How to Write When You’re Taking a Break

Last Tuesday, my book entered the beta stage. I sent it out to half a dozen trusted readers to see what they think. This has come after a first draft (which produced an unreadable, poorly-paced, plot maze) and a second draft (confusing, better paced, and plotted), and a third, clean-up draft (as good as I could make it by myself; finally able to show it to others without crippling humiliation). I’ve asked my readers to go through the novel over the next month, and then they can give me feedback in exchange for beer.

What this means, of course, is that I’m not actively writing a novel right now. Since it’s been a week, I’ve properly let myself decompress (decompose?) after a push toward the finish, but I’m now feeling that void: I have nothing to do first thing in the morning, and there’s only so much sports news in the middle of the summer.

I have fully imbibed the writer’s adage: “I must write. It is my purpose. It is what I can give to the world.” (We do this, of course, to trick ourselves into actually writing.) The problem is that, for the next month, I have no purpose.

It seems my options, then are: a) spend the next month drinking and growing my beard as long as possible, plus wearing sweatpants in the middle of the day, or b) find a new way forward–fulfilling my purpose without working on my novel.

If I choose b, however, the problem is compounded by the fact that after the draft of a novel, it’s like I’ve finished a marathon: I’m tired, spent, and need a break to let the paralyzing soreness subside.

So, like a marathon runner, how do I hit the pavement again in a way the brings energy and sustenance, rather than beginning another long race without a break? For this month, here are my top three. Why three? One wasn’t quite enough (although I’ll boil it all down to one in the end), and any more than three really won’t happen. I won’t do all four or five.

1. Write outside my genre. After working a long time on a literary novel, I think a little cross-training is appropriate. I could go the short story route, but novel to short story doesn’t seem to be enough of a genre-buster, despite the differences in the forms. Instead, I’m going to start a screenplay that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while. I may never finish it, but I’m really excited to tackle the dialogue and conflict that’s necessary in a screenplay. In this last novel, I worked hard to break it into beats and scenes, searching for the conflict between characters at each moment. A screenplay will demand that I get stronger at this, and look more deeply at story structure. Plus, I’m always hoping to grow with dialogue–especially how it can raise conflict without always devolving into a shouting match.

Poetry, too, is a favorite of mine. I love writing poetry. But I don’t think it’s what I need right now. That is, I don’t need to work on rhythm and the attractiveness of my prose as much as I need to work on making things happen.

2. Take notes. I’m not a strict note-taker by nature, though I’ve come to realize that I don’t hold on to ideas unless I write them down. But this is simpler. Throughout the month, I’m going to spend some time each day taking notes: notes on what I see and felt and heard during a walk, notes on how I felt at a party, notes on how the evening sun shines through my daughter’s hair. I’ll note story ideas, should any come (and they usually do if I pay attention to them). I’ll record some dialogue (see no. 1 above). It’s a chance to refocus–and perhaps begin a new practice that aids in my writing.

3. Reach out. It’s not uncommon for me to think how I ought to call/text/email someone, and maybe even put this person’s name on my daily “To do” list, only to fail at reaching out. But writing is a lonely, lonely hobby, and my writer friends, I’m sure, would appreciate a note as much as I would appreciate one from them. Beyond my beta readers, it’s always helpful to talk with others struggling through their work, to offer encouragement and find some of my own. Especially as I take a break, it’s like I’m at the raft before treading water for another hour: my friends are out there in the water. I may as well encourage them before going back out, too.

All of this, of course, adds up to the idea of refilling my well. This is the mindset I need after a novel. Not stop and rest, but refill. Rest, too often, degrades into the aforementioned sweatpants. But refilling it a conscious effort. It’s doing new things to ensure I’m fresh for the next revision. It’s also celebrating what I’ve accomplished.

As a sports fan, I think of this whenever a team cuts down the nets, wins the Super Bowl, and confetti comes flying down. It’s a real moment of accomplishment, of stopping. They go to Disney World and talk shows; they rest. And, for a month or two, they refill their wells before beginning the process again.

We need more confetti parties for finished novels (though it would be a quiet, depressing party). Absent that, we need to make it a practice to refill our wells after the championship game: to rest, to do things that energize and prepare you for the next push.

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A Saturday…

Saturday I woke tense and anxious.  I do not know why.  Some days I wake like this.  I think we are all manic-depressive in a mild form, or at least I am.  I prayed and hoped for my mood to change but the firmament was closed that morning.

Brooke worked all day.  Ellis and I watched a movie and then ate lunch; she crawled into her chair and I set a peanut butter and honey sandwich in front of her.  Then, I went to wash dishes and could see her when I didn’t watch what was in my hands.  Ellis pulled her sandwich apart with calm and poise, stuck her finger in the honey and peanut mixture, and applied it to either cheek.  She applied it to her chin and nose.  I let it all happen, knowing she would need a bath, half-amused and half-exasperated, and the mixture covered her face and stuck to her hair.

I put her in the bathtub and then put her to bed.  I read and slept, too.  When I awoke, I cleaned downstairs and prayed while I cleaned. I’ve often prayed, lately, for peace and change within myself and I become frustrated when I do not see my growth, when I am again waiting for God to act.  I am always waiting: the life of following God is a waiting life.

Ellis woke happily, but before I thought she would.  While she chatted and sang in her crib I brought the jogging stroller and pump outside.  There was snow on the ground and we needed milk; the jogging stroller was much easier to push in the snow.  I pumped up the tires.  When I came in, Ellis was beginning to cry so I ran upstairs to get her.

I took food and juice and Ellis demanded we bring two baby dolls wrapped in a blanket.  We did.  As we went outside to walk to the store, the lower panel of our screen door fell off.  It had been dented for some time and maybe the wind had caught it just right, finally, so it fell in.  I threw the panel behind the couch and wondered to God what else might go wrong.

I set Ellis and her baby dolls in the stroller and started to move it when I realized the right tire — the one I had pumped up fifteen minutes ago — was flat.

I ran back inside while Ellis sat on the sidewalk to get our other stroller, the one that did not handle snow well.  I put Ellis and her babies and crackers and juice in that stroller.  Finally, we left.  At points in the walk I had to lift the entire stroller over slush and snow.

Returning home with milk and chapstick, I maneuvered Ellis and our groceries and the stroller inside, only to remember the screen door had no bottom, and our cat had escaped.  He was two doors down screaming at another neighborhood cat.  The neighbor came out and I waved and apologized.  Daly, our cat, ran to another house and behind a bush where I could not reach him.

I ran back inside to see Ellis saying, “Juice, juice,” and reaching for her juice on the sidebar.  I handed it to her, and turned on the television.  I grabbed a pair of heavy gloves.  A few months ago, Daly had badly scratched my hands when I brought him inside.

I walked down to the neighbor’s.  He still huddled behind the bush.  He hissed at me and swatted.  I wanted him to turn around so I could grab him from behind and hold him, so he could not get his claws and mouth in close to my chest and face.  I threw a snowball at his hindquarters, trying to turn him.  He walked off and out of my reach.  I hit him again with a snowball.  He seemed so surprised and stunned to be hit with something while nothing was near him, and trotted off back to our front door.  Ellis greeted us both and I chased Daly upstairs.

And thus was the evening.  Ellis whined and I had a short temper.  I snapped at her once but she did not, fortunately, cry.  She ate a little dinner and I had a fish sandwich with no joy in it.

On days when I awake anxious and all my best plans crack and splinter and time itself seems to fray at the seams I wonder where God is.  It is a selfish wondering, a blind wondering, but I do it because I am human and little better than blind on my best days.

At the end of the evening, we went upstairs and Ellis jumped on the bed.  She laughed and laughed at herself and her jumping.  I gave her a “Jesus Loves Me” sticker.  She played with it and I sang to her.  I changed her into her pajamas while she kicked and laughed and tried to squirm away.  Because of her infectious laugh, I blew raspberries on her belly.  I brushed her teeth and read her a book.  She pointed to the first picture in the book, a mouse putting a baby mouse to sleep, and said, “That’s a daddy.”

After reading I sang to her again and she laid her head on my shoulder and I felt life without frustration or anxiousness, life beyond time: an infinite moment after a day of struggle and tripping over myself, and I sang a child’s song and all I knew was Peace.

Rest

I came home from work a little early yesterday; Ellis was at the door waiting for me.  She giggled when I pulled up.  I could see her smiling and talking even when I was still in my car, like she was part of a silent movie.  I got out and she said, “Hi,” and “Come in,” — words that we have taught her.  There is a certain grace that rests on a person when he can come home to a young daughter.  She smiles so that it shakes her whole little body.

We drove out, all three of us, to pick up some furniture.  Brooke wanted to make a play kitchen for Ellis, and she found an old entertainment center that someone was selling.  It was only five minutes away.  I unpacked the back of our car to make room for it.  When we got there, however, we realized it would not fit into our small SUV, so I prepared our car rack: we thought maybe we could hoist the entire contraption onto the top, and drive home slowly.  The man selling us the entertainment center ran over to his neighbor’s house to ask for help hoisting it up, especially since Brooke was holding Ellis.  The neighbor came out, took one look, and said, “Don’t you think we should move that in my pickup?”

He drove the entertainment center over to our house in his pickup — the neighbor did — with no benefit for him.  He asked how old Ellis was and said he was going to a play tonight for his senior in high school, a daughter.

After this, I drove over to a friend’s house to load our SUV with books.  My brother inherited sixty boxes of books, but he lives a thousand miles away and my friend, Charlie, has been storing the books for my brother.  I went over to get the books, knowing that my parents will take them away tonight to their basement, where my brother can go through them over Thanksgiving.  Charlie and I loaded books and caught up on life: he said their son has a cold; he asked me about future children of our own.  I haven’t seen Charlie in weeks and the conversation was easy and light; it was good to see an old friend and move books.  Charlie helped move them all, which alone could have taken me an hour or so.

This all happened in a span of a couple hours.  It was as if I moved with light on my back, my head, preceded by an unmerited grace.

And then: last night I poured myself a glass of wine and sat for almost an hour, reading and writing.  Ellis was asleep and Brooke had bought me a few magazines this past week and I read and thought with no regard for time.  I love those moments when time disappears and I know only enjoyment.  I listened to music and had no responsibility at the edge of the day; I rested; I stopped.

This all happened.

And then this morning: I came downstairs and had coffee and cereal.  Brooke wanted to paint so I watched Ellis with football on in the background.  Again, time fell into the background, then disappeared.  Ellis carried around three stuffed animals: a lion, a duck, and a Dr. Seuss character we call, “Alfredo,” and I pretended to attack her with her stuffed animals.  She laughed and laughed, and I attacked her with kisses.  She is all energy and laughter in the morning.  Brooke painted and I played with Ellis.

Now, I am writing again, thrilled at this day.  My parents will come tonight and I will watch football with my dad; Brooke will paint some more; I will have more time to read and write and think, to “think long thoughts and pray long prayers,” in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

This all happened, and it is happening.  It is unmerited and beautiful and the sun is shining outside on the long, tawny grass around the reservoir, and I can hear Ellis laughing downstairs.