Can Not Writing Be Good for Writing?

The writer: not writing? Or not not writing?

Sometime in 2017 (I think), I attended a reading at the Papercuts bookstore in Jamaica Plain to see Michelle Tea and Andrea Lawlor, the latter of whom was about to release their book, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. I’ll admit I was mostly there to see Tea and get my copy of Rent Girl signed, but it was something Lawlor said that has stuck with me the most. In the question and answer session, they described their writing process as “writing fiction like a poet”, working when inspiration struck as opposed to sticking to a fixed schedule.


As an endlessly aspiring writer, I felt like a weight had been lifted, though it took me a few years (and a pandemic-induced lull) to figure out why.


Back in March of this year, I, like many hassled creatives with day jobs, had high hopes. Mandatory time at home? Perfect! I wrote a song for a collaborative project, I drafted articles and scripts. I created outlines for essays, a webseries, a musical, and a short story. It was a golden time, a chance to finally get to all the things I’d put off for years and make up for lost time. I would reinvent myself as a quarantined renaissance man and seize the zeigeist like nobody’s business. This would be my time!

As of this post, the most I have written over the past three weeks has been an 800-word essay draft about why Quantum Leap should be rebooted that I don’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone. Days have gone by without me making any progress and all that early-pandemic momentum has stalled. My output has slowed to barely a trickle, and my desire to be a writer has been such a part of my identity that I can’t help but feel crushed by that. It’s not even writer’s block: it just feels like a profound lack of energy. That terrifies me, because it taps into what I think is the primal fear of any artist: what if I stop? 

Over the years, in my endless quest for writer cred, I’ve tried to hold myself to the standards of the various successful authors I’ve idolized. Harlan Ellison referred to himself as a “blue collar worker” and would write entire stories in front of audiences on the fly. Octavia Butler said “write whether you feel like writing or not”.  Stephen King advocates for 1000 to 2000 words a day. Shonda Rimes advises creating a routine, associating writing with something positive you do as a habit, like listening to music or drinking coffee. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor advertise their writing podcast, Start With This, by saying “the only bad writing is not writing”. Perhaps most relevantly to my Lawlor memory, Neil Gaiman said you can’t write fiction by waiting around for inspiration to strike, because that’s not how the process works.


This is all valid, and makes perfect sense given these writers and their pedigrees (it feels worth noting that almost all of them are from the USA, a country that fetishizes tireless work in all forms). They are all professionals, used to being attached to multiple projects at a time and the deadlines that come with them. But it feels contrary to the moment, or at least to my moment. And ironically, realizing this is finally getting me to write again. It’s led me to what seems like a pretty stupid question: can not writing actually make you a better writer?

Knee-jerk answer: no, of course not. You would never say that not pole vaulting makes you better at pole vaulting, or not playing the violin makes you a better violinist. Would you? What kind of sense does that make? This is just the kind of clickbait crap millennials write to avoid doing real work! And so on.


I can’t speak for other writers or their process, but for me, arriving at this point has been a revelation. I’ve spent years attempting to absorb the ideas and work ethics of other writers. I have both a BA in Writing and a MA in English. God help me, I actually have tried to write 1000 words a day before, keeping multiple projects spinning and switching from one draft to another like an obsessive trapeze artist. I’ve tacked rejection slips on the wall over my laptop, attended workshops and writers groups and comedy teams, creating an idealized version of myself as an endless font of creative energy. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t help. I have folders upon folders of old stories and scripts, blog posts, and a decent portfolio of work to show off (which you can view on this very blog!). 


There’s no denying that this can be a productive atmosphere. There’s a kind of glorious headiness that comes when you’re buzzed on caffeine and typing like Rob Brown in Finding Forrester, even if it all turns out terrible. It’s a whirlpool that can drag you around the world–or suck you under and crush you with its weight.


If there’s anything the last few months have taught me,  it’s the concept of “toxic productivity” and how writers are specifically susceptible to it. Starting out as any kind of creative is difficult, but writers, who often work alone and have difficulty finding support, can feel like constant work is the only thing they have. Hearing Lawlor describe their approach and how different it was to others’ I’d heard was eye-opening, and it was a first step toward coming up with a more forgiving appreciation of myself. 


Here are some of the key ways I think subscribing to a brutally consistent writing regimen can be bad for you, based on my experience over the years.


  • Writing can be mindless, too

You can do anything mindlessly. You can (probably) fly a plane, or perform a heart transplant, or be the nominal President of the United States, without fully engaging with your work. A lot of advice from professional writers is designed to motivate you and give you a healthy amount of text to work with, and that’s great, but not if you’re just doing it to meet some arbitrary requirement. You can write 2000 words a day and still be a bad writer.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! It just means you should make sure you have some connection, purpose, or feeling involved in what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s just the fiction equivalent of shovelware (shovelfiction?) and it’s not going to be helpful. As Werner Herzog once said in a trailer to MasterClass I don’t feel like spending money on, “We are not garbage collectors. We are thieves.” 


  • It’s an excuse for being an asshole

A lot of prolific writers were/are massive dicks. I hope I’m not blowing anybody’s minds here. I have no evidence of this, but it’s hard not to divorce this from how isolationist most writers are. It’s true that plenty of writing programs and schools promote the necessity of revision and feedback, or at least did when I was in college. But just as “auteur theory” allows movie directors to get away with being abusers (and authors are literally “auteurs”) a writer can latch onto this idea of themselves as a tortured, hypercreative genius and use it for horrific ends. The rise of #MeToo has called out plenty of previously revered writers as (allegedly) abusive, including [CW for abuse or assault on all of these] Sherman Alexie, David Foster Wallace, Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Elie Wiesel (also, while we’re on the subject: fuck J.K Rowling).


Now, let me very clearly state that I don’t think being successful or working hard automatically makes you an abuser. Abuse isn’t exclusive to one tax bracket or work ethic. I just think it’s worth considering the reverence we grant hyperproductive authors and how that can forgive someone’s most destructive tendencies. How many crimes have been tolerated or forgiven because the person committing them is considered “brilliant but difficult”?


And these are just the more obvious cases: on a personal level, I’ve found sometimes that when I’m committed to writing a set amount every day, I can get antsy and irritated at friends and family who keep me from my work. When you define yourself by something you do on your own, it’s easy to build up resentment against other people. But we’re told again and again that cutting yourself off from the world (not just physically, but emotionally)  is the only way to write something “great”. Sacrificing your ties to people is how you create worthwhile art.


I call bullshit. Helping around the house and being honest about your feelings is not going to doom you from ever publishing anything. You shouldn’t feel bad about having healthy relationships with people or other aspects of your life that may temporarily take you away from writing. We need to stop associating success with toxic behavior. If your takeaway from Whiplash was, “hey, J.K. Simmons’ character had the right idea”, you need to rethink some things.


  • You are not an Olympic swimmer (unless you are)

My doctor recently gave me the Talk, by which of course I mean the Talk About Losing Weight After the Pandemic, which for some reason involved a description of Michael Phelps’ breakfast routine and how his body can burn 10,000 calories a day while I would almost certainly drop dead before the eleventh pancake. The point being (I think), he has a diet that works for him, and I need one that works for me. 


Writing is not dissimilar! Your writing schedule is personal. If you can stick to regular output, great! If you prefer to take breaks or only write as things come to you, also great! Listen to advice by all means if you want, and also take the time to figure out what naturally works for you. Don’t force yourself to work at a pace you’ll never be able to keep up with.


  • It discourages processing and major changes

Time off from writing can be necessary time to reflect. Maybe you’re finally ready to circle back to an old project, or maybe you have a fresh idea for something completely new. Maybe you want to give up writing all together and do something else. That’s cool! Go do that!


This one especially goes out to my fellow cis-het white men. I will never tell you that you shouldn’t write just because of who you are, but I do think you should think about the space you’re writing in. Are you part of an overwhelmingly cis/het/white/male genre or market? Are you challenging or adding something new to the conversation? Is there someone else you could be helping instead? Being in a privileged demographic means you often won’t notice the benefits you have over writers from marginalized groups. Time not spent writing can be time spent observing, listening, and understanding this.

You’re still talented, and you can still write! But you’re not entitled to a platform or someone’s praise, and you might want to consider using your privilege to let others have a voice instead. Taking time off from writing can be good for that, and doesn’t lessen your skills or abilities.


  • Writing is only one part of being a writer

Writing is not easy. But it can be easier than other things, like opening up to others or looking for ways to improve yourself. Taking a rigid approach to writing can help you get work done. It can also be an avoidance tactic. Don’t forget brainstorming, researching, editing, collaborating, discussing your work with others, learning about new writers, looking for publishers, submitting, and all the various steps that come before and after you churn your way through your latest manuscript. When you’re sitting on top of mountains of pages, it can help to slow down and re-examine what you’ve written rather than cranking out new stuff for no reason.


I hope by now I’ve made my point (or at least A point). Because I don’t want to end on a negative note, here’s a few things you can do if you’re not writing now that might help.


  • Read

The number one piece of advice most writers will give you, in varying degrees of volume, will be to write, but this is always the runner up. And it’s good advice! Read, listen to audiobooks and fiction podcasts, even do some of the activities older writers regard with suspicion, like playing narrative videogames or watching TV. It can all help inspire you, but I also think it’s just a good idea to engage with art in general. Reading is beneficial for you on several levels, and it can be a way to start thinking about the work of other writers as you spend time away from your own.

  • Do some writing that “doesn’t count”

You’ve probably already been told to keep a journal, but what if you’re not the journaling type? You can still write in ways that you might not think of as “literary”. Take notes on the movies/TV shows you’re watching, or the music you’re listening to. Tweet. Post. Text with your friends. Create a TVTropes Characters page for an obscure adventure game. Be a DM. Whatever it is, it will serve as some kind of outlet, and it might be a good alternative to (or relief from) a heavier project you can’t keep up with.

  • Support and connect with other writers

I’ve met really good writers who are bad at this. Check out new work and share stuff you like. Offer to help your friends who are stuck with their projects. One thing Stephen King says that I absolutely agree with is that new writers often struggle to find a place where their work can be taken seriously. Reading a friend’s drafts or even just encouraging them to keep at it is invaluable work. Conversely, keep yourself open to feedback from others and remember that someone who gives you honest criticism of your work is (usually) trying to help you.

  • Process and voice your opinions, even if they’re just to yourself

Writing involves coming up with something and writing it down. The first half of this process can be just as involved as the second. You can be “pre-writing” without actively writing something down: working something through in your head, speaking it out loud to yourself, formulating what you want to say (I did it for this very post). If you’re someone who needs a lot of time to do this, it doesn’t mean you’ll never write again. It can also be a part of some much-needed self-care. 

  • Reach out

Maybe I’m just getting old, but this part seems so important to me now. Engaging with the world, whether it’s through some sort of political activism or simply talking to an estranged friend, can be a huge help, especially right now. Take up a new hobby, or learn about something (as long as you’re socially distancing while you do it). The image of the solitary, industrious writer who sacrifices their personal connections for GREATNESS is a dangerous one. So is the idea that writing automatically makes you better than someone with a 9-to-5. Some of the best art of this generation is being created by people with unrelated 9-to-5 jobs. 


Writers have historically been very disrespected by society at large and wracked with insecurity. Tell someone you’re a writer (or even worse, a poet) and they’ll almost always ask you how you “plan” to make money from it. I think the focus on the “craft” of writing, the idea of a writer as a mechanically consistent worker, has arisen in part as a search for legitimacy. Certainly writing is a craft and demands respect. But this can come with a demonization of writers who don’t appear to work that hard as “lazy” or “undisciplined”. 


It’s 2020. Write however the hell you want. Even if it means not writing for a while. 


And above all, cut yourself some slack.


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