by Diane Laney Fitzpatrick
I know, it sounds like a lame excuse, doesn’t it?
“It’s not that I’m not writing. It’s just that I’m thinking about my next chapter while I play this game of Solitaire on my phone. With Law and Order reruns playing in the background.”
Those of us who have perfected the art of procrastination have memorized all of these justifications. So imagine my delight when I learned that there is quite a bit of value to the things you do as a writer that do not involve writing. Not writing can actually help you become a better writer.
In other words, give it a break.
Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, recommends walking away from whatever you’re writing in order to see your writing through fresh eyes, and as someone else’s baby instead of your own. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience,” he writes.
Screenplay writers often put their completed work in a drawer and let it sit for three weeks while they travel, catch up on things around the house – anything but looking at that screenplay, before picking it back up again and starting on editing.
That’s not to say you should indulge in computer games and crime dramas with wild abandon. There are some productive things you can do while not writing, to help you become a better writer.
Get Thyself Into Other Forms of Creativity
Sew something. Color in that adult coloring book you got for Christmas two years ago. Refinish the dining room chair you trash-picked last summer. Knit a scarf. Start a baby quilt. Dust off your old junior high clarinet (try not to scare the dog). Belt out the songs from your high school musical (again, the dog . . .) Pick up some needlepoint. Bang out a couple of scrapbook pages. Close the curtains and dance. Tie-dye something. Learn origami.
How in God’s name, you ask, is this going to help you be a better writer?
Because you aren’t going to become a better writer solely by writing more. Yes, practice makes perfect. But practice mixed in with other forms of creativity makes perfect-est.
Creativity feeds off itself. Being creative in different ways will increase your creativity as a writer. Plus mixing it up a little bit will put you back in your writer’s seat with a refreshed creative brain.
There’s a Reason You Come Up With Your Best Ideas in the Shower
Or when you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store. Or other places light years away from your novel on your laptop. Because great ideas love to sneak up on you and take you by surprise. You can sit at your desk for hours, racking your brain for that segue-way you so desperately need, and here it comes, in the middle of your parent teacher conference.
Of course you’ll want to surreptitiously jot down your most excellent idea. But look more closely at why it came to you when it did. Your mind was on other things. You weren’t trying so hard.
While you’re off being a mom or a grandpa or an accountant or a gym rat or any of the other non-writer roles you have, be ready for that next idea to come your way.
Replace “Writing” With “Reading” on Your Daily Schedule
Every writer knows that the way to become a better writer is to be a reader. Read, read, read, we are told. But who has time to read when we’re so busy writing? Some effort is required to put reading into its deserved place in your writer’s life.
If you’ve always been a bedtime reader but find yourself falling asleep after reading the same sentence every night for a week, turn your schedule upside down. Start reading a chapter first thing in the morning. Set aside 30 minutes at the end of your work day to unwind with a book before the evening circus begins. Give reading the place it deserves in your daily schedule. Move it from the “when everything else is done” time slot to the “important things I need to get done today” spot.
Reading is part of your job. It’s a vital part of the development of your craft.
Think of Non-Writing Time as Fodder
When I first started blogging, I wrote like a house afire. There seemed to be an endless supply of blog topics. And then, in the second year, when my supply began to run short, I had to get out of my study and my comfort zone and start doing things to write about. I went to a class to learn Michael Jackson Thriller dance. I learned how to make cheese in my kitchen. And I swear I only took up yoga for something to write about. And when I did take the time to sit and write, my blog was more interesting.
The writer who sits alone writing day after day will soon run out of things to write about. Because writing is a solitary – some would say lonely, even – enterprise, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the more we sit and write the harder we’re working.
Change that thinking. You’re taking a walk? You’re working. Meeting a fun and fascinating friend for lunch? You’re working. Settled in a corner of Starbucks watching people come and go? You’re workin’ here! Give your readers something to read that shows you’re a curious, compelling, thought-provoking writer.
Guest post contributed by Diane Laney Fitzpatrick. Diane is the author of Great-Grandma Is on Twitter and Other Signs the Rapture Is Near and Home Sweet Homes: How Bundt Cakes, Bubble Wrap, and My Accent Helped Me Survive Nine Moves. She writes a humor blog, “Just Humor Me,” and is working on a third book and her first screenplay. A former journalist, she lives in San Francisco.