Clocking Out

by Chris McMahon

After a furious period of activity finishing off and revising the draft of my new SF novel, Foreign Elements, I have taken a week off writing. I feel nervous just writing that!

The main reason is I have been experiencing a variety of unpleasant symptoms ranging from vertigo and nausea to missed heartbeats. So far the best the doctor can come up with is ‘they appear to be a range of symptoms associated with stress and anxiety’. In any case I have let myself off the hook for this week, which means not doing anything on job#3 – managing the business my wife and I run, or job#2 – writing in the morning before work (or in any other crack I can find). Job#1 of course grinds on regardless.

The break from writing feels inordinately strange. I have been experiencing some very serious internal thumb twiddling, which has become more frantic as the week has progressed. I never realised what a damn word junkie I was.

Of course the writing is still going on, but more at the ideas level. I have also been thinking a lot more ‘big picture’ in terms of overall approach and strategy. All in all I think it will be one Hell of a relief to get back into it next week. Not that I really want to start cutting my sleep again.

The break has got me thinking about what is ‘normal’ or ‘reasonable’ in terms of having a break from writing. People approach this very differently depending on their writing method. Some people tend to write in intense blocks, and are happy taking big chunks of time off. I get unsettled by this. I tend to be a ‘slogger’. Mind you, big blocks of time worked great for finishing the first draft of Foreign Elements.

I think there is something to be said for letting the field go ‘fallow’ and renew its fertility. To get enough space to rejuvenate and get inspired. Not everyone agrees with this – some writers and writing teachers are fanatical about writing every day.

How do you approach your downtime? Do you structure it? i.e. give yourself a day off a week? Work in blocks with big blocks off? Or are you ad-hoc, with both up and downtimes coming at the behest of the muses?

10 thoughts on “Clocking Out

  1. Oh dear, take care of yourself, Chris.

    I find it is the time I spend waiting a the train station to pick ids up, or doing the ironing (Yeah, I live an exciting life) when my mind is just ticking over, that insights come to me. Of course he wouldn’t do that. He’d it it this way because he’s not ready for that yet – sort of thing.

      1. Hi, Rowena. Sounds like you use the natural rhythms of life and work with those. Not a bad plan when you have no choice:)

        I’m trying hard to reduce my stress – but its hard when everywhere you turn there is a constraint. I’m sure you know what I mean!

      2. You probably should pick them up though. The last thing you need is a Forbidden Planet type scenario in a crowded railway station.

  2. If the writing is a source of stress, you’ve got one problem. If the writing is a pressure relief valve, an entirely other sort of problem.

    First, you need to identify the true source of the stress. The job? Or is your personality such that having taken on writing as job #2, you feel you _must_ _work_ at it? My husband is that type. Drives me up the wall, I swear he can take the pleasure out of anything and _make_ it into a slog.

    Do you need to sit down with your ids after collecting them at the train station (sorry Rowena, that was such a funny vision) and talk about fun things that might turn out to be a new job, but right now they are like doing the crossword puzzle, or watching a show. Something you do for enjoyment.

    1. Hi, Pam. That is proabably a large part of the problem, so guilty as charged. However I feel like if I let go of that drive I will not break through.

      It is something I am better at though – I used to fall into the trap of driving myself in every conceivable department. Now at least I can do at least somethings just for enjoyment, such as my music.

  3. Chris, take care of yourself. That is first and foremost. What you’ve described sounds all too familiar. I try to take a day off a week but it never happens. Not fully. I find myself either writing or editing or doing something for NRP, even if for only an hour or two. The result is I finally hit the wall and have to shut down for a week or more. The body and/or the mind don’t give me any choice.

    I’ve learned the signs though and try to head them off now. Usually, when I feel the stress building that much, I turn to physical labor to work the body and let the mind rest. Carpentry, painting, digging ditches — it all works. Of course, that’s when I tend to work hard enough to hurt myself, at least that’s what Sarah accuses me of.

    Most of all, don’t feel guilty for having to take time away. It does help and it often, at least for me, gives a new perspective on what I was working on.

    1. Hi, Amanda. That’s funny, beause earlier this week I was thinking how great it would be to just spend some time doing that sort of hand’s on work. It would have to be in a different universe though, unfortunately.

      You pay a big price for white-collar work. Hands on jobs are so much better for the soul in some ways. You also have the options of turning off your brain. Working as an engineer, there is no option there. Hey – at least the money’s good:)

      1. Chris, you might try pointing out to your inner editor that there a whole lot of practice needed before you “break through” and there’s nothing wrong with having fun practicing. If you can make the writing into stress relief, rather than another stress point, I suspect it will help both the stress and the writing.

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