We all need down time in our writing lives—a planned vacation, Christmas with the family, a buffer between big projects. Sometimes we get down time whether we’ve chosen it or not (I’m looking at you, COVID). Whatever the cause, it can be good to put down our pens or shut our laptops for a while. Vacation is my time to catch up on reading, and I savor it.
But time away creates an inevitable problem: how to get back into the writing habit.
I try to coordinate vacations with the end of a novel draft and use my departure date as a deadline. For me, there’s nothing worse than leaving a novel half-written. More than three days away from a novel-in-progress and I have to read back a few chapters to remind myself where I left off and trick myself back into the rhythm of the writing. More than a week and I basically have to read from the beginning—to say nothing of reviewing all those cryptic half-written notes that no longer make any sense.
The solution is not don’t take time off. That can be a direct route to burnout. We can’t be on all the time. We need that down time to recharge our batteries. Filling the well, as Julia Cameron calls it—whether by reading or having new experiences or meeting new people. Or just doing nothing. It’s essential. Taking zero time off can result in work that feels stale; it can even kill your desire to write altogether.
But say you have taken time off. You’ve had a great vacation and now Monday looms—the day you’ve decided it’s time to get back to your desk, back to whatever creative project you’ve been working on. You’re nervous. Afraid you’ll be rusty. Or worse: you’re afraid that whatever magic allowed you to fill the blank page is most certainly gone by now, never to return.
Of course, that’s nonsense. But if you’re anything like me, those are the thoughts running through your head. And nonsense or not, they feel real enough to cause panic.
I’ve found a few ways to smooth out the return to writing after a significant break.
Maybe they’ll work for you.
Set a date and time when you will return to your desk and SHOW UP, no matter how hard it feels. Don’t make excuses or talk yourself out of it.
Take the Pressure Off
When I was doing my MFA, my novel-writing instructor, Gail Anderson-Dargatz gave us a mantra to follow: write crap. We had a lot of work to produce in a short period of time, and many of us were novices when it came to writing a novel. Putting pressure on yourself to be the next Margaret Atwood or write a bestseller guarantees only one thing: a blank page. When you take that pressure away and allow yourself to write anything, as long as the words show up on the page you’ve achieved your goal. As Jodi Picoult puts it, you can’t edit a blank page. And chances are, whatever you come up with won’t be crap at all.
Start By Editing Someone Else’s Work
Sometimes it’s the act of sitting at your desk and moving your pen on paper that’s enough to reinspire you. If you’re editing someone else’s work, there’s nothing at stake for you. You’re not judging yourself. You’re not thinking, See? I knew I was no good, I knew the magic was gone. You’re helping someone else—and at the same time getting your mind back in the habit of thinking about craft.
Start By Editing Previous Chapters of Your Own Work
If you did have to step away from a half-written project, ease yourself in by reading a few chapters back—or even from the beginning. It’s like giving yourself a running start. Your body and brain will get into the groove and before you know it, the ideas will be flowing again, and you’ll be adding sentences to the draft.
Try Another Art Form
Creativity feeds creativity. If the idea of returning to your desk has you paralyzed, take a walk and snap some photos. If you play a musical instrument, put in some time at the piano. Draw, paint, dance. Creativity is a muscle. If you coax it, it will come back to life.
Try Using Writing Prompts
Prompts can be a fun way to stretch yourself, and the internet has so many good ones now. There’s no pressure in a prompt. You’re not trying to create anything coherent. You’re just writing for, say, fifteen minutes, and the only rule is to keep your hand moving. You can do that.
Tip: One Stop for Writers has an idea generator you can use to create prompts…or help brainstorm new aspects of a current project. Today is the last day to get 25% off any One Stop for Writers subscription.
Write In a Group
There’s a certain magic to writing in a group that’s hard to explain but I’ve found it to be undeniable. It’s as if creativity is contagious. When you surround yourself by people who are writing, you’ll write too.
The return back to writing always feels a little awkward and nerve-wracking at first. But persist and be kind to yourself. The habit will come back faster than you expect, and your work will be better for having taken the time away.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author, editor, and writing teacher who lives in Vancouver, BC. Her newest novel My Long List of Impossible Things, came out in 2020 with Annick Press. It was a finalist for the Vine Awards and is a Junior Library Guild gold standard selection. She is the author of The House of One Thousand Eyes, which was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and won numerous awards including the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award. She’s also the author of the historical picture book, A Year of Borrowed Men, as well as the fantasy novel, The Beggar King, and a chapbook, Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in literary reviews around the world.
Michelle holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC and has been a senior editor at The Darling Axe since its inception, though she’s been editing and teaching creative writing for decades. She loves working closely with writers to hone their manuscripts and discuss the craft.
Jennifer Pierce says
Thanks for the practical post. When I’m stuck, I’ll look at a tutorial, whether it’s on One Stop For Writers or another site. It helps me focus on my craft and pushes me back into the process.
Michelle Barker says
That’s a great strategy! Anything that gets us thinking about craft again can be a way in. Thanks for the tip.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
My personal go-to has always been to read a previous chapter or two and set a timer on how long I can spend reading/editing it before moving on to the next chapter, so glad to see this on the list. 🙂 I find the other thing that can help is to NOT finish a scene (or a sentence) when I leave for the break (like a vacation). This way, it’s easier for me to “pick up” again and finish off what I was writing, and it takes the pressure off a bit because I know where I need to go. 🙂
Michelle Barker says
Yes, I think that was Hemingway’s trick. I often leave notes for myself wherever I stop, so that when I next pick up the manuscript I’m not facing a bunch of white space.
Jan Sikes says
This is a timely post for me to find this morning as I am just returning from some days away with family, leaving behind a half-written book. 🙂 I will take all of these suggestions to heart and plunge back in. Thanks, Michelle!
Michelle Barker says
Oh, I’m so pleased! I hope the suggestions work for you. Good luck!
BECCA PUGLISI says
I think this is a challenge for everyone. For me, the hardest part of writing is getting started, so I have a hard time being productive after a break. I have a quote from Dean Wesley Smith in my office that echoes your #2 point: Dare to Be Bad. When I’m struggling, it helps to remind myself that the first draft can stink to high heavens, and that’s okay. It’s getting the words down that matters at that stage.
Michelle Barker says
Dare to be bad! I love it. And the thing is, when we give ourselves permission to be bad, most of the time things turn out a lot better than we expect. I get that kind of paralysis when I’m facing a key scene and I’m worried it won’t come out perfect the first time (which is a joke: it never does). I just tell myself to write anything, doesn’t matter. It works for me.
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for sharing so many great ways to get back in the writing flow, Michelle!
I used to write/revise daily–even on vacation–before realizing I needed to take a break and enjoy every second with my family. Getting back into it, especially after being away for a week or so, was often challenging. Group writing was a huge help for me–especially when doing Word Wars with friends. I love a good challenge so much, it overcomes any fear I have of plunging back into a project.
Michelle Barker says
Group writing is awesome. It’s a great way to ease yourself back in—plus it’s fun.