Most of us writers are plagued by bad habits: we repeat a pet phrase five times in a chapter and don’t even notice, we use too many adverbs, too many fancy dialogue tags. Some of us have even been known to hold ourselves hostage to our own perfectionism. But I think there is general agreement out there that the worst of all bad writing habits is, well, not writing.
We’ve all heard the maxims about writing every day, writing what you know, writing your morning pages even if that means you have to get up for the five am writers’ club. Good writers write. They don’t shilly-shally, diddle-dawdle, mop the kitchen or do a load of laundry or hang out on Twitter when they should be writing. They don’t give in to writers’ block. There is no writer’s block. Good writers understand the concept of ass-in-chair, and they do it, even if they’re just writing a grocery list. Good writers keep writing, right?
I’m going to introduce what might be a radical concept here, so just bear with me.
I think not writing is just as important as writing.
I’m not terribly strict with myself when it comes to writing time. Now, that might not work for everyone. Some people need structure. They may write for a certain amount of time or until they have so many words or always at the same time of day. For me, that doesn’t work. I tend to write whenever the spirit moves. And I think the reason I can approach writing this way and still be productive is that even when I’m not writing, I’m still so preoccupied by my story and characters that my mind continues to work on them. Even when I don’t have my ass in the chair.
I’ve come to believe, in fact, that all the time my ass spends out of that chair (or couch, in my case) is actually vital to my process as a writer. And I think this also applies to those of you who are more scheduled and organized than I. We all need time to relax, to breathe. We need to let our waking mind focus on other things—it gives the subconscious time to create, to solve plot problems, to invent characters, to move the story forward. I don’t outline, but I have a feeling my subconscious does a lot more outlining than I realize while I’m busy with other things, and then feeds me the story I’m crafting in bits and pieces.
There are certain activities that I know help with my writing. Here are my top three:
1. Long walks in nature: not everyone loves this, but if you do, I bet you don’t need me to tell you how rejuvenating it is. The exercise clears my thoughts, and it also boosts my energy. I’ll find myself mulling over the characters in my book and am often surprised by how many fresh ideas I get. And there’s nothing better than a change of scene, however brief, if you’re feeling stuck. Afterward, you’ll come back to your work with rested eyes.
2. Driving: this is kind of an extension of the above, an activity I do (well, force myself to do when I need to go somewhere) that gets me out of the house and into a different environment. It’s also another situation in which I often find my mind wandering, in the best of ways. There’s something about the partial concentration on the road and my surroundings that allows ideas about my work to float up into my consciousness. But I think any activity that offers that kind of soft focus could have the same effect. Maybe for you it’s organizing the sock drawer, washing the windows, or baking a cake. Most of my writing ideas don’t come to me when I’m staring into space, agonizing. As soon as my mind is distracted, though, they start to flow. Even if this is just my brain’s way of providing me with an excuse to interrupt the window washing, it still works wonders!
3. Socializing: spending time with family or friends, going to parties and meeting new people. This is a tricky one for me. Like many writers, I am decidedly introverted, and going to parties, especially where I may not know many people, is actually not my favorite activity. But hanging out with friends and meeting people is an incredibly valuable resource for a writer. You never know when a character might be inspired by the demeanor—or even the outfit—of a stranger, when a snippet of conversation will inspire one in your book. Children, in particular, my own and other people’s, can be both inspiring and a huge source of comic material.
All this to say that whatever activities you do, don’t beat yourself up over all the time they take away from your writing. Whether you’re taking a break to have coffee with a friend, or procrastinating by washing the curtains, you can trust that your mind is still doing its job behind the scenes. In fact, it needs some of these activities to keep working to its full potential. I say go ahead and take the walk, bake the cake, change the engine oil. You can still think about your book while you do all these things, and when do you sit your ass back down in that chair, you’ll be recharged and ready.
Martine Fournier Watson is originally from Montreal, Canada, where she completed her master’s in art history after spending a year in Chicago as a Fulbright scholar. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in journals such as the Beloit Fiction Journal, Roanoke Review, Scrivener Creative Review, The Bellingham Review and Sixfold. She currently lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. When she is not curled up writing, you can find her walking in the woods, playing Sudoku, trying to read all the books in the world, or stalking famous authors on Twitter. https://twitter.com/MFournierWatson
The dream peddler came to town at the white end of winter, before the thaw . . .
Traveling salesmen like Robert Owens have passed through Evie Dawson’s town before, but none of them offered anything like what he has to sell: dreams, made to order, with satisfaction guaranteed.
Soon after he arrives, the community is shocked by the disappearance of Evie’s young son. The townspeople, shaken by the Dawson family’s tragedy and captivated by Robert’s subversive magic, begin to experiment with his dreams. And Evie, devastated by grief, turns to Robert for a comfort only he can sell her. But the dream peddler’s wares awaken in his customers their most carefully buried desires, and despite all his good intentions, some of them will lead to disaster.
Gorgeously told through the eyes of Evie, Robert, and a broad cast of fully realized characters, The Dream Peddler is an imaginative, moving novel of overcoming loss and reckoning with the longings we keep secret.
“Astonishing . . . The Dream Peddler unfolds like a gorgeous poem, leading us deep into the lives of its characters, and exploring the vast underground legacy of our own desires. This is the must-read book of the year.” —Rene Denfeld, bestselling author of The Child Finder