Sunday, 22 November 2015

Because Even Dedicated Writers Need a Break Sometimes.

The interior of the Hydro Hotel, Eastbourne, UK. For when you need to
get your Downton on!

It was Stephen King who famously said that he wrote every single day except Christmas Day and his birthday (and even then later reneged on including his birthday.) Ernest Hemingway agreed with him, along with Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and scores of other great and good writers. Haruki Murakami had this to offer:

'When I'm in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.'

(Oh good. Thanks Haruki, because I was starting to worry that my typical routine didn't look Jeremy-Kyle-Show-slothful enough compared to other writers, but you've fixed that for me nicely now, haven't you?)

The point they're all making - and the one that's echoed by millions of writers, writing teachers, writing blogs and the metric tonne of all the writing advice that's out there ever - is that 'proper writers' write every day of their lives, no matter what. That, like breathing, slacking off for a few days is fatal. Because your creativity is like a muscle that, if not subjected to its regular routine of push-ups, will burst like a bag of blancmange the next time you try to lift a Mars Bar out of the fridge.

And yeah, I get what they're saying. I was once a huge advocate of this thinking myself, to the point where I'd feel guilty if I 'missed' a day of writing (and then spent an anxious bedtime trying to convince myself that commenting on that blog post did so count as 'writing.') I was that annoying one that said things like "even if you just write a bit in a journal about how you can't seem to move forward on your w-i-p, you're still exercising that creative muscle." I still think that's true, by the way. And I still see the wisdom in writing every day, even if it's only a teeny-leetle bit...


I had an experience a couple of months ago that prevented me from doing that for almost a week, when I was hospitalised with cellulitis and blood poisoning. Although I tried to minimise the inner self-flagellation for it at the time, the unwanted hiatus didn't do a lot to dispel my belief that taking a break from writing every now and then made it harder to come back to that writing afterwards - in fact, if anything it reinforced it. But... it wasn't disastrous. Kind of like falling off the wagon with a diet really; okay, I finished off two portions of half-fat cheesecake because - hey, look! half the fat! - but I got through the stodge-cravings for the next couple of days... and look, I haven't morphed into a female Homer Simpson after all. So yeah, taking that break from writing wasn't ideal, but it certainly wasn't a catastrophe...

But then a writing friend of mine pointed out that, actually, a week lying in a hospital bed unable to walk, in severe pain, with a high temperature and having three different types of antibiotics intravenously pumped into your limbs is not most sane people's idea of a 'break.' (Virgin Holidays certainly aint offering it as a package, that's for sure.) 'Breaks' are meant to be - well y'know, devoted mostly to doing fun stuff, preferably with loved ones, at a reasonable level of general health. And, she added, since I hadn't had one of those kind of breaks for a stupidly long time, I was talking out of an orifice that wasn't my mouth (she's kinda blunt like that, bless her weird-shaped sports socks.) Maybe what I needed was a break - an actual one, with fun and stuff - rather than just a medical interruption.

And then it came to pass that my son got a chance to go on his first residential school trip, i.e. staying for a couple of nights in a kid's camp with all his school chums (and four teachers with the stress tolerance of a Mother Theresa and Bear Grylls hybrid, I would imagine.) Which meant that, while he and his mates were off rampaging through forests and terrifying the local wildlife, my husband and I could have a couple of days off from being Mum and Dad. The world was our oyster - for two whole, glorious days!

Well, Eastbourne was, to be precise. Okay, so it wasn't exactly Vegas, but it was two days in a four-star hotel with a view of the beach.... in November, admittedly... with breakfast and a two-course dinner in the evening thrown in. Entering the hotel felt like stepping onto the set of Downton Abbey, and all of the other guests looked old enough to have been around in that era (well, it was Eastbourne...) We got to eat proper, posh food - the kind of posh where you have to pretend you understand the sort-of-frenchified descriptions of it in the menu (and then don't even mind when it turns out to be something completely different from what you thought it was, because it still tastes amazing anyway.) We got to sleep in a posh bed in a posh hotel suite, being ordinary humans instead of Mum and Dad. And we got to meet (and people-watch) the kind of characters you can only find in a hotel trapped in a 1930's time bubble, in a town rated in the top ten for retirees, in November. It was flippin' bliss, let me tell you.

But most of all... I didn't do any writing at all. None. Not even a postcard. For two whole days.

I still took the tools - and the good intentions - of course. I had the Kindle, the blank notebook and the assortment of pens shoved in the suitcase, ready to whip out at the first hint of holiday fun downtime. But... I suppose I just had too much fun, because they stayed in my suitcase for the whole two days. And did I feel guilty? Oh heck yeah - when I remembered to... which wasn't that often, if I'm honest...

But here's the weird thing. Since I came back from those two days of skiving off writing, my daily word count has doubled. It's like my mini-holiday has given my brain a mojo infusion; I've always loved the story I'm writing (not a lot of point in writing it otherwise) but now I'm back to loving the process of writing it as well. For the last two or three months that had - well, not gone exactly, but certainly needed increasing amounts of chocolate waving under its nose to tempt it to come out and play.

So Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut et al (and especially YOU, Mr Haruki)... I salute your dedication, I really do. You are writing superheroes and no mistake. But I... am not. It would seem I need more time off writing than Christmas Day and my birthday, and now that I know my creative abilities are not going to shrivel up and die in the space of a couple of days, I'm going to take that time out when I need it.

And next time I might even send a postcard or two.

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