Writers write. That’s true. We’ve all been admonished a million times to park our behinds in our chairs and just write. Sometimes—maybe even most of the time—that’s what we need to do.
But nobody can write all the time, unless you want to end up like Jack Torrance in The Shining, typing pages and pages of madness and hacking down doors with axes. In order to define our writing as writing and hang on to our sanity in the process, we have to have non-writing to surround it. The rich shadowy darkness of creativity is only visible when it’s contrasted with the light of everyday life.
The trick to this is to have an arsenal of non-writing things you can depend on to refresh your spirit. The list will be different for everyone. Here are six things from my list:
Walking. Not power walking for exercise, but just ambling through the neighborhood, picking a different route every time. Sure, the exercise gets my blood circulating, but the solitude, the fresh air, the sunshine (or the rain)—it’s a great way to get away from the computer, but at the same time a terrific incubator for new ideas. I like to recite dialog as I walk, to hear what it sounds like. Yes, the neighbors wonder about me.
Showers. Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces, but water does a lot more for me than get me clean. The solitude again, the sound, the primitive rushing feel of the water—when a particular plot point is blocking my progress, it’s amazing how often I figure it out in the shower. I keep a notepad in the bathroom so I can get things written down before I forget them. I tried one of those waterproof-notepad gadgets but I kept dropping the special underwater pen. If I get a really good idea I just scramble out of the shower and drip all over everything while I write.
Stargazing. I learned the constellations as a child, but you don’t have to know Ursa Major from Cassiopeia to appreciate the enormity of the night sky. After a while it makes writing-related problems seem much less important. You can muse on what your characters would see and think at night—the stars will be pretty much the same (well, in the northern hemisphere…and a star map will show you constellations in the southern hemisphere) to anyone in any time and place. I thought of this when I wrote a scene for THE RED LILY CROWN in which my heroine awakens from being drugged and abducted and looks up at the sky to orient herself:
There, that was the North Star, just as Ruan had taught her. Her own stars, the curling tail and spread claws of the Scorpion, were on the opposite horizon, so that was south…
I felt that scene because I knew what the sky would have looked like, deep in the darkness.
Cooking and baking. There’s just something about the measuring and chopping and mixing that soothes my soul. There are textures and wonderful smells, the soft bubbling sound of soup simmering, the colors of vegetables and fruits and of course, the delicious tastes. Food is just plain sensuous, and making food is a full-five-senses activity.
I love using the lavish banquet foods of the sixteenth century in my stories, but in THE RED LILY CROWN, the homely kitchen of my heroine’s grandmother also emerged from my own cooking experiences:
A fat chicken was simmering on the stove, its rich scent punctuated with garlic, onions and sweet peppers. The cupboards were packed full of food, vegetables and fruit, oil and olives, long strings of noodles looped and knotted, dried peas and lentils in baskets and bags and jars. Two new loaves of bread awaited cutting, and a bottle of strong red wine had been uncorked to breathe…
I’ve made that soup and drunk that wine, and so they were stored away in my head for the moment when I needed them.
Journaling. I’ve kept a daily private journal for over thirty years, and now I couldn’t think about a day passing without writing something in it. Many entries are what I call “writing about writing,” which I do when I don’t know where to go next in a story. I talk to myself (rather like I do when I walk) and just start writing about what the characters would do next and all of a sudden:
Write about writing, Elizabeth. Write about what you want to write. So Chiara is frustrated and restless. Show that. Show her having a conflict with Donna Jimena, and Donna Jimena reproving her for “getting too big for her britches.” Chiara herself wouldn’t see it but Donna Jimena would. This will characterize them both—show that Chiara is letting the court get to her, and that Donna Jimena loves children and is still protective of Francesco. I want Chiara to break a pot of saffron…
That’s an actual entry from September 17, 2012. From that little pot of saffron (medicinal in this case, not culinary) the whole scene unfolded.
Beagles. Knowing Boudin and Cressie are sleeping on their pillows behind me as I work:
(Behind those closet doors are racks and shelves of books, of course.)
I take the dogs with me on my walks. I talk to them (I do talk with other people sometimes, really) and snuggle down to take naps with them. There are always hounds in my books, and they’re based on my real beagles—Tristo and Isa in The Second Duchess were my beloved Raffie (now at the Rainbow Bridge) and Cressie, Seilie in The Flower Reader with her freckled paws was Cressie through and through, and all three dogs star in The Red Lily Crown, with its family tree of beagles.
Everyone’s list of not-writing activities will be different. What’s yours? I’d love to add to my own not-writing arsenal with some of your ideas.
But wait, you say. You promised six and a half ways to be a writer even when you’re not writing. What’s with the half? Or were you just April-fooling us?
The half is a half because it’s not specific, but here it is:
No matter what you’re doing, try to think of yourself as a writer doing it. Observe, internalize, remember. Feel your feelings and imagine how you can use them in your writing, perhaps in wildly different situations. I spent a day at the courthouse a week or so ago, as part of a jury pool, and that combination of physical discomfort (incredibly hard wooden benches) and deadly boredom (lawyers just droning on and on and on) would fit well if I have a character someday locked away in a prison cell. I’ve written it down and I’ll remember.
Be curious. What about April Fool’s Day? (Which is my sister’s birthday, by the way… how would you like to go through your whole life listening to the jokes about that?) Well, where did April Fool’s Day come from? What’s its history? (Actually very interesting—in Italy and France you actually shout April Fish!) How might you use it in your story?
We conclude, where we began, with your bottom glued to your chair, because actually writing is still the only way to write a book. But we truly need our moments of not-writing too, to keep our creativity fresh and our imaginations happily imagining.
About Elizabeth Loupas
Elizabeth Loupas is the author of three books of historical fiction set in the sixteenth century, including THE RED LILY CROWN: A Novel of Medici Florence, published on April 1st but not (she hopes) an April Fool’s prank.
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