Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Importance of Not Writing

I’ve published forty-some books. It’s not unusual for me to publish one or two books in any given year. I’m a prolific writer, a badge that most (though not all) writers would be proud to wear. Years ago I marveled to Jane Yolen about the staggering number of books she had published.   
“I hope to be remembered as an author of quality and not merely quantity,” she replied.
“You certainly will be!” I assured her.    
Most writers put a premium on getting down to work and being productive. In any book about writing you'll find various shorthand slogans to reinforce this notion.
BIC: Butt In Chair.
Never a day without a line.
Writers write, right?
         Right. But there’s another side to this story. I know that beginning to write a book is like starting an intense relationship, one that will last for at least a year, often much longer. I don’t want to enter into that relationship lightly. I want to make sure that this is a project I want to sink my teeth into.
“When I write a book I take a deep breath and go underwater,” says Tom Newkirk, author Misreading Masculinity and The Art of Slow Reading. “And I can hold my breath for a long time.”
I’m proud of being a prolific writer, but I know that once I start on a new project I’ll be underwater for many months. So I’ve come to cherish the all-too-rare times when I’m not writing. This rare in-between time feels luxurious, but I find it quite useful, as well. It's an ideal time for dreaming, gathering ideas, musing, playing in my writer’s notebook, reading, taking long walks, letting my mind wander, napping…and, ultimately, deciding what writing project I want to work on next.
Viewed from the outside, I probably don’t look very productive when I’m in my not-writing phase. And I guess I’m not. But I’ve come to realize that this in-between time constitutes an important part of my process, a time for gathering all the essentials (tangible as well as intangible) I'll need for the long journey ahead.


  1. For output to occur, there needs to be input. It's a simple equation really. The gathering , the harvesting, the pondering all play a vital role in what eventually spills onto the page. So, as you say Ralph, it's a critical phase of the process. It's okay not to write is a message worth sharing...

  2. Agreed, Alan! What's that Paul Simon song: "You've got to drift in the wind before you set the's an occupation where the wind prevails."

  3. There is always that tension between quantity and quality, between writing and reflecting on what has been written or what will be written and maybe even what won't be written. I find that even in my down non-writing times I am still writing in my head--what Donald Graves called that constant state of composition. I have stopped feeling guilty when I am not "in my chair."