It occurred to me this week, as I muscled through the final section of Draft 10 of my current long-form project, that a rest would soon be in order.
I have a tendency to rush—in writing and in life—as many of you likely do, and also a tendency to burn out. Even with some life experience under my belt that has shown me the necessity of slowing the fuck down, it’s not at all unusual for me to operate on what I call “rapid boil” for several weeks or months and then totally crash out. This week, as I was considering emailing my editor and asking whether she thought I could just delete Part 3 completely (rather than overhaul it, as planned), I knew I was close to wiping out. Instinctually, I am well aware that Part 3 is absolutely necessary to this book and story; I’m just tired.
“Revision means to see again,” Sharon Oard Warner says in her new book, WRITING THE NOVELLA. More metaphorically, Adrienne Rich wrote in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision,” that “re-vision” is “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.”
When you’re in the midst of writing—or wrangling a large-scale revision, as I have been—you possess a particular view of your work. You’re in the middle of the forest, in the thick of the trees, and while you might be aware that you’re in a forest, you have no real perspective on said forest. You’re listening to birdsong and leaf rustle, considering trunk size and bark texture. In order to assess the forest for what it is, you must leave it, and get far enough away from it to be provided with a spectator’s view.
I’ll be honest and say that when I’m working, I regard the rest process with suspicion. Why would I want to halt my momentum? Who needs a break? Just one more word, line, paragraph, chapter… Until I’m typing gibberish and crying while I do it. I fear that if I give myself a break I’ll never again sit down and pen another word. But this tendency has never served me—in fact, it’s lead to a number of failed or abandoned projects, things wrecked by sheer exhaustion. You know that scene in the opening of Cars where Lightning McQueen refuses to let his pit crew change his tires? That’s a rookie move, and it costs him.
With the need for rest established, I thought I’d offer up some tips on how to actually rest (hint: you won’t be doing nothing, unless you like that kinda thing) and some thoughts on how to harness the rest stage to help with the whole re-seeing concept that’s necessary for (more) revision.
- Active rest — I got this from BURNOUT: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, which illuminated for me the idea that until a stress cycle is complete, it will keep stressing you out! To complete a stress cycle requires action, but not any old action. It requires ACTIVE REST. Active rest is not taking a nap or having your nails done—it is, instead, going for a walk or a bike ride, working in the garden, hosting a community potluck, doing the laundry, etc. The point is not to sit still, but to allow your mind to be still. Somewhat counterintuitively to those of us (ahem) who want to zone out on streaming videos, keeping your body in motion allows your thinking brain to power down and get offline. It’s still running code, so no need to fear losing momentum; in fact, upon return to writing, you’ll likely have insights you hadn’t considered at all prior to resting.
- Focused rest — For a writer, when time is of the essence (projects can take years, so there’s only so much “down time” you might want to actually undertake), this type of rest involves switching your focus. If, say, you’re in between drafts of a new project, you might use the time to research and read books on the subjects you’re writing about or talk to people who are knowledgeable in a field related to your manuscript. You might use a break between later drafts to research agents or presses, connect with other writers for advice, or submit short pieces to literary magazines. With focused rest, you stay in an adjacent zone, which can be very conducive to coming back to the project at hand.
- Timed Rest — If you are truly exhausted, or if you’re just worried about your own ability to get distracted, Timed Rest is a useful method to employ. Essentially, you pick a date in the future (after a long weekend, a week, a month) and set that as the date you plan to return to your project. For instance, as I get ready to send Draft 11 out to beta readers, I’m resting over the coming weekend, before giving it a quick pass-through and sending it off. Between Draft 9 and Draft 10, I took two months off, during which time the only work I did on the manuscript was to keep notes on index cards. I also worked a little bit on a new project, with the understanding that when the two months were up, that itself would be shelved for a while. I write this stuff down in my calendar, so I don’t have to expend any undue energy worrying or keeping track.
Returning to the Task
Project fatigue is real, and not just for writers. If you are writing a long-form book of any genre, you are bound to have lows. When you do, two choices await: 1) power through, or 2) take a break. You’ll learn by trial and error which is the right path to take when. (Note: taking a break, while related to rest, is not the same as rest. A break is an hour or a day off; a rest is a week or a month off.)
When you return to your manuscript, you’re likely to feel some things, among them, the anticlimactic realization that this thing still needs work; new structural possibilities; renewed vigor.
Don’t feel the need to dive in with your machete, hacking things to bits. You’ll want to ease into it. Many of these novel insights are instinctual, and while instinct has a strong place in the writing process, as you get closer to the finish line sometimes it’s best to question those instincts.* (*We’ll talk about this more in a later post.)
For now, unless you’ve got a solid plan about how your refreshed sight can be applied to your project, let your new ideas simmer as you forge ahead along the path back into your manuscript. Seen from this vantage point, with recharged eyes, what appears to belong and what doesn’t? Rejuvenated eyes are great for seeing what needs to be culled, but seasoned eyes are needed for deciphering and planning what needs to be planted (i.e., added)—can the experience of rest allow access to both visions?
All creative endeavors, but especially the later, more intense rounds of revision, require a delicate balance—beginners mind / sage mind—and the rest you’ve taken prepares you to twirl between the two, respecting the old growth of the story’s foundation, and clearing space for the light to shine on the new growth that rises in the gaps of cleared timber. In the forest of your book, you are the tender, and you must tend to yourself first of all.