writing while not writing

Sit down and write.

This is the essence of a lot of writing advice, and quite rightly so. Many writers will tell you that you should take all the time you spend talking about writing and put it into actually working on your novel. They're not wrong. No book ever got written without some serious quality time in a desk chair. (Or bed, or standing desk, or treadmill desk, or pool lounger. Whatever floats your writing boat.) The fastest way to write a book is to write it.

This sounds like common sense, but we all know those people who talk a lot about all the work they're doing and never actually do any of it. It's the same with writing, for sure. And it's hard to overstate how isolating, disheartening, and mind-warping it can be to force yourself to be creative for a certain amount of time every day. Sitting through it, getting through it, is challenging. The writers who manage to do it deserve credit for that work.

That said, what I have realized increasingly over the past couple years is that the other stuff -- the talking, the boasting, the kvetching, the networking, the thinking -- matters a lot, too. Earlier this summer, my very Italian uncle told me his rule of cooking: the longer you cook something at lower heat, the more flavorful it tastes. I don't know that this is always true with writing, but I do think that sometimes, as you go about the world talking and thinking about writing, you are just turning the pot down to a lower temperature and letting your ideas simmer.

I'm an impatient person with a big work ethic, so I have a tendency to want to sit down and crank stuff out. But the process of writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting my latest novel has taught me that there are dangers to just pressing forward. You end up having to delete a lot of words. This isn't the biggest deal; for me, it's part of my process. At the same time, as I go forward, I'm aiming to do more planning work upfront. Which means telling myself it's okay to step away from the computer.

And daydreaming! There's a tendency to scoff at people who talk about material ends to writing. The movie deal they want to sign, the signings they want to give. The droolworthy deal. Writing is not a very materially rewarding occupation, so these comments can come off as very naive. Still, I want to come to the defense of daydreaming. Novels are ambitious projects. Often painfully so. Daydreaming about finishing the first draft or winning the National Book Award or having your book made into a Hollywood movie or just having someone read it and connect with it -- these may be lofty and even unattainable goals, but daydreams can be a useful balm for the despair and boredom that often accompany difficult writing projects. You may want to keep some of the daydreams to yourself (especially the ones about movies, for a variety of reasons).

Most importantly, in terms of non-writing writing time, read. I can't say this enough. Read. Read. Read. I'm going to have to write about this again another day because I have too much to say on this subject.

So while the "sit down and write" advice is fundamentally true -- and I think people struggle more with writing than with not writing, so it's probably better advice on a practical level -- there are all kinds of ways to grow as a writer while not actually writing.

So go on, grab your coffee, grab your computer, thunk down into your chair, start up your treadmill desk. But if you need a few minutes to think about where you've been and where you're going, that's okay, too. It doesn't make you less diligent. It might make you a better writer.