Helping Writers Become Authors

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your favorite creative lollygagging activity? Tell me in the comments!