J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Why Breaks Are a Bad Idea

Feel the burn every day.

Feel the burn every day.

I’ve been working on a new novel (if you’ve been wondering why my recent posts have been shorter, that’s the reason). It’s my third attempt at a novel, and hopefully I’ll be happy enough with the results to seek publication. Writing 5-6 days/week is difficult, but also extremely rewarding.

So here’s my realization. It had been a couple years since I stopped working on most recent novel before this one, an alternative-biology mystery. I wrote it without an outline or ending in mind (big mistake for a mystery!), and the end result was filled with plot holes and continuity errors. It’s probably fixable, but after a couple rewrites I decided I was better off taking a short break and starting a new novel project (this time with a proper outline).

Well, that short break stretched into two-and-a-half-years. Which is about the same amount of time between my first attempt at a novel (an adventure story that tried to cram every idea I’d ever had into it; after finishing it I realized I had better just start a blog to give myself a proper firehose outlet). And I had the same stupid idea too — give myself a “short break” before starting the next project.

So I figured out why that doesn’t work.

I got out of shape.

The brain is plastic. Skills are plastic. Once, when I started to develop a bone spur on my right clavicle from too much right-handed mouse work, I switched to using my left hand for mousing. Within a week my spoken and written vocabulary took a sudden leap. The increased stimulus to my right brain caused a notable expansion in the number of words I used in daily speech and writing. Words that I knew, but didn’t commonly use, were suddenly sliding off my tongue (or keyboard) with ease.

My point is that the brain changes in response to stimulus, quickly and radically.

When I started this new novel, the first few weeks were like pulling teeth. My brain hurt. I did not meet my quota on most days. I wanted to give up frequently.

Then, things began to get easier. The process of inhabiting the perspective and emotions of my characters got easier. Plot ideas flowed. Writing dialogue and descriptive passages felt less like work and more like play.

I was getting in shape.

So when, the other day, I thought to myself “After I finish this novel, I’ll take a short break and work on something else for awhile,” another part of my mind said “Nope.”

Don’t stop. Don’t take a break. You’ll get out of shape again. Just keep writing every day, and stay in shape. Sometimes you have to put a particular project aside for awhile to gain perspective, but if you stop the activity itself, you’ll get rusty.

So that’s what I’ve decided to do. If it’s something I value, I’m going to work on it every day, or almost every day. Writing fiction, producing music, blogging, I’m in. (And there’s no chance of my database skills getting too rusty; that’s what is paying the bills so I’ll keep working as long as my clients keep calling.)

And if I stop something, I’m not going to kid myself and say I’m “taking a break.” No more ins-and-outs. I let go of DJ’ing and it felt good, I was never fully committed to it or passionate about the craft, it was simply an opportunity that came along that I jumped on for a few years. It’s OK to let go of activities and let them be a part of your past, especially if you have new activities that comprise your new identity.

So here’s to staying in shape and doing it every day.

What have you taken a “short break” from that turned into a long break and getting flabby and slow (metaphorically or literally)? Are you ready to recommit? Or let go and do something else?


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  1. alex

    I recommend Vimala Rodgers Handwriting Kit as a way to realize your writing dream. She also wrote a book called CHANGE YOUR HANDWRITING CHANGE YOUR LIFE. I’ve had several friends do it with impressive results. It really helped them with manifestation.

  2. nefnie

    “The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.” That is one of many great ideas found here, JSeinfeld nytimes interview
    Full quote: When he can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”

  3. altamisal

    Well, I say if it’s rewarding, that’s reason enough to keep doing what you are doing. But just for the sake of discussion, this is an exchange with a spiritual teacher on the general topic of discipline, using writing as an example.

    “ELIAS: Individuals incorporate the idea that discipline is synonymous with structure in quite specific manners. If you are a disciplined writer, you shall incorporate a structure of hours that you shall engage this activity, and you shall assure yourself that you shall maintain that structure. This is not necessarily discipline. This is force.

    Discipline is an awareness of self and an allowance of self to move in a natural manner without force, in order, in balance — not a force of structure.

    JERRY: So you would encourage me to play with my day?

    ELIAS: I would be…”

    And Abraham-Hicks said, “You can’t get it wrong, and you never get it done.”

    • In response I’ll share a quote from one of my own spiritual teachers, Stephen King.

      “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

      It’s #4 from this post:

      But can the work be “play”? Absolutely, agreed. But not if I’m out of shape.

      • altamisal

        Again, whatever works for you. Just for fun, here’s Lewis Carroll (author of the Alice books):

        “Sometimes an idea comes at night, when I have had to get up and strike a light to note it down–sometimes when out on a lonely winter walk, when I have had to `stop, and with half-frozen fingers jot down a few words which should keep the new-born idea from perishing–but whenever or however it comes, it comes of itself. I cannot set invention going like a clock, by any voluntary winding up: nor do I believe that any original writing (and what other writing is worth preserving?) was ever so produced. If you sit down, unimpassioned and uninspired, and tell yourself to write for so many hours, you will merely produce (at least I am sure I should merely produce) some of that article which fills, so far as I can judge, two-thirds of most magazines–most easy to write most weary to read–men call it `padding’, and it is to my mind one of the most detestable things in modern literature. `Alice’ and the `Looking-Glass’ are made up almost wholly of bits and scraps, single ideas which came of themselves. ”

        Just so you know, I appreciated your article of May 16 about boosting writing efficiency, and having a ritual. So I’m not dismissing your ideas, at all. Just looking at the subject from various angles.

        • Great quote from Carroll. I’m all for being receptive to the subconscious. In my experience, if I am writing fiction every day, the “bits” I get are often related to my characters and their world. If I’m not writing, then I wake up with ideas about software interfaces and query speeds. The subconscious is always working, but on what?

  4. Boo

    I think breaks are good to keep from getting into a rut, but it should be, for example, taking a break from writing novels so that you can try your hand at writing plays instead. I

  5. Love it. I need to get going on some of my projects slash skill development instead of planning and optimizing in theory. One quibble with the weightlifting image leading the post; lifting heaving is one thing that you don’t want to do every day. The body needs to recover, and recover fully, if you want to make progress developing physical strength from lifting heavy.

  6. Anon

    The Brain That Changes Itself — Norman Doidge. All about neural plasticity. Enjoy

  7. markfellows

    One more thing. Don’t break the chain: http://lifehacker.com/281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-secret

  8. I took piano lessons when I was in high school. Then I took a break…..for 50 years. The thing is, you just never get that time back, do you…….

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