I’ve been writing fiction since I learned how to spell, but after I graduated from college I didn’t write for nearly a year. I’d written almost constantly through college: stories and novel manuscripts and plays for theater festivals. In the months after graduation while I searched for a job, I could not find the energy to sit down and put pen to paper. The absence of writing in my life was unsettling, frightening. I worried that I wouldn’t know how to start again.
Of course I did, and I came to graduate school to continue writing, but I’ve still experienced occasional moments of creative emptiness. These moments often come at the end of a grad school semester, when I’ve spent the last couple of months writing in all my spare moments, working to meet workshop deadlines. Deadlines are wonderful for motivating me to produce stories, but after I turn in the work, I often feel a little lost.
Last week I turned in fifteen pages of translated fiction and finished a class for which I wrote and rewrote fifty pages of my linked stories project. This weekend I met with my weekly writing group on a friend’s balcony. We all brought notebooks and took out our pens. And then we mostly talked for two hours. I wrote one paragraph. I think we all just needed a break from our writing.
The thing is, time I spend away from the page isn’t wasted. While I’m doing other things, working or traveling or chores, my mind is working on writing problems. If I’m reading, I often find myself grabbing paper to take notes about ideas for stories, and when I jog I think through scenes or character arcs. Even talking with my friends can help: often bits and pieces of their experiences become the inspiration for my characters and stories. Eavesdropping is another productive pastime. I love to build stories off of snippets of conversations I hear on the train or the street. These narratives are often more surprising and real than anything I can make up. This spring I overheard the following gem: “When she found out he was cheating on her, she beat the hell out of him with a golf club.” That story practically writes itself.
The point is, taking a break can be an important part of my writing process. I actually do some of my best work when I’ve allowed my brain to rest. What I struggle with is how to give myself some time off without becoming paralyzed the way I was during my first year out of college. Plus, I want to make the most of the wonderful gift of windows and desk space and quiet for this year. One of my goals for this summer is to establish a writing schedule. Writing regularly has all sorts of benefits, from defeating writer’s block to unleashing creativity.
Fortunately, I don’t have to walk away from my computer to give my brain some time off. I’ve been working so hard on my translation and linked stories projects, that I haven’t taken any time in the last couple months to just have fun with words. Telling stories has always given me great joy. This is why I love writing, why I’ve found time in my life for it. Sometimes, in the jumble of workshops and craft lectures I lose sight of this. So, I’m letting my writing out of school for the summer. I’m giving myself permission to follow wherever my imagination takes me, to enjoy the process without worrying about the final product.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll return to my linked stories project with my passion rekindled. I have work to do, stories to draft, revisions to make before the fall. After I take a break.
Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow