfast, and we’d jump right into our day, which typically wouldn’t end for me and my wife until at least eleven o’clock at night. Then I’d go to sleep, wake up the next day, and do it all over again.
That all seemed great at the time, because I wrote the first draft of that book in just under three months. But when it was finished and I had submitted it to Swoon, I was exhausted. My brain was burned out on creativity, something I like to think of as Imagination Dehydration. So as I waited to see what would happen with TSK, I started recharging my batteries, thinking about what I wanted to work on next, what I would work on if The Soul Keepers was picked up, what I would work on if it wasn’t. And during most of that time, I barely wrote at all.
Victoria Schwab talks often on social media about how writing isn’t just about putting words onto paper. That part is really just transcribing the story as you see it in your head. The other part of writing, though, is thinking about your story, being excited about it, fitting different jigsaw pieces together in the back of your mind while also doing something mundane like washing the dishes. This has always been the best version of this advice that I’ve seen: Even if you’re not actually writing writing, you can still be working on a project to some degree.
In this sense, it’s easy to let go of the guilt that you sometimes (read: always) feel when you’re putting time and effort into something else when you could be sitting in front of the laptop boosting your word-count. I get it, we’ve all been there. But let me tell you that some of the biggest, brightest A-HA moments have come to me not while typing out my story, but while doing something totally separate. Dishes, laundry, changing the oil in the car, cooking.
Ah, cooking. When I first moved out on my own, I lived in a studio apartment in the basement of somebody’s house and my diet consisted entirely of foods that could be prepared using a microwave. My “kitchen” was a metal shelf with a microwave and a George Foreman grill. But over the years, my wife and I have drastically expanded our culinary pursuits. We’re budding home cooks, and one of my favorite things to do is put on some punk rock and spend some time making a good meal. I make a pretty mean shrimp and sausage gumbo, if I do say so myself.
But one of the best parts about having a hobby that takes me away from writing is that I can use the time I spend on one passion to help boost my motivation for the other. When I’m in the kitchen making gluten-free carbonara and listening to Knuckle Puck, there’s a part of my brain still working on the story I’m writing. In the somewhat bizarre, mindspace-y type image, there’s a little me sitting at his worktable in the right hemisphere of my brain, scribbling frantically about grim reaper-esque monsters and giant ships in the afterlife and demons. Meanwhile, the rest of my brain is occupied with homemade biscuits and gravy. And occasionally, that little me leaps up from his chair (it’s probably more like a rickety old stool, because I’m cruel like that) and shouts about some stroke of genius. Then I have to stop mashing potatoes or whatever and grab my phone so I can quickly jot down that idea before it dissolves into mush. And at that point, I’m actually writing something.
This is all stuff you’ve probably heard before in some variation or another, but I wouldn’t reiterate something if I hadn’t had success with it myself. It’s good advice not just because we all need a break sometimes, when that Imagination Dehydration sets in and we’re literally typing nonsense, but also because it gives us an excuse to find something we’re interested in that isn’t reading or writing. Find yourself a hobby that doesn’t require a ton of physical or mental effort and use that to help charge your brain when you’re not writing writing. Whether it’s cooking, photography, interpretive dance, whatever, I guarantee that you’ll have better luck working out that plot problem while doing that instead of staring at the wretched blinking cursor.
Now I’m going to get a snack. All this food talk got me hungry. Best of luck and thanks for reading!