How I Was Forced to Learn to Take Breaks and Refill the Creative Well

The internet is filled with great advice on how to produce words. I see it on constantly on my timeline—tips on how to write more, to write faster, to write consistently. Always, constantly, there’s a message thrumming a demand for more, more, more. And if you’re a person that’s struggled to get words down, that fights for scraps of prose, I’m sure these tidbits of advice are insanely helpful—and I’m glad! But I’ve never been the person that needed to be told to start writing.

I needed to be told to stop. And I didn’t learn how to do that until I was basically forced to.

I feel guilty when I’m not writing. Even though I’m someone that can crack out a 90,000 word draft in three weeks, it never feels like enough. I know friends that feel the same—that feel obligated to create constantly, even if it’s at the expense of their health. While I do believe it’s important to write consistently, I think sometimes we get so wrapped up in producing, we forget that we also need to refill the well.

Note: Everyone has different methods to write, and this post is solely about my experience, and what my process needs. You should always, always find what works for you over what some person on the internet is saying—including me!

I’ve always had a workaholic-prone personality and I’m quick to ignore the warning signs my body tries to send me when I’m pushing myself too far. In high school, I was that kid that balanced AP classes with working with multiple sports. Consequently, I got sick a lot. My panic attacks got worse.

When I got to college I did the opposite of slow down. I balanced full-time work in a retail hell scape with 16 credits every semester and an internship. I was determined to get four years of schooling done in three because I wanted to start working as soon as possible and start paying off my student loans. I got sick a lot. The panic attacks I’d learned to manage were still there but I was getting them under control, so my body started sending me other warnings—headaches, dizzy spells, weeks of being trapped in fog, cold sores breaking out on my lips.

I wrote in stolen-moments—on 30 min lunch breaks, on my phone, in class. I brainstormed on scraps of paper at work and mentally plotted on commutes. So when I graduated and got my first full-time “big girl” job I was elated that I finally had evenings and these magical things called weekends to write.

And, in line with my past bad habits, I went a little overboard. I wrote dozens upon dozens of short stories over the summer and an entire 86,000 word book in August I immediately tossed aside. And then I wrote another book in three weeks in October and jumped into obsessively revising. At that point, I was starting to neglect the things that kept me balanced. I went to the gym less, ate more convenience food, and ignored the fact that my day job responsibilities were growing, and growing, and growing. I slid back into my old bad habits. I was frustrated and burnt out and miserable. I couldn’t understand why I’d produced hundreds of thousands of words in only a few months and hated all of them.

My boyfriend suggested I take a break, and I brilliantly, uh, ignored him. A break?! I scoffed. I don’t need a break!

Aaaand I got sick. Everything ground to a halt as I came down with what I’m pretty sure was a nasty case of the flu. I was mortified. I had a vacation I’d been dreaming about for nearly a year coming up, so I let everything grind to a halt so I could heal, because I would be damned if I had the flu in a bikini.

I forced myself to take about a week off of writing so I could stumble home from work and go to bed insanely early. And I got better! The vacation was around the corner, and I had the brilliant plan to take my laptop on vacation and write and revise there. I also brought nine books with me and told myself that if I got so much writing every day, I could read as a reward. (I know, I know. I have a problem.)

For some reason, I had it in my head that if I didn’t have this draft I’d started in October completely finished and revised by the end of December, I was a complete and utter failure.

The vacation came. Boyfriend side-eyed me on the plane as I wrote for the first few hours, and then I rewarded myself with reading. I felt so smug because I was certain I’d “won.” Take that, stress! I was going to spend my vacation revising anyway!

We got to our destination, unpacked, got to the resort—and my laptop stopped working.

Reader, I was mortified.

Nothing would work. The charger light was on, but no matter how many times I pressed the power button, the screen was black.

I remember texting my critique partners freaking out and saying my laptop won’t even turn on, how am I supposed to revise?! And their responses were solidly, aren’t you literally on vacation in another country???? Maybe you should, uh, be on vacation????

I moped and pouted and twitched, and then I…didn’t really have any choice but to listen. I forgot about my computer (except for the occasional oh-my-god-if-it’s-really-broken-this-is-about-to-get-expensive moment) and forced myself to actually…rest. I spent a week with the love of my life drinking way too many margaritas and binge-reading on the beach. I burned through the books I’d brought on vacation, so I bought 2 more on my kindle. I read more in a week than I typically let myself in months. I forgot about my obsessive need to fix a story as fast as possible and got lost in other stories, instead. One of the books I read on my vacation—Code Name Verity—was so compelling I was essentially glued to the resort chair for an entire day.

I’d forgotten how amazing it was to be so totally sucked in by a book you forgot you were reading. I’d forgotten that that feeling—of being swept away, of being so totally absorbed in another character’s world you didn’t want to leave—was why I wanted to write in the first place. I wanted to make someone else feel that way. On the plane ride home, I spent six hours getting into Orphan Black (sobs) and caught myself wondering, why don’t I let myself watch TV more? There’s so much to learn about story here!

(Sidebar: I understand how incredibly, insanely fortunate I am that I even got a vacation that forced me to relax. Who knew that the year we spent saving for it was actually going to be a week of unwinding the stress ball that is Becca Mix.)

I realized that forcing myself to constantly, constantly produce wasn’t necessarily giving me the best story. The more I read on vacation, the more I learned, and the more equipped I felt to tackle my own story issues when I got home.

It wasn’t until we got back to Michigan that I remembered my laptop was now a useless hunk of metal, and I started to worry about when I would be able to afford to get it fixed. We got home really late, and I was bleary-eyed and sunburned as I was unpacking. I plugged in my laptop…and it turned on! The evil thing booted right up as if nothing had happened, and I stared at it with a mix of bewilderment and joy.

When I did get back to my revisions, I felt like a different creator. My well was overflowing thanks to the worlds of other authors. It was like I had new tools in my toolbox, and I could look at the story differently. I understood on multiple levels what I needed to do, because I’d just studied some of the very arcs I was playing with in the books I’d binge-read. It was like inhaling a bunch of polished stories had reminded me what they ought to look like. When I turned that revised draft into my CPs I was over the moon, because their comments boiled down to, this feels like a totally new book.

Taking a break had been exactly what I needed to fix my story.

Fast forward to last week. Day job had the most intense, stressful week I’ve dealt with since I started working here, and things were going kind of wild in my personal life, too. I had just finished a draft of my latest book and was planning to—against better judgment—revise almost immediately. I knew I was pushing myself too much, but I didn’t care. I needed to get this done.

Aaaaand I got sick. (Are we seeing a pattern here?)

It was kind of a forehead-smacking moment.

So I’m forcing myself to take a break. Unfortunately, day job hasn’t gotten any less stressful, but I am not letting myself touch my draft until I’ve read x amount of books. And while the first few days have made me twitchy and uneasy and feel like a failure—I’m starting to realize that first break wasn’t a fluke. My process needs rest after the flurry of activity to burn out. If I’m going to drain my well in three weeks of furious writing, it means I need to let myself refill it, too.

I still don’t like taking breaks. I kind of hate it, actually. The little voice in my head is still chiming shouldn’t you be writing? But now I’m finally learning the breaks are needed. And I know that once I come back to my story, I’ll be ready to fix it, because I’ll have refilled my well after consuming a dozen other worlds.

So if you’re like me, then maybe you need to hear this: it’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to take a rest. Pausing to heal and refill the well does not mean you’re backsliding.

Sometimes, it means you’re building up strength to go even further.

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