On Writing: Learning to Rest

In the stacks of papers cluttering my desk, one New York Times column by Bill Hayes remains no matter how often my intent is to toss stuff. His essay, “On Not Writing,” isn’t that old, from late August of this year, but I’m about to stick it on the wall where I can see it whenever I need a reminder.

We writers have heard the oft-repeated phrase, Just Write!!! Every day!!! until guilt is the reward for not writing. I even wrote an essay, “Just Write” and posted it on LinkedIn. The focus centered on the need to start writing rather than feeling confused by the process. I said editing is the real writing. The first draft is to get past feeling afraid.

But more than three years passed between the end of querying for the previous edition of my memoir and the edition I’m currently working on. I’d had between two and three hundred rejections and while the exact figure is somewhere in my computer, the obvious message was clear: not this one; not now.

Bill Hayes writes that after three books and many essays, he stopped writing for several years, moved twice, tried new jobs, and “eventually enrolled in a course to become a certified personal fitness trainer.” It could be a Plan B if he never got back to writing.

His essay is linked above and I highly recommend reading the entire piece, but I’ll pass on the framework he discovered in six major concepts of fitness training that allowed him to get back to writing.

1. The Principle of Specificity: What you train for you get; i.e. be specific
2. The Overload Principle: Provide constant stimuli so the body never gets used to a specific task; i.e. push yourself to try new things.
3. The Principle of Progression: Don’t get stuck – once you master a task, move on, with an exercise or a paragraph.
4. The Principle of Accommodation: With no new demands the body or writing reach homeostasis; i.e. don’t get too comfortable or it will show on the page.
5. The Principle of Reversibility: Use it or lose it; i.e. do something to keep the creative motor running, photography, poetry, short stories.
6. The Rest Principle: To make fitness gains, you must take time to recover; i.e. walk away from something that isn’t working and give it a rest.

This last one made me take notice. Working out in one way or another has been a habit for many years. I know when to rest my body and when to push it. But resting from writing? That’s what I’d been doing with the memoir while fretting over its demise.

However, in the time away from the memoir, I’d traveled a lot (Hawaii twice) and looked at the world outside me with my camera. I gathered years of poetry and published a chapbook. And after it was out in hard copy, learned how to put it into a digital format for Amazon downloads.

In the memoir hiatus, I read a lot and reviewed my journals from those years, wondering if I could find the woman I was then and the small details of why she did what she did. And in this past summer’s trip to Hawaii, I discovered a new memoir focus.

“The rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey was so fond of saying, is in the details of the writing. But resting from the memoir, I’ve discovered, was as important as the writing.

How often do you give yourself permission to rest? That’s probably the principle we all need to practice.

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5 thoughts on “On Writing: Learning to Rest

  1. In principle I think this is terrific advice. One thing I’ve been pondering is how to apply it when the publication in question isn’t a book that’s being worked on outside the public eye, but a weekly publication of some sort: i.e. my blog.

    It can be tiring to keep up such a schedule. I certainly understand now the occasional laments I’ve read from the really good newspaper columnists who publish daily. And there’s no question that I know when mental fatigue has set it. It’s hard to find a subject, or a piece in the draft files that enthuses me and makes me want to work on it. Occasionally, I’ll have a poem that gets finished, and rather than publishing it immediately, I tuck it in the files for that week when I just can’t face finishing up another post.

    One thing that I haven’t heard before that struck me as on target is that principle of accomodation. It’s true — the easier something becomes, the easier it becomes to just “churn out another post.” There are a couple of bloggers who delighted me completely in the beginning. In time, though, their way of approaching things was so successful that it became formulaic. Hence, boring. I knew what they were going to say before they said it.

    Great post, and worthy of posting up on the wall along with that essay!

    1. Thanks so much. You do such a large amount of work on your posts, too. I’m always impressed with them and you’ve pushed me to be more diverse. I’ve had to think about that principle of accommodation, too. Sometimes, I just want to write even if I don’t have anything profound to say. And my writing became stale. It’s helped to insert my thinking into a couple of challenge posts. At the least, they get me to thinking in a different direction.

      I thought about you today, too, after I posted the latest photo story. I’d thought about inserting some research about Impressionist painters and silos, but then forgot in trying just to get it done. And too, I didn’t know how a long discourse into another topic – i.e. Impressionists – would work with the shorter telling format I was using.
      What I have found is my sense of humor needs to be released more. And sometimes that works. But because I’m a memoirist, the same pattern seems to be holding; i.e. I have to be really conscious of what I write – and am when I’m working on the full length manuscript. That gives me the chance to go back, revise, redo, think.

      Some days I can be effective enough to get the scheduled posts up a day ahead of time and thereby have time to think and edit. But sometimes…well…not.

      Thanks for writing! And thanks for your kind words about the essay. J.

  2. Such a good post! Thank you, Janet. I remember one of my writing teachers from Warren Wilson days, saying: “You’re in it for the long haul. So give yourself a break every now and then.” Such a good advice. I’m going to pass the Bill Hayes tips on to my fellow writers here.

      1. I actually followed my own advice and slowed down yesterday. Did some yoga. Didn’t talk to anyone. Looked at some photos. Whew. Life’s been a bit of a blur. Hope you took some time for what you needed too. Thanks for always responding!

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