I was soaring. It was April 2019 and I’d just finished the draft of my new novel Prowl, which I’d painstakingly written three times, each time starting from scratch. I was eager to release something new, but I needed feedback before publishing it.
But before I could get any Beta readers, I suddenly found out I had to move. Two weeks after finishing my book in Florida, I found myself trundling across three state lines with a yowling cat.
That move was only the beginning. I moved several times in a one-year period, bouncing from Florida to North Carolina and finally on to South Carolina.
The upheaval froze my publishing progress for over a year.
My writing wasn’t exactly roaring either. In North Carolina I still wrote, but I felt unstable, like I was trying to juggle ice in a car that kept zipping around tight curves.My concentration lapsed. I would begin writing a story and pursue it with gritted teeth, only to end up putting it away.
I wondered, what was wrong with me? I wasn’t blocked. But I felt exhausted.
By itself moving didn’t seem to explain my lassitude. In the past, moving to new places had only energized me.
I thought the unthinkable. Maybe I needed a break from writing. For almost a decade, I’d written every day, never skipping, not even on weekends or holidays if I had any say.
I never made myself write over a sentence a day, but as soon as I did, habit would take over and I’d end up writing until sunset. The one-sentence rule had begun as a kind of trick to lure myself into writing more — but it worked too well. Writing every day, a habit begun in freedom, had grown compulsive – as all habits can, even good ones.
My routine left little room for anything else I dreamed of doing. I did read for brief periods, and I consulted news online. But even during my non-writing activities, I mostly lived in my head.
My Android wasn’t helping matters. My smartphone followed me everywhere, chirping and buzzing all my clear thoughts away. At the first sign of boredom, I’d grope for my phone and go roving through my Facebook feed for a “like” or some new political outrage to whisk me into drama.
Maybe I needed to set aside time for “real life” — or at least carve out more time for new activities. I decided to go off-line awhile. I began burying my smartphone in my sock drawer and abandoning it. I stopped going to social media sites, including Facebook.
Many articles tout the mental health benefits that come from going off social media. But my withdrawal wasn’t immediately a good experience. I missed my online friends, and I felt lonely. But over time, I began to enjoy my freedom from compulsion, and, no longer focused on likes, my thoughts cleared.
On weekends especially, I made a point to do something besides writing. I’d play with my cat or take a walk. Other times I’d listen to music or sit on the balcony and allow my mind to wander.
I delved into different academic subjects, even subjects that seemed unlikely to benefit my writing. I started reading a textbook on business although I’d never cared about business before. I took up drawing again – I’d majored in art in college but had mostly stopped drawing after graduation.
Taking more breaks from writing was like opening a window. My energy drifted back to me, and my ideas began to flow again.
Finally, last December I moved into a new house in Rock Hill, South Carolina — just in time for the pandemic to begin. Sheltering in place, I regained my concentration and I finally got someone to read Prowl – which I’m now getting ready to publish.
While settling down made it easier to focus on writing, my new activities have given me a sense of freedom I’d been lacking even before the move. Now, whenever my concentration flags or writing starts to feel compulsive, I order myself to take to a break from writing even if it hurts. I forbid myself to even write a sentence. Ironically, forbidding myself to write renders me desperate to write, so I have to take the injunction seriously.
During my off time, anything goes – including doing nothing. Sometimes I procrastinate for the unsung Zen-like bliss that only comes from consigning a task to the future.
As a writer I’m not a closed system. I need to breathe in as well as out — which should’ve been obvious. Yet I still have trouble going a whole day without writing. This is partly because I love writing, but also because the urge to write feels like a “righteous” impulse I should always obey — as if writing were a jealous god that smites writers for exploring other activities.
I have to remind myself that creativity is more likely to flourish if I let myself learn, feel, and observe — which not only enriches not just my writing, but my life.
I still think about social media, and sometimes I still miss it. But I’m enjoying having my concentration back.
To my friends online, I hope you’re staying safe and having a great autumn. You’ll be hearing from me again soon because I want to start blogging regularly again. I’ve missed it more than anything. Happy autumn!