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.