There's a poem here somewhere (seen on a neighborhood walk).
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Take a "Productive" Avoidance Break
Seven avoidance activities good for your writing
A writing "avoidance"—as if writers needed to be told— is a low-priority activity seized on to avoid the torment of crunching words. You find yourself organizing paper clips by size, Googling your name, cleaning the paper shredder, opening Facebook to links to links to links.
Such activities might be called "dysfunctional" or even "bad" avoidances. Theoretically they provide a break from the intensity of writing, a break required by eyes, brain and keister. But in practice they can steal what good writing demands—energy and focus—and give little in return. One is left awash in guilt.
In a long career I've been second to none in succumbing to bad avoidances. But I've also stumbled on certain functional or "positive" ones—activities that can bolster writing even as they give respite from its grind. Some are small breaks, others are day-long avoidances to be taken when the cerebrum calls in sick. A boost in writing quality and/or quantity is my criteria for "positive" avoidances, which can take many forms. Here are what I consider some of the best productive breaks from writing, not counting the one you're taking right now.
1. Do an email using a new word. (10-15 minutes). Email is usually is a false friend when it comes to avoidance. Sure you're "writing," but beefing up language skills? Doubtful. So try this: In each e-mail composed to evade a writing project, use at least one new vocabulary word . Pluck the word from any vocabulary builder, including online word-a-day services (e.g., www.dictionary.com/wordoftheday
and work it into your message. It's fun, it gets the word in your quiver and tests it on an audience. Here's one of mine: "Terrific dining out with you two, even if the clamor overwhelmed the sough [murmuring, rustling, sighing sound] of our voices. . . . "
2. Take a foreign trip—in your neighborhood. (45-90 minutes) Take a walk in your neighborhood (or a local, unfamiliar one), but view everything as you would for a foreign-travel journal, recording your impressions. Bring a notebook or other recording device and observe: What are the most evocative sensory perceptions? What types of people are out there? What are they wearing, carrying, eating, doing, saying? Does something constitute an incident, a vignette? Will that homeless woman with eight bags and two shopping carts get on the bus she's waiting for? How might that item in a shop window touch someone's life? Note flora, fauna, signage, curiosities, ornamentation, traffic. Look at the ground: "Sodden sycamore leaves lolloped about the road like injured toads." –John Banville, The Untouchable
3. Do the Proust thing. (30 -120 minutes). Take a break to browse scrapbooks, letters, photo albums or other mementos of your past. Not only might they suggest possibilities for fresh works, but certain remembered people, places and situations might play into the work you're momentarily avoiding. My own riffling turned up a travel accident of mine years ago, inspiring a memoir sold to Creative Nonfiction. Set a time limit, though; memories can pull you into a torpid remove from work.
4. Gather ye metaphors (quarter- to full day). Visit a place where distinctive things are displayed and labeled---a botanical garden, aquarium, museum, zoo, a fancy food store—and fill a notebook with particulars to be used in fresh metaphors. Look for colorful names, vivid characteristics, anything that makes for memorable or surprising imagery, as in these tropes: "[T]he complexion of baba ghanoush (Marisha Pessl); "[I]nconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food" (Raymond Chandler); "[B]lue as the sky in a Book of Hours."(John Banville); "[A] roommate like a stinkhorn fungus" (Plotnik). Sure, you can sit and view plants, animals, foods, etc., on the Web, but you’re unlikely to register the metaphorical force of a contorted "dragon's claw willow" or "Malayan pit viper" without ogling one up close.
5. Raid the usage larder. (10-20 minutes). What's more pertinent to writers than the way humans chew on words, shaping their distinctions? Can mashed potatoes be "munched"? Would a "gourmand" or "gourmet" be more likely to wolf them with a side of (choose one)"frog legs," "frogs' legs," "frog's legs," or "frogs legs"? These are usage matters, and you'll degust profitably by dipping into an expansive usage guide during an avoidance break. My fave is Garner's Modern American Usage.
6. Submit a short piece to a publication or contest. (30-180 minutes). It's not the submission itself that bolsters your writing, but the polishing you inevitably do before submitting. Some literary journals counsel that you send a work only in its most refined and realized state. Daunting as that advice may be, submission does usually prompt another run through the manuscript, perhaps just to tweak it to the journal's requirements and predilections. Often, though, the run-through reveals certain small problems to be dealt with, along with opportunities for inspired improvements. As reasonable avoidance time expires, however, the thing should be sent off and your oiled-up acumen redirected to the work in progress.
7. Wander the library, yes, the library. (1-3 hours) Unplug from the Web, spend a few desultory hours in your public library, come back stoked. If you haven't used the "people's university" lately, you're in for some discoveries. Enjoy research-overdrive by exploring your library's high-end digital databases (free to you), which often begin where Google and Bing leave off (e.g., Chronicling America, full text of more than 500 U.S. newspapers from 1836 to 1922). Aside from these digital flights, the library bolsters writing in a hundred ways. Librarians gladly work with your enthusiasms. Local-history collections trigger ideas. Precise shelf organization enables you to wallow in your interests, while serendipitous browsing turns up unexpected leads and ideas. Or stop anywhere to find a patch of deft phrasing. I alighted on this one the other day in Frederick Reuss's novel, Horace Afoot:
Early spring is when the ordo amoris [order of love] is most apparent—when the vast world swarms and stirs the heart . . . and rekindles a many-sided interest in the things of this world.
That's how I often feel after a positive avoidance.
--An earlier version appeared as one of my columns in The Writer