Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
The hardest thing about writing is starting, which is why it is so hard to stop. I am not talking about procrastinating, though there is a powerful case to be made for procrastinating; the real pros know how to do it in a way that allows them to delude themselves into thinking they are not procrastinating at all but instead doing important things like taking out the recycling and making sure the car is still parked outside.
I am talking about stopping. Ceasing all writing. Stepping away from the keyboard and turning your back on your work.
I suspect that there are those who have just read this and thought, not me. Not ever, no way. Much as they’d like to do just that, they cannot imagine taking the step because if they so much as contemplate stopping, they fear that they will never start again. After all, look how hard it was to get going in the first place.
And now you’re saying to stop?
That is exactly what I am saying.
I am not saying this to be nice. I am saying it because I have come to believe that it can make your work better.
Writing, especially when you feel that you are on your game, exerts a power akin to a magnetic pull. You cannot see it but you can certainly feel it, if only after the fact: the tightening in the shoulders and neck; the eye strain that accompanies the sensation of having being drawn closer to the screen, the way the great pianist Glenn Gould would hunker so low over the keys he could have played Bach with his nose. In his wonderful book, On Becoming a Novelist, the late John Gardner described this phenomenon as a writer snapping into a trance state. You know you’ve been there because just before it happened you looked at the clock and when you looked at it again an hour had somehow elapsed.
Where was I? You were one with the story.
This does not happen often – certainly not often enough – and when it does it is thrilling and so exhausting that it is all you can do to lie on the floor and breathe. Even a few minutes in that “trance” can leave you drained and needing to pause.
Pause. Then, back to it before the pause becomes a nap and a nap devours the workday and the workday becomes…forever.
Deadlines also keep writers from allowing themselves to stop. Many writers say they need a deadline, if only to get them off their duffs. Deadlines are useful in that they put writers in a position of having to answer to a higher power: an editor. The pressure of deadlines frees writers from the interminable existential battle with which we all struggle: Can I do it? Will I fail? For if I fail what am I? Deadlines are an end point at which the bell rings and the writer must be done. Successful writers know how to meet a deadline, generally with no time to spare, like the contestants on the Great British Baking Show who are always putting the finishing touches on their three-tiered hazelnut and mango-infused ganache wrapped in white chocolate just as the hosts call out “one minute to go bakers.”
Meeting a deadline is a core skill, but it is one that comes with an unintended peril: leaving no time to assess, to look back, to stop. And yet the irony is that most writers will tell you that they wish they had that time, even if they refuse, resist, or avoid. If only I had the time, they say. But they could have, and should have.
This is what can happen when you stop: nothing. Ceasing all writing eliminates the flood of stimuli racing through the brain. Writing is not about words, per se. It is making decisions about words, alone and in combination, in ways that allow a writer to bring ideas, images and sensations to life through the miraculous medium of words on a page. That process brings you closer to the work, intellectually and emotionally. It’s akin to a life spent in an endless cycle of “serious talks” with a loved one. Those talks matter. But sometimes you just need to stop and watch TV, if only to allow the brain a breather.
Keats in his too-short life wrote many great poems and also coined a term that on the surface seems contradictory yet succeeds in distilling what happens when writers allow themselves to stop. He called it “negative capability.” It was a state of mind, he wrote, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
It suggests that while the mind does not shut down when the cognitive machine of writing is switched off, it shifts the brain from a productive mode – Must. Finish. Story. – to a one where the lights are lowered, the shades drawn, and the mind is allowed to just be.
For writers, that is an interlude that allows for such questions as: Is the piece working? What am I not seeing? Why do I feel it’s not quite right? And, this is good isn’t it? You cannot answer those questions when you are in the throes of creating, not with all that noise hurtling around your brain. You need to tell your brain to shut up so you can…not think. So you can, instead, allow random thoughts, and even doubts, to rumble around for a while.
I know this because I just did it. I wrote the preceding three paragraphs quickly and in doing so made maybe fifty decisions and when I came to the end I needed to stop, and not look at it, and instead look out the window – as I write this there is a snow storm approaching – and address an envelope for something I need to return. The sky is darkening. I need to get the envelope to the post office before the snow starts falling. And now, having stopped long enough to feel that I’ve had some distance from this newsletter, some time apart from the words, I can return and see it more clearly.
Every time you take a short break you return to writing. And that should assure you that you always will. To write is to need to do it. You will always need to do it. We all stop all the time. We all come back.
With that I’ll be taking a break.
See you in the New Year.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.