Why Writers Should Never Have Downtime

Here’s a scenario that you’ll probably find familiar:

You’re sitting there, brow knit in concentration, working very hard on untangling a knotty story problem, when along comes a non-writing friend or family member.

“Whatcha doin’?” he asks.

You give him barely a glance, your mind still lost in your make-believe world. “Working.”

“Uh-huh,” says Mr. Friendly Non-Writer. “Working hard, no doubt?”

“Of course.”

“But you’re just sitting there.”

This is the point where you open your mouth to explain, only to close it again in a smile and give your head a little shake.

For Writers, Downtime Is Writing Time

Most non-writers have a hard time fathoming that some of our most difficult work takes place when we appear to be least productive. Actually, this is a little gem of a realization that even some writers have yet to appreciate. Making use of so-called “downtime” can actually be one of the most productive tricks in a writer’s bag.

Chances are that when life calls your body away from your computer, your mind probably isn’t so quick to follow. As you work you way through your day—washing dishes, raking leaves, folding clothes—your hands may be busy with mundane necessities, but your mind may well be back in Neverland, trying to figure out how Peter can rescue those poor Lost Boys one more time. Likely, there are moments when you chafe at the boring tasks that steal your time from your writing. But what you may not have realized is that these boring tasks aren’t a waste of writing time at all.

Because downtime gives our brains a chance to relax and rejuvenate after intense bouts of hammering the keyboard, it can be a writer’s greatest defense against writer’s block. Our brains are like rubber bands: the farther we stretch them, the farther they fly. But if you stretch them too far for too long, they lose their snap. Downtime offers us the obvious benefit of keeping our brains from turning into limp rubber bands. That, in itself, is nothing to be taken for granted. But, used properly, downtime can also offer a productivity of its own.

Are You Creatively Lollygagging?

Something about the familiar and mechanical rhythms of most day-to-day chores—such as mowing the lawn, scooping the walk, chopping vegetables for soup, making beds, etc.—creates a perfect atmosphere for letting your creative unconscious do its thing. Novelist Michael J. Vaughn calls this “creative lollygagging,” and he actually goes looking for mindless, repetitive tasks in order to both rest his brain and give his stories a chance to stew in the back of his mind.

In an article entitled “Creative Lollygagging” (Writer’s Digest, December 2006), he offers some tips:

The key to successful lollygagging is to do it creatively. So what makes lollygagging creative lollygagging? Let’s look at the basic elements. First, consider activity. We are not talking about sitting around on a couch. Just as a satellite dish needs electricity, you need some blood pumping into that brain. Next, consider low focus. The activity shouldn’t be so intense that you don’t have time to think (Grand Prix and ice hockey are out). Look for a mellow pursuit, surrounded by low-level distractions.

How I Creatively Lollygag

For years, I’ve been taking advantage of my lollygagging moments without even realizing that’s what I was doing. If I was weeding, then my characters were weeding right alongside me. If I was exercising, maybe my hero was running for dear life. And you’d be surprised how many rainy scenes have originated in the shower. Most of my best creative lollygagging takes place while I’m alone because I think best when I can talk to myself out loud (please, nobody phone the funny farm, ‘cuz I know you do it too).

Not until recently, however, did I really begin to understand and take advantage of my downtime. In particular, I cherish my after-supper walks to the mailbox. Since I write for two hours before supper, my story is always fresh in my mind, and I’m able to use my little jaunt down my (long) driveway to smooth out plot snarls and decide upon my course of action for the next day.

Instead of dreading your forced time away from your manuscript, start looking for opportunities to take advantage of your downtime. Who knows—you might enjoy it so much that you start manufacturing lollygagging exercises of your own.

Tell me your opinion: What is your favorite creative lollygagging activity?

Why Writers Should Never Have Downtime

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Linda Yezak says:

    More than once, I’ve threatened to get myself one of those pocket recorders so I could stop trying to jot notes while I drive. (Makes you glad you’re not on the highway with me, doesn’t it?) But more than any other activity, driving the long stretches to Mom’s house really seems to enliven my characters, de-snarl scenes, and get me over humps.

    Great post.

    • I second this. Driving, particularly highway driving, is a major contributor to creativity.

    • YES! Driving is the secret sauce of professional lollygagging. Since I do a lot of driving, probably 200-300 miles per week, it’s like second nature. Long road trips are even better! I find it extremely relaxing.

  2. Lorna G. Poston says:

    I talk to myself too. But maybe you should call the funny farm, because sometimes I talk to people who aren’t there. Shhh.

  3. I think that’s kinda par for the course for writers. I won’t tell on you if you won’t tell on me!

  4. Lorna G. Poston says:

    Deal.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Every writer should talk to themselves! I am in charge of doing laundry for my family, and whenever I find that I’m stuck on a particularly hard scene I go spend fifteen minutes washing and folding. It works great! The only problem comes when I run out of laundry.
    Great post! Thanks so much for the endless inspiration and instruction!

  6. Yes! Folding laundry is a great lollygagging technique. I always put on some music and let my imagination go to work.

  7. I come upon some of my most brilliant flashes of prose while gardening. And we have the prettiest front yard on the street to show for it!

  8. Brilliance and beauty – hard combo to beat. 😉

  9. Absolutely!
    Often while on a writing assignment in school, if a teacher caught me staring off into space (usually the ceiling or my desk), she would tell me to work on my assignment. I would explain, “I am, I’m just thinking.” The response would always be, “Think on paper.”
    At the time, I had no idea why that was always the response. I figured (but never said out loud), “Don’t you realize that writing doesn’t happen until after thinking?”
    Sadly as a result, any time I had a writing assignment, if I was caught thinking and told to “think on paper” my writing always took a hit. I doubt anyone noticed except me, though. Fortunately, I never allowed the habit of “thinking on paper” to follow me outside of school. XD

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! I get nabbed for that a lot myself still – especially when playing cards. :p

  10. I only get about two hours per day to write. So the rest of my day is filled with my busy life. My brain never stops. All day I work on writing/editing in my head!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I only write fiction for two hours a day myself. It leaves a lot of daydreaming time throughout the day in between other chores!

  11. Diana Maston says:

    Lap swimming is where I can work on plots and listen to my characters chat without any outside distractions. And when I can’t make it to the pool, walking my dog along the beach works great too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh yes, walking the dog is a big one for me too. No beach around here, but the country roads work almost as well!

  12. All of my non-writer friends refuse to see this point, and I keep trying to remind myself and my writerly friends that getting up and moving is a GREAT way to energize the muse. Though, just so you’re aware, Jillian Michaels is also a bad get up and move if you’re trying to re-juice the muse. Oi!

  13. Oh, I wish I had enough focus to do this. I keep trying and trying 😛 But my day work is very tiring so tired I always am D:

    Still it´s something great to keep trying!

    Hugs,

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Creative lollygagging time does require the ability to lollygag. It’s hard to think about our stories and do mentally stimulating work at the same time.

  14. I am planning some creative lollygagging tonight! (Which isn’t really lollygagging because the house needs cleaning).

    I agree with the others above who mentioned highway driving as helping to inspire. I do keep a notebook in the car and occasionally write down a phrase to jog my memory for later.

    I have also been known to pull over and just write for a couple of minutes–especially dialogue. I have trouble coming up with dialogue on the fly, so when my characters start talking, I need to write it down word for word sometimes.

    I didn’t even realize I was doing this until reading this article–I thought maybe I was the only one who got my inspiration at inopportune times–then writer’s block sets in when I sit to write.

    Thanks for showing me I’m not alone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I come up with more good ideas when driving than probably any other single activity – including showering.

  15. It certainly gives me a good excuse to do the dishes – the old school way, bubbles and soap.

  16. Ah! Such a helping article. I used to even start crying because of so many unnecessary chores eating up my time. But from now on, I will always keep the concept of lollygagging in my mind 😉

  17. “Making use of so-called “downtime” can actually be one of the most productive tricks in a writer’s bag.”

    Yes, I love it. “Downtime” is valuable productivity. The subconscious creative brain is very mysterious. That’s how my whole story began! How cool is that! I happen to be a professional lollygagger. Sometimes it’s creative, sometimes not. It’s one of my favorite things to do. If you can call it that. Doing.

    Since I do a lot of driving that’s a good time for me to ponder about my story. What kind of world will I create? What kind of laws are there? What is there system of justice? What do they value? What is my MC’s role? What is his backstory? When I park for lunch it’s another brainstorming session. Sometimes I can do it with light music, sometimes silence is just as effective. Sometimes the music is the environment. Birds, lawnmower in the background, cars shuffling in traffic etc.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Here‘s a fantastic post by K.M. Weiland on ‘downtime’ for writers and why there’s no such thing. A big thank you to Winter Bayne for sending me the link! […]

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