Zen and the art of not writing

Guest post by Beth Morey
Does this situation sound familiar?

You wake at an indefinably early hour to sneak in some quality time with your manuscript. You brew the coffee, clear the inbox and gag that pesky inner editor. You apply the seat of your pajama pants to the seat of your desk chair. You insert 99% of the perspiration, as recommended, fingers poised over the keyboard – yet the pages only fill with drivel, or worse, remain lifeless and empty.

After 30, 60, or more dedicated minutes which feel less like writing and more like the medieval art of dentistry, you save your progress with a sigh and trudge to the bathroom for a shower.

An inconvenient truth

You’re halfway through your daily lather when it hits – the plot twist which, you realise, your entire novel is hinging on, or the exquisite article lead that you just spent the last hour trying to suss out.

You throw back the shower curtain and, snatching a towel to retain some shred of modesty, rocket toward the nearest scrap of paper and pencil. Frantically you press words into the paper’s safekeeping, water dripping from your barely toweled body onto the paper.

Breathless and shivering, you feel victorious. You are a writer, and you have created something worth finishing and – hopefully – worth reading.

It’s good to plan, but…

This type of scene plays out in my life more than I care to admit. I’m not complaining, though. As a writer, these flashes of insight are exhilarating. I just wish they occurred at more convenient and regularly scheduled times.

There is great value in sitting down before a blank computer screen or stack of paper and squeezing words into being one clenching syllable at a time. A regular writing routine is an excellent tool, as are world-building, outlining, and other brainstorming techniques.

Every writer needs to slog through some form of resistance eventually. Writing is not easy, we all know, and not for armchair authors whose literary dreams are more transient than, say, Lindsey Lohan’s hair color.

However, there is also something to be said for not writing, for choosing to step away from the page. Whether it’s because the words just aren’t working, the dog needs to be walked or the pile of dirty dishes accumulating in the kitchen has reached critical mass (ie there are no spoons left).

Life away from the act of writing happens. It has to.

I’ve found that those occasions when I’m explicitly not writing are often more helpful and productive than when I am.

Finding the ‘Ah-ha’ moments

One of the basic how-to tips doled out to beginner writers is to carry a notebook everywhere in the event that inspiration strikes. I do – at least, I try to. I’m still perfecting my proficiency with this trick of the writing trade.

I mean, there are only so many places a notebook can go (remember the shower?). But I try, and it’s paid off.

Some of my best “ah ha!” moments have come when I’m doing something that does not require my brain’s full engagement. Maybe it’s my subconscious mulling my story’s problems over, or maybe it’s the gods of writing sending me a freebie.

Regardless of the why, these zen moments pay off on the page. In addition to bath time, I hit the inspiration zone when I’m hiking with my dogs, driving (especially long distances), washing the dishes or working out. I wonder what my fellow gym-goers think is going on when I scrawl on my open notebook in the midst of a sweaty elliptical session.

Letting it happen

Not that I would care (much) if I learned that their opinions are less than flattering, because I am a writer. I haven’t bled for my craft – yet – but I am dedicated to improving my work, to telling my stories, to all the lonely yet wonderful joys of the writing life.

So sometimes I simply don’t write. I let the zen flow of not-writing trickle words and worlds into my imagination for when I return to the page, refreshed.

  1. Beth,
    That is all so true! I also get some of my best ideas in the shower! (See proof below.)


    But I think the attempt to pull words out of the soul for an hour beforehand is a necessary part of the cycle. I know when I’m not forcing myself to write through the tough periods, my showers are very ordinary affairs.

  2. A tip that blew my mind & I’ve littered around blog comments since:
    Dry erase markers write on mirrors. I have ideas in the shower all the time (usually for blog post or silly character names-that must be telling me something).

    They’d be gone by the time I could write them down. Keeping a marker in the medicine cabinet must look strange to any nosy guests over for dinner, but’s been a big help.

    Thanks for a great post!

  3. Ting is, our writing muses are willing to do their job while we don’t think about writing. Even better, when we can’t think of it. Every art needs freedom, and while we are not in the strict “writing mode” they are free of our inner editors and us thinking how the story should develop and what should be written. Those thoughts are art killers.
    I came to the point when I know that shower will initiate the stream of thoughts that should be written and thinking of installing some workspace in the bathroom.

    Still there are better techniques to tame the inspiration. It’s a simple beast and there are simple rules how it works. Though it may vary from person to person, my way of dealing with inspiration that comes in inadequate moment is to stop it right on the spot, but to dig my mind a bit to find emotional trigger that started the flow. With a bit of practice it’s possible to start it again once the keyboard is under the fingers.

  4. Great post, and I recognise your experience. There is a correlation between physical activity and creativity, especially if the activity is repetitive. Ideas that come while ironing are easy to record but some of my best (I think) seem to come half way down the swimming pool. I could try tucking a dry wipe pen in the strap of my goggles and penning my masterpiece across the tiles, but I might not be allowed back.

  5. Yep, happens to me all the time. The first few hours of quality time can be appalling. Then I have to do something like get ready for an appointment and I can’t scribble notes fast enough. I’m always to be found crouching in the corner of the gym with a snatched bit of paper.Great post – I’m tweeting this.

  6. Isn’t this always the way? As a matter of fact, I’m sitting here now, coffee and laptop ready — got nothing. But, in the car, on the way home from IKEA yesterday, EUREKA! Craziness…

  7. For me, driving is ALWAYS when my subconscious decides to solve my fiction problems. And then carrying my notebook is useless because I can’t write while I’m driving. In this case, I usually call and leave myself a voice mail or if I have space left, create a voice recorded message on my phone.

  8. Some of my best “ah ha!” moments have come when I’m doing something that does not require my brain’s full engagement. Maybe it’s my subconscious mulling my story’s problems over, or maybe it’s the gods of writing sending me a freebie.
    This is me, definitely. Showers, dog walks, and the moments right before sleep are when new ideas come to me. Aside from a trusty notebook, I find it helps to keep a small IC recorder around in the car or on dog walks.

    Thanks for the post!

  9. You have inspired me! I have a flu headache, aching side, and looking at the page, I just can’t bring myself to squeeze out words. However I feel I would be much more appreciative of this precious writing time if the scene I was tackling at the moment was better – in other words, it needs an ‘a-ha’ moment. I’m popping off to the charity shops, ready to empty my brain and hopefully stumble across something that helps it all make sense. Wonderful article! Oh, and I’m called Beth too! :3

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