Writing Tip #17: Sometimes You Have to Walk Away

A plate from Audubon’s Birds of America. Not my mystery bird, but he’s awfully cute.

Last week I had the good fortune to have a week alone in cabin at a writers’ retreat. Every year I try to carve out a week to spend at a place like this that cuts me out of my day-to-day life and forces me to focus on a creative projects. It’s great because the workaholic in me goes into hyper-creative mode, thinking “Hey, I took this week off of work, which means it’s costing me (hours x hourly wage) to BE HERE. So I’d damn well better BE HERE NOW and do what I came to do” (e.g. the thing I can’t do in the evenings at home).

A caveat: yes, I am a writer. Yes, I can write at home on my laptop. IF I stop doing all of the other daily tasks like doing laundry, cooking dinner, answering emails, taking a shower. Most days, that’s a big IF. I find it extremely difficult to tune out all of the mundane tasks that are competing for my attention and devote time just for myself, to focus on creative work.

So last week, I spent 6 days in a cabin with no internet, no cell service, and no other people.

It was glorious.

A book I’d been thinking about for a long time came pouring out, and I wrote over 25,000 words. And the best part? It was FUN. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like what I was supposed to be doing with my day. But that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stumbled onto an old book and walked away from my project one day.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the most of my time in a place like this: once I settle in and start working, I don’t want to stop for acts like eating and socializing. I had to make myself stop sometimes, and go do something else just so my fingers wouldn’t fall off from all the typing. I went to dinner in the lodge and met some other artists. I took walks in the woods. I went to the old library on site and happened upon a 1942 volume of Audubon’s Birds of America.

This was exciting for two reasons: (1) I love Audubon’s paintings and I geek out over birds like you wouldn’t believe. So this book is basically catnip. (2) My new book in part centers on an unusual bird that’s been sighted—one that was believed to have been extinct. When I went to the library that day, I needed to know what this bird was. I was starting this book, but I had no idea what the bird was, and it was a central character in itself. All along, I’d been thinking it would be something like the ivory-billed woodpecker. Maybe a Carolina parakeet. It needed to be a bird that had a unique call, and one that had been seen in South Carolina.

A quick internet search gave me my answer: a warbler. Just for fun, I flipped through the Audubon book, and there was my mystery bird. A warbler named for Audubon’s best friend, and one that had nested in the southeastern US. It was easily confused with hooded warblers and magnolia warblers, and there were unconfirmed sightings in the 1980s, but it’s thought to be extinct. It was perfect.

That discovery energized me. I went back to my outline, and filled in the gaps. Suddenly the story took more shape, and I felt less worried about how it just felt like a hot mess. The important pieces fell into place—enough to get started on that zero draft—and that’s when the book started pouring out. This bird was a touchstone, much like it is for the heroine in my book, and all I could think was, “Hey, it’s a good thing I wandered into the library today.” It’s a good thing I walked away and took a breath.

The point of all this is that I needed a reminder. I needed to remember that even when we’ve carved out time for ourselves, and we’ve sat down to make this next creative thing, we still have to give ourselves a time-out. We still have to take time to relax, to explore, and to discover. Those moments outside of work time, when we let ourselves daydream, and let our minds wander—those are the moments that let the magic seep in. Those are the moments that happen when we walk away.