Why quality writing time sometimes means not writing

Why quality writing time sometimes means not writing_text over lightened image of a pocket watch half buried in sand
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Over the weekend, Shawna Ayoub and I were talking about writing—or rather, not writing.

For all of you who read our posts, take our courses, attend our retreats, and commune with us about our writing lives, thank you. But know this: sometimes, we have just as much trouble making time for writing as you do!

“It’s not time,” I insisted to Shawna, or really to myself, as I knew she’d understand. I’m as busy as the next person, with multiple jobs, kids, relationships, obligations, and more; but I have been writing regularly since I was a teenager. I’ve kept it going, studied it, and enjoyed its benefits for long enough that I am now in the fortunate position of helping other aspiring and practicing writers build and fortify their own practices. I know how to make time. It’s not always easy, and I am often frustrated that I have to expend so much valuable energy artfully arranging a complex schedule that allows for creative thinking and writing, but I have decades worth of reliable practices to help me get there. And no one is giving away more time, anyway. It isn’t time I seek. “It’s quality time.”

Shawna drew in her breath on the other end of the phone. We both knew what I was saying. She’s a mother, a partner, a friend and colleague, a teacher, a writer, an employee, and an active member of her various communities.

And like me, like you, like so many of us, she is living and working through a global pandemic that has altered our lives in ways small, large, and as yet unrealized. When the low but emphatic “Yeeeeeeesssssssss” came through the line, I knew others might need to hear this: The pandemic has changed what we mean by quality time. The pandemic has changed time itself. To maintain our busy lives, we might need to rethink our practices, reconsider how and where we apply our energy, and recommit ourselves to what is most important to us.

That means writing—or not writing.

If writing feels like something you “should be” doing instead of something you want to be doing, you need a break.

There is no productivity tip in the world that is going to help you hack your way out of indifference. If your heart isn’t in it, how in the world can you make art? Art without heart is not art I want to consume, and I bet I’m not alone in that sentiment. If rearranging your schedule to insert a session of writing feels like just another thing you have to do, take a step back. You aren’t ready for that yet.

If you are entirely burnt out, writing is not going to energize you—yet.

Before you write, ask yourself if your immediate attention shouldn’t go to addressing the burnout with some self-care, or even better, an overhaul of your schedule to eliminate the most needlessly stressful stuff. This isn’t rearranging; this is slash-and-burning what is no longer useful to you. Decline invitations to whatever time-suck Zoom meetings with passive aggressive colleagues that you can, and ignore anyone who tries to make you feel bad for it. Pass on even socially-distanced gatherings that make you feel anxious, especially if friends try to use the social limitations imposed by the pandemic to guilt you into going along. Go to bed earlier; Netflix will outlast you and COVID. Learn the saving power of NO, and draw energy from your own self-preservation.

Now, how do you feel?

Draw on your writing skill to find the right words.

“I’m grieving my former writing life,” Shawna said on the phone. Now it was my turn to have a moment of profound recognition. Grief. That’s what it is. The pandemic has taken so much and so many from us. Our sense of security that something like this could never happen, or that if it did, we have leaders competent enough to take care of us, is shaken at best, more likely demolished. Naming everything STRESS creates an insurmountable obstacle that can keep us mired in negativity and defeat. Being more thoughtful about our stress, breaking it down to recognize sadness at the loss of lives, worry about our loved ones, frustration at not being able to do the things we love to do, and so on, helps us create more bite-sized, manageable problems we actually have a chance at resolving.

Shawna and I are writing teachers. Of course, we want you to write. But this pandemic has been a game-changer. If writing—or not writing—is stressing you out, do this work in self-awareness and self-preservation before you try to put any more words down. Let us know how it goes in the comments.

And believe us when we say, we’re right there with you.

Related reading: Reframing the “no time to write” problem

Writers, how to do nothing

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