If you’re at all like me, you don’t like taking breaks from your projects. I’ve always been a “work first, play later” sort of person, and when I decide to undertake a task I like to exert a reasonably high amount of energy toward it, finishing it with as much speed as possible while still doing a good job. When those projects have an artistic bent—and this is especially true when it comes to my writing—that tendency becomes exponential. And sometimes I am capable of superhuman bouts of typing, finishing thousands upon thousands of words in a day. There’s one notable instance where I finished two whole chapters in one day (and I write fairly robust chapters). Those days, however, are almost always followed by a creative crash—a day or two or several where I’m lucky to eke out a few hundred words, and the ideas that previously flowed like water rapids are reduced to a dull trickle, like a leaky showerhead.
I’ve come to use variations of a phrase over the past few years: “it isn’t all-or-nothing.” There aren’t just two extreme options for how to go about doing or thinking of a task, project, or abstract concept—you don’t have to stop driving entirely just because you don’t want to go 15 MPH over the speed limit. You don’t have to adopt an extreme moral stance in order to oppose another extreme stance. Most of the time, I don’t have this problem; most of the time, I like to think I’m moderate in pacing myself, in having reasonable expectations for productivity, for balancing work and play. There isn’t anything innately wrong with saying “work first” as long as you do eventually allow time for “play later.” And normally I do! Yet I resent the “play later” phases of the creative process where I’m forced to take a break—whether by other life responsibilities, burnout (usually self-imposed), or the natural ebb and flow that comes with making art. No person can be “on” all the time, and attempts to do so—attempts to go beyond your limitations—do not produce better results.
Every person has a limit of creative endurance. Including environmental reasons, there’s only so much mental, emotional, and spiritual energy one can devote to a project each day before you lose your sharpness and focus and instead drift off into vague, perhaps mediocre territory. Part of growing as an artist is learning where your cut-off is, then balancing that with the discipline necessary to overcome moments of procrastination, perfectionism, and laziness that can pull us toward the other extreme. That’s not a new idea, either broadly or personally. I’ve had enough of those superhuman writing days to recognize they can’t be sustained, no matter how much I want to do so. I also know that distance from a project for longer stretches of time give new perspective, especially when taken between the writing and editing phases. But lately I’ve been struck by just how beneficial micro-breaks are, too.
Here’s an example. A few weeks ago, I had a nagging feeling that a recently finished chapter wasn’t right. There wasn’t anything blatantly wrong—I’d even followed my outline—but I couldn’t shake the feeling, especially as I went on to other chapters that built upon those events. So I went a walk, and realized during the walk what the problem was (turns out I needed to cut the chapter entirely). So I went back, quickly fixed the problem, and continued writing without issue.
Why haven’t I built in such “moments of clarity” before, if they’re so useful? At the very least, a diversion of attention gives your mind a chance to breath before its next bout of exertion—and at most they may save a lot of trouble and creative blockage by solving a problem sooner rather than later. If the goal isn’t incredible word counts but consistency—for consistency is the key to success—then the discipline of writing on a regular basis also needs the discipline of knowing my own limits, and implementing breaks that help me overcome them. The idea of not taking any breaks except for when all energy is depleted is as silly as thinking I could exercise intensely for three hours without stopping to get a drink or catch my breath—and do so every day of the week on top of it. Who could last one day with that sort of routine? What benefit would come of it? Good stewardship of time and talent requires finding that balance—don’t slack off, but don’t run yourself into the ground, either. Writing, after all, isn’t all or nothing.