The value of time off

[January 2007] At the end of December, I had accumulated vacation from my day job that I had to use or lose, so I took off the final dozen or so days of 2006. I had great plans for that “free time.” Several of those days, I was going to be home alone because my wife had to work over the holiday period. Huge blocks of uninterrupted time. Imagine the possibilities.

I had just finished the first draft of a novel manuscript. I planned to put the book aside for a couple of weeks and focus my time on a couple of short stories. I have a file where I keep printouts of anthology guidelines, sorted by “expiration date.” I also recently purchased an erasable whiteboard, where I list upcoming deadlines so none slip past while I’m busy doing other things. I could make great headway on getting something prepared for projects with January and February deadlines. Heck, maybe I could even get all the way into the March stories.

Great plans, I say. New story after new story. I could also whip a couple of delinquent old tales into shape and get them back into the submission pipeline. I was going to be a writing fool. Smoke would rise from the keyboard, I was going to type so fast and for so long at a stretch.

My total output of fictional material during the last two weeks of 2006: zero. Nada. Zilch. Diddly squat.

I could blame it on cable TV, which was my Christmas present. For the first time in a decade, I had access to dozens, nay, hundreds of channels. However, being the holidays, most programs were reruns or sports events or seasonal specials. When I did watch TV, it was mostly either old reruns of various incarnations of Law & Order and C.S.I., or vintage movies I’ve seen many times before.

I read a lot. I was also overcome with a craving for baked foods that brought back fond memories of my youth, so I dug up recipes and actually baked stuff. Fruitcake. Oatmeal cookies. Bread. I prepared huge meals for when everyone else was home. We played board games, listened to music, watched movies. Hung out.

So, to reiterate. Total output: Bupkis.

To be fair, I didn’t abandon writing all together. Between episodes of Law & Order, I constructed a web site where I could post book reviews I’ve had sitting around and a couple of interviews I wanted to see the light of day. (It’s Onyx Reviews, if you’d care to check it out.) I wrote several new reviews, reformatted old ones, touched up an interview with Tabitha King, designed the new web page, created the banner and the navigation, acquired the domain name, etc. It wasn’t a total loss. However, nothing at all like what I’d hoped to accomplish.

And yet, in retrospect, I don’t regret a moment of it, and I wouldn’t do a thing differently given the chance to do it all over again. (Not true: I would have rolled the oatmeal dough to a more consistent thickness so my cookies didn’t end up thick on one end and thin on t’other.)

In a sense, I was taking a double vacation. I was getting away from the day job for nearly two weeks, but I was also recharging my creative batteries.

We hear about the creative pool, the one where we all go down to drink. During my usual routine, I write for about an hour to ninety minutes in the morning. I stop for two reasons: first, because I have to go to work. Second, however, because the pool usually runs temporarily dry at that point. There are days when the pool is especially deep and I can write for hours and hours, but those days are exceptions. It seems that my creative pool refills at a rate of about 1500 words a day, on average. It’s just a happy coincidence that my allotted time is usually long enough so I can pump those words onto the page.

Every so often, though, the pool needs more than a day to recharge. The water isn’t running as quickly as usual, and it might even be getting a little brackish or stale. We take vacations from nine-to-five jobs. It’s also necessary every now and then to take a break from the keyboard.

As a result of my decision, passive though it may have been, a couple of anthology deadlines went sailing on by. C’est dommage, as we say where I come from. Usually with a shrug. I might have been able to wring the pool dry and put something together for those projects, but it wouldn’t have been my best work.

Once January came around and I got back to my usual routine, I felt recharged and renewed. In two weeks, I did a complete editing pass through the novel I’d completed the month before. Now I’m ready to tackle the list on that new whiteboard of mine. January 17th: Storytellers essay. Check.

The well isn’t full to the brim—I doubt that it ever is. But the water looks cool and refreshing, ready for me to drink it in and channel it into something else.

Not an especially profound message, perhaps, but I think we need to remind ourselves that it’s okay to take a break every now and then. Perhaps even recommended.

Comments are closed.