Ebb and Flow

From late March to mid-July of this year I produced an enormous quantity of new fiction. In total, I wrote: the novel Intersection Thirteen, the novella Beati Qui Inveniunt Feles, the five novellas of The Five Kingdoms of Daniel Worthy, six novellas of Chronicles of Ytria, one novella as part of the potential series Voyage Redux, and a handful of short stories and flash fiction. This deluge of writing stands in stark contrast to the prior calendar year, 2019, in which I drafted a single 300-page novel (The Other) and the novella Rite of Courage (part of The Shipwright and Other Stories), not to mention the two calendar years prior, during which I wrote nothing at all.

One of the pieces of writing advice that floats around the internet is to “write every day.” At the core of this assertion lies an element of truth. Our habits shape us. Committing to doing something regularly is a powerful and reliable tool for making real and lasting change in one’s life. Many of the drafts listed above I wrote during my “Saturday shorts” series, in which I committed to writing something every Saturday, even if I didn’t have an idea for something that excited me.

However, for the past two weeks, I have found myself stalled out. I decided that this was not writer’s block, as I have more ideas than ever. I considered the possibility that I have simply gotten lazy, but that doesn’t fit with my general energy level, mental outlook, and attitude.

I gave this some thought, surveying the last eight years (the time since I got serious about my writing) for patterns. I came to the conclusion that I have paused my writing when I have needed to catch my breath, when it’s not the ideas or the motivation that run dry, but my reserves of creative energy. There comes a time when those stores need to recharge.

I likened this to my experience with swimming. When doing the freestyle crawl, you swim fastest when your head is face down in the water. Turning your head to breathe slows you down. You could try to force yourself not to breathe at all, but you would just end up hurting yourself. The trick is to breathe in the right way so as to create as little drag as possible. You can also train yourself to require less air by building lung capacity, but it is impossible to swim full throttle for minutes on end without any air at all.

It’s the same for writing. Writing takes a lot of mental focus. The writer has to hold a vast array of ideas and character archetypes in mind while channeling them into a narrative, addressing concerns of structure and narrative flow in situ as the words pour out. It should not be surprising that one needs a break from that, a redirection of mental energy to some other activity in order to recharge. Time away has the added benefit of allowing the writer to claim some measure of objectivity when returning to a piece they worked on prior.

It may work differently for other writers, but for me, writing is an ebb and flow. This actually lines up well with publishing and marketing a book, which seem to contain a plethora of “hurry up and wait” situations. I ran into a prime example of that effect earlier this year. My friend Aaron Ramos supplied me with a list of indie book awards to peruse back in May, and upon going through it, I recalled my submission of Schrödinger’s City to the Chanticleer Cygnus Awards back in the Winter of 2016. By the time that Chanticleer announced Schrödinger’s City as a semi-finalist in Autumn of 2017, my situation had changed completely. During the interval, I had shut down my press, refocused my efforts on paying down my student loan debt, and had diverted my reading activities from SF to the Classics—I was smack in the middle of reading Aristotle. Writing and publishing were the last things on my mind, and I promptly forgot that I had even received the award.

The 2017-2018 gap was a long one by objective standards, but when set against to the prolonged flurry of writing activity from 2012-2016, it was needed and deserved. If anything, I should strive for more modest bursts requiring shorter breaks, but I don't know that it would be feasible or beneficial to try to avoid breaks completely, to literally write every single day. Breaks are necessary in order to keep my writing fresh. Writers can develop just as much by how we live and what we pay attention to when we’re not writing as how rigorously we practice writing itself.

Writing may be a craft, and it is important to hone the craft, but I am also attentive to it as an art, and that element, at least for me, cannot charge endlessly forward at breakneck pace without running out of air.