It happens to all of us: at some point, our creative well runs dry. There are lots of reasons for this, and one is that we become so focused on the work that we don’t allow ourselves to have fun. Farah Naz Rishi, a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, is here to tell us why we a break from our writing can often make it—and us—stronger.
I’ll admit it: I get distracted from writing all the time. I know I’m not alone; most writers also work other jobs, go to school, raise kids, juggling all the distractions and demands of life. And with so many things vying for our attention, play time is usually the first to drop from our demanding schedules. So naturally, as writers, we tell ourselves the only way to focus is to lock away any and all “unnecessary” distractions—our TV, our video games, even other books. With looming deadlines and the ever-hungry desire to achieve publication, what choice do we have? As the old adage goes, there is no art without suffering.
After all, if you’re not focusing on your book, pouring your entire being into it like everyone else seems to be doing, then can you truly call yourself a writer?
That was the approach I took when I first began writing my debut novel, I Hope You Get This Message. I refused to give myself days off, and for months, stopped playing video games—my favorite way to relax when I’m stressed. It didn’t matter that the kinds of video games I enjoy have epic, sweeping story lines that formed my love of story in the first place; I convinced myself I had to write fast, and I had to write well, with no room for compromise. Unsurprisingly, I quickly lost steam, and had to doggy-paddle my way through the soggy middle. My mental health took a turn for the worse, and eventually, my inability to write became so terrible that I began to doubt my ability to write anything, much less something of substance.
When I was at the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016, our instructor, Jeanne Cavelos, explained the concept of a creative well that lives within each of us–the collective pool of media and experience from which we draw inspiration. But like any well, it can and often will run dry if you let it. Similarly, if you keep drawing from the same kinds of media over and over, if you refuse to diversify the material you absorb, then the work you produce will likewise fail to grow in new, interesting ways. For the first time in my life, I was given permission to read, to watch a show, or even play video games, instead of write. I was told that it was okay to play, to explore the spaces beyond the empty pages—and that in fact, sometimes, it’s vital to do so.
I found my love of writing again when I allowed myself to step away from it. I used the occasional inability to focus to my advantage by critically engaging with the media I consumed, using the time away from my book as an opportunity to bring something new back to my writing.
For example, if I’m not enjoying a movie, I home in on exactly why: Is it the stilted dialogue? Does the movie fail to develop tension—how? Am I not understanding how a character is struggling to achieve their goal? Like a crow, when I venture away from home, I’m always on the lookout for shiny objects to incorporate into my nest when I return.
With this in mind, I gratefully leapt back into playing video games. But instead of a time-wasting distraction, I found inspiration. Games encourage exploration of environment to creatively reveal world-building. How could I use that, I wondered, in my own writing? I began to think about ways to think of worldbuilding on a micro level in I Hope You Get This Message, and in doing so, found deeper ways the characters could engage with the world around them, which in turn made them feel more real. Emboldened with these new ways to think about writing, I created an entire codex for my book, with most of it not even coming on the page but still deepening and enriching the process.
By allowing myself to play, writing became less about explaining a story—a daunting process—and more about the fun challenge of designing a story, the way a game’s narrative designer would. As I wrote, I had to convince myself and my future readers that I was telling the story in the only and inevitable way it could be told, even though every story has opportunities for the narrative to branch and break (a concept that a majority of role-playing games pride themselves on). It seems silly now, looking back on it: of course writing wouldn’t be fun if I’d forgotten how to have fun.
The beauty is that video games are just one way to refill the creative well. Using the basic critical thinking framework of questioning why a story—any kind of story—works or doesn’t work for you applies to pretty much every form of media. And if you practice engaging with media that way, breaking down every story bit by bit, you begin to do so on a subconscious level; you won’t even realize you’re still, technically, working.
So if you don’t have a writing instructor to give you permission, then allow me to assure you that there is no shame in taking a break. If you have a video game that’s collecting dust on your shelf, pick it up with the intention of refilling that ol’ creative well. Your writing will thank you for it.
Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani-American Muslim writer and voice actor, but in another life, she’s worked stints as a lawyer, a video game journalist, and an editorial assistant. She received her B.A. in English from Bryn Mawr College, her J.D. from Lewis & Clark Law School, and her love of weaving stories from the Odyssey Writing Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s probably hanging out with video game characters. You can find her at home in Philadelphia, or on Twitter at @far_ah_way.
Just like Farah, students at Odyssey Writing Workshop commonly experience light-years of epiphany that influence their work for years to come. Odyssey is now accepting applications for its annual six-week residential workshop for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. This year’s workshop takes place June 1 – July 10 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Scholarship opportunities are available.