R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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My Year of Not Writing, and What it Taught Me

At this time last year, I was worn out. I'd just finished substantive edits on my latest book and was cautiously pleased with how it had come together, but creatively I was exhausted. I’d written nine novels in eight years, and by the fall of 2015 I felt like all my mental energy and every scrap of pleasure I’d ever taken in the writing process had dried up and crumbled away.

None of this should have come as a surprise. Even before I got published I knew I wasn’t a book-a-year writer, but more of a book-every-eighteen-months-to-two-years writer. I needed significant chunks of fallow time in between projects, and sometimes between drafts as well, to feel good about the story I was writing, let alone come up with an idea for the next one.

Still, when you’re writing for children, and especially when you’re writing a series, there’s a fear that if you don’t keep the books coming at least a year apart, your audience will age out of the books before you can publish the next one. Publishing is not known for its patience with children's authors who haven't hit the NYT bestseller list or won at least one major award, and sometimes the only thing that keeps your career going is being able to deliver the goods on time.

But fear is a terrible motivation to write, especially when it’s the only motivation you’ve got. Fear can keep you hurling yourself at the wall day after day until you manage to scramble over it and make your deadline, but the wall will still be there when you think about writing the next thing. And when I realized that my desire to write had withered to the point where I actively dreaded the act of putting words on paper -- not just for publication, I mean any words -- I knew I couldn’t deny it any longer. This was the career I’d dreamed of having since I was four years old, the career I’d worked toward for nearly twenty years before my first book was published. If it was making me miserable every time I thought about doing it, something had gone badly wrong.

So I decided to take a sabbatical for the next twelve months, and not write anything at all.

* * *

It was the perfect time for a break, logistically speaking: all my series were wrapped up, either by my design or publisher fiat or both, and I had nothing new out on proposal. There were no deadlines to miss, no expectations to meet. It was a little deflating to think that I might softly and suddenly vanish away and nobody would notice, but that was a risk I was willing to take.

It didn't take me long to realize, however, that I wasn't going to feel rested, much refreshed, if I kept following a lot of other authors on social media and reading about how productive they were being. However glad I might be for their sake, it was just making me unhappy that I couldn't say the same about myself. And even after I'd pared down my follow lists, I spent the first three months of my sabbatical wrestling with guilt and uncertainty -- if I wasn't writing, could I still call myself a writer? If I wasn't a writer, then who was I?

That initial panic faded, though, and by April the winter of my discontent had given way to a spring of newfound freedom. I could have tea with friends two or three times a week and not fret about my word count! I could run errands for my elderly parents without having to constantly assure them that it wouldn't interfere with my writing! I could binge-watch all seven seasons of The Great British Bake-Off without feeling guilty about it!

(I did, too. It was great.)

My one lingering, gnawing fear was that I might never feel any desire to write again. I was reluctant to try even the smallest writing exercise in case it ended badly. But I'd seen The Force Awakens multiple times since it came out, and by May I'd got sufficiently fired up about my Star Wars Opinions that I grabbed my newly-bought fountain pen and started scribbling the first three pages of a fanfic. By August I'd typed up and revised nearly 25K of that story, and had no more doubt that I could, in fact, still write. And by September I'd started brainstorming an original fantasy novel, sweeping and ambitious and unlike anything I'd written before -- and I was genuinely excited at the thought of writing it.

I wasn't broken, irreparably or otherwise. I'd just been tired and in desperate need of a break.

* * *

Taking time off was good for me in a lot of other ways, as well. It forced me to think about the things that really mattered to me, to reevaluate my relationships with other people, and realize how skewed some of my perceptions and priorities had become.

For one thing, I'd fallen into the trap of defining my identity as a writer first and foremost, and imagining that my worth as a human being -- and even as a child of God -- was somehow connected to being able to write books that would be published and read by an audience. That this was my gift, or even my calling. And that if I wasn't seeing a lot of enthusiasm from publishers or winning certain accolades or seeing the sales numbers I'd hoped for, then I must be doing something wrong. I needed to be more ambitious and bold with my ideas, or work harder at the technical aspects of my craft. I needed to be less shy about self-promotion and marketing. I needed to lean in, you know? Be like those other, more successful writers.

Now I know that a large part of my unhappiness with the idea of writing was because I'd stopped seeing it as a way to express the ideas I cared most passionately about, and started seeing it as a game with draconian rules I had to follow in order to win. Worse, I'd started to suspect that I couldn't win, because the rules were being set by people whose interests, beliefs and priorities were sometimes radically different from my own. Once I resolved to stop worrying about other people's opinions and write what was closest to my heart, whether I thought it would make my writing popular and successful or not, I felt like an enormous weight had lifted.

I'd also been paralyzed by the fear of wasted effort. I'd sold every book except Knife and Ultraviolet on proposal with as brief an outline and sample as I could get away with -- because I felt like the worst thing that could ever happen would be to write a whole manuscript that nobody wanted. I don't love first drafting at the best of times, so to put in all that effort and have it come to nothing seemed unbearable. Better to write 25K and get a conservative offer from an editor who wasn't entirely sure the book would pay off, than to pour my heart into 80K and sell it nowhere.

But that also meant I had the stress of having to outline a book I hadn't written yet, counter to my usual process; and then I had to grind out the rest of the draft to my publisher's schedule, praying all the while that it wouldn't be awful and I'd be able to deliver it on time. If I resolved not to pitch another book until I'd written a full and reasonably polished manuscript, I'd no longer have to fret about whether I had enough plot, or enough action. I could write the kind of story I'd been longing to write without fearing what anyone else might say about it, and make it the best sort of that book it could possibly be. And I could take as long as I needed to take to get it right.

Anyway, that's what I'm trying to do right now, and I hope to keep working on it until June or August or November, however long it takes me to write a manuscript I'm happy with. Then
it'll be time to send it to my agent, and find out how many editors would like to read that sort of story too.

Maybe none of them, who knows. But at least I'll have written a book that I really love, and I'll have learned a few more things about craft from doing it, and that's not a bad thing.

* * *

TL;DR: Here I am, a year after I started my sabbatical, and I can confidently say that I made the right decision. Today I wrote my first new scene of original fiction in well over twelve months... and finally, finally, I felt good about it.

Tags: sabbatical, status report, writing
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