If you’ve been working on a particular writing project for some time—a story, a novel, or a memoir—and begin feeling uninspired, lackluster, or unable to write, is it a good idea to take a break from writing? This is a natural question for a writer who feels stuck. If something isn’t working, most people reason, why not put it away for a while and see if the hiatus allows you to return to the project with renewed enthusiasm and energy.
My answer always depends on two factors: the particular writer posing the question and just what they mean by “break.”
If the writer asking the question means putting all writing to the side for a given amount of time, sliding the proverbial papers into a drawer and shutting the drawer on them, my answer is always, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Stopping all writing for a week, several weeks, a month or two, is like interrupting an intimate relationship that isn’t going the way you had hoped it would. Telling a person, “Let’s have no contact for the next few weeks, then get back together and see how we feel,” is risky business. Sure, you might miss the person more than you ever expected, look forward to seeing them again, and anxiously await your reunion. But just the opposite could happen. Over the next days or weeks, you expend conscious or unconscious energy rationalizing your decision, trying to convince yourself that you have done the right thing, that the relationship you have put on hold wasn’t as good a match as you had first thought, that you enjoy more being on your own, that there must be somebody out there better suited to you. And by the time the reunion date rolls around, you’ve already moved on.
Stopping writing completely is not the only option when you’re stuck. There are other strategies you can put in place to give you a breather from a project that has begun to feel stale, strategies that might allow you to return to your project, renewed and energized at the end of the allotted time.
Instead of not writing, you can begin a new and smaller project. If it’s a novel or a short story you’ve been working on, you can write a piece or two of flash fiction. Flash fiction dramatically lowers the writing stakes. In the first place, it shouldn’t be more than 500 words long. And then, the flash fiction carries much less weight than the novel or stories you want to complete, which always makes it easier to write. If it’s a memoir you were working on, you could embark on a short essay, one perhaps that relates thematically to the memoir. Knowing that you’re not responsible for the entire memoir often is such a relief that the essay feels easily achievable.
Or instead of not writing, you can pick up a previous project that awaits revision. Most of us have a story or essay, or even several chapters of a novel that we either completed but never finalized, or abandoned mid-way for any of various reasons. If you want a break from your current project, why not pick up this previous writing and see what you can do to move it along to the next level?
Finally, as a universal cure-all, I have had clients write for several weeks about a very ordinary activity they engage in daily—tooth brushing, coffee making, an exercise routine, making the bed, etc. You’re right if you’re surprised. These are certainly lackluster activities, so why would I suggest a writer engage with them?
The most important reason for selecting this kind of writing as a “break” from a larger current project, is that it dramatically lowers the stakes. No longer do you feel responsible for the entire novel, the whole memoir, the complete short story. Instead, each day, you are responsible only for that day’s engagement in your activity. And what writers can discover or rediscover once they settle into this writing practice for several weeks is both their pleasure in writing and their authentic writer’s voice.
I tried this daily writing practice once. I walked around a local track every weekday morning, then came home and wrote about it. At first, I had no idea just what I would be writing about—the place, the people, myself? I ended up writing about all of this. But I discovered in the process my natural penchant for essay writing. And ever since that time, it’s essays I keep writing.