On July 17th, my agent called me to give me some notes on a manuscript I’d been working on for months. As always, her notes were incredibly thoughtful, detailed, and guaranteed to make my book–my passion project–far, far better. There were smaller notes and big picture notes, including some things that would require me to restructure the plot in significant ways. I got started right away, making the small changes, strengthening my characterization, adding tension in places where things sagged, tweaking the prose.
Then I got to the hard part–rethinking and restructuring the plot–and everything changed. I set a timer to write for two hours, one of my favorite hacks as a writer with ADHD. When it hit the 60 minute mark, I got to a scene that needed to be dramatically rewritten, and… I simply stopped working. True to the promise I’d made myself, I sat there, timer ticking, staring at the document, and neither wrote nor deleted a single word for the remaining hour.
Days passed, then weeks. I thought about writing all the time. I worried over it all day, feeling distracted and harried at work, and then each night I lay awake in bed, shuffling around scenes and passages and individual lines of dialogue in my mind. I didn’t open the document. I couldn’t. I was completely, utterly frozen, unable to move forward on this project that was so important to me. Nothing I thought of was good enough, nothing I imagined did justice to the story I wanted so desperately to tell.
On October 2nd, I had a call with a wonderful writer I consider a mentor and friend. I told her how I hadn’t been able to write, how nothing about this project made sense to me anymore, how I was feeling my passion fizzling out. I opened up about that deep, secret part of me that feared I’d never write again, that I’d inadvertently stalled my career before it even began.
“You need a break,” she said without hesitation.
“I’ve been taking a break for months,” I replied.
“No. A real break.”
We talked about it at length. I wasn’t writing, sure, but it was all I thought about. I was spending hours toying with the story but never working on it. I wasn’t being productive, but I also wasn’t letting myself rest. The hours that would normally be spent writing were spent doomscrolling on my phone. I wasn’t reading. I had a lot of exciting things going on in my life–renovating a house, starting a new job, raising a tiny puppy–but I wasn’t feeling the joy I once felt around those things, despite the fact that the house was looking beautiful, I was getting to write for a living, and my puppy was basically a serotonin machine. I didn’t think I was truly depressed, not chemically, not in a way that would require me to tweak my meds. I was just so, so sad that this project that I loved with all my heart was stalling out, and I feared I’d never pick it back up. I’m an obsessive person-I think a lot of artists are-and my fixation on this project had soured.
I was doing a lot of things, and I was even doing a lot of them well, but there was one thing that I absolutely was not doing. I was not taking a break.
And so a two week break was prescribed to me. For two weeks, I wasn’t allowed to touch my manuscript, even if I wanted to. I wasn’t allowed to torture myself by obsessing over the book. I wasn’t even allowed to spend hours scrolling on my phone. I would still go to work, of course, but my evenings and weekends were going to look very different. My task was equal parts simple and monumental. I was supposed to go for walks, to veg out in front of the TV, to spend time with my friends and family, to read books for pleasure. I was no longer permitted to spend my sleepless nights trying to solve plot problems. I balked at the idea; I have a strong work ethic and pride myself on relentlessly pursuing my goals (I’m a Capricorn rising, iykyk) so taking two whole weeks off felt like the scariest thing in the world. I suspect a lot of filmmakers and other artists can relate to that. In a culture built around hustling at all costs, the idea of setting aside intentional time to rest and recharge can be intimidating. We have bills to pay, gigs to chase, connections to make. But what my friend said–and what the universe and my own intuition had been trying to tell me for weeks–was that I can’t make beautiful art without resting. It isn’t possible. Everything in nature rests. In autumn, leaves fall from trees, leaving them barren and dormant. In the winter, animals hibernate. I used to be a teacher, and although it is likely the hardest job I’ll ever do, rest was built into my schedule; by the end of the school year I would feel exhausted, but then I’d spend summer break recharging, and could then return to my students the best version of myself.
I’d been living in that end-of-school-year feeling for far too long. My mind and body needed summer; not as in beach trips and ice cream cones, but as in taking an actual break. My art, like my former students, deserves for me to be the best version of myself. Your art deserves the same.
Taking a break can be hard and complicated. My novels aren’t my primary source of income. That may not be your context. Maybe you’re a freelancer, or a film student, or your day job is in the arts. Detaching myself from my art for two whole weeks was a privilege, one that not everyone has. But that doesn’t mean you can’t carve out intentional time to rest. Maybe you can only spare a weekend. Maybe just a day. But something is better than nothing. Think of taking time off as investing in your future. If you’re burnt out or depressed or even just feel your passion fading, this is an invitation to care for yourself in the present moment so that you can make beautiful things in the future. Think of the things that give you vibrancy, that make you feel like you, the things that are both separate from and irrevocably intertwined with your creative life. Maybe it’s going to thrift stores, or tending to your plants, or watching a horror movie, or getting coffee with a dear friend. Try to forget the capitalist idea of self-care that we’ve been fed by the media and the relentless messaging of Instagram ads and think instead about how to truly nurture yourself, to build yourself back up so that you can create to the best of your abilities.
I gained so much from my two week writing break, and my work is better for it. Once I returned to my manuscript, I figured out my plot problems. I gained clearer insight to how I wanted my story to take shape. I sought guidance from critique partners and suddenly found myself able to articulate my goals for the piece. I didn’t jump right back into the heavy, strenuous work; this story doesn’t end with the novel being completed easily and without friction. But this story isn’t over yet, either. This story doesn’t begin and end with a singular creative project; it’s the story of my life as an artist, it’s the skills I build along the way that make me better, stronger, more productive.
It’s November now. I am still rebuilding, gathering my strength, working (slowly) on my book, experiencing the joys I am so lucky to have in my life, trying to be the best human and artist I can be. I want that for you, too. I want that for every person; the permission and ability to access rest and ease and joy, to refill their creative well, to trust in themselves enough to know that the work will be waiting for them when they’re once again ready to face it.
The last thing I want to say is this: taking time off from art–no matter how much time you need–will never stop you from being an artist. That is innate to you. You are a creative soul, and nothing can ever take that away. It has no connection to how many scripts you write or how many days you spend on set. Fear doesn’t stop you from creating, so don’t let it stop you from resting. It’s all part of the same process.
I would be remiss to not mention that I learned everything I know about building a healthy, balanced, creative life from Andrea Hannah. She has given me countless skills, valuable life lessons, and is one of the most talented teachers I know. Check out her website and her many, many online offerings here.
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