When to Walk Away: Taking a Break in the Process
Reid Elsea, Consultant
You have finished your fourth cup (pot) of coffee. It is probably late at night (early in the morning by now), and the paper is due in a few hours. This, as we all know, is not the ideal way to write a paper, and we tell ourselves every time (promise ourselves), this will be the last time.
The pressure of the “now or never” situation helps me overcome a writer’s block, because I have a deadline to meet. However, when I begin a project with plenty of time to brainstorm, outline, draft, and revise, I often find it more difficult to start. I think this is a common problem that leads many of us to wait until the last minute to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). As Tim pointed out in his earlier blog post, sometimes the best approach is to just write. Good, bad, or ugly. I find this to be a helpful strategy in my own writing, but it brings with it another block. Just like before, I am caffeinated far beyond the suggested daily limit, and staring at my writing. Often I will like what I have written, but I will have no idea where to go next, how to conclude, or where to begin making it into a final draft. I find this type of writer’s block as frustrating and difficult as the process of getting started.
One technique I have found works best for me in this situation (when time allows) is to save the document, close my computer, and walk away. Sometimes I don’t walk far, just to the couch to put on some Netflix and zone out. Other times I walk right out the door and don’t stop for a bit. I’ll walk around the block or to the park nearby. What is important, for me, is to not be looking at my writing in this time. This is a time I welcome distraction. Whether it is TV, a walk, music, or calling a friend on the phone to have a chat, I find disengaging from the writing for a time helps me to refocus on what it is I am doing. I am sure we have all started a paper with one idea, and then ended with a very different one. This isn’t a problem, but rather it is a discovery. The final idea likely does not reflect your original thesis; however, it may be the case (as it often is in my writing) that it takes me a while to get where I want to go.
This is the perfect opportunity to walk away. While it is cliché, I often find the ideas I was in search of in the shower. This is not always the case, but, like any other kind of “walking away,” you are looking for something where it is not (another time honored cliché). What is important is not the location, but the mindset. And so, I will leave you with the words of Marcus Aurelius on getting away in one’s own self: “So keep getting away from it all— like that. Renew yourself” (Meditations 37).
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, 2003.