How Do You Know When You Need Some Downtime?

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DSC01745.JPG“Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don’t believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.”
Margaret Roach

I finished the third rewrite of my manuscript on Wednesday afternoon. I was cross-eyed, had a headache, and felt like crap. I emailed it to my writing coach, Kevin. Then sent a note to my developmental editor, Dave, telling him I’d have one more look-see in the morning before sending it off to him the following day.

I woke up the next morning, still feeling awful. My eyes were crusted over, glued shut, and when I thought about taking another look at my manuscript, I got nauseous. I’d had a weird dream in which I didn’t know where I was. Though the place I was in wasn’t a prison, I felt imprisoned. I sat around a dining table with a bunch of other women. They were all smiling. Conversation was nonexistent. And there was no food on the table. The dream made me feel scared and very vulnerable.

I ate breakfast, took a quick walk, and sat down at my computer, intending to just glance through my “finished” draft. When it popped up on the screen, I knew I couldn’t do it. I was sick of it. Tired of rewriting, rereading the same-old, same-old, I’d been working on all summer long. Even the two brief “vacations” I ventured on hadn’t been enough to keep this excruciating burn out from happening.

Overcooked, like a stingy pot roast, I simply attached the draft to an email and sent it off to Dave, too exhausted to give a %#$@ about it. I had to get rid of it. I desperately needed time to simply be, without trying to be the perfect writer. A chronic overachiever, I had done myself in again. I cried some, argued with Bill a lot, and was a general pain in the butt, even to myself.

When Bill took off Saturday on one of his long planned theatre trips to New York, I went out into my garden and started deadheading faded blooms. I pulled weeds, tore out a whole section of dead, sun loving perennials that had been overtaken by dense shade, and thought about what to plant in their place next spring …  more ferns, lenten roses, and shade loving hostas.

After lunch, I took time to read a novel I’d been enjoying, then had a nap. When I went back into my studio, my head was much clearer. I started going through the long list of old emails on my computer that I’d been meaning to reread, but now found uninteresting. I deleted many of them. After a dinner of yummy left overs … locally made kielbasa and my fabulous potato salad, I finished the novel and tucked myself into bed at nine-thirty.

I’m on my way back to being my old self, again, but I need more rest and a lengthy break from the mind boggling material I’ve been writing about.  I hadn’t noticed how exhausted I’d become. Or how obsessed I’d been with my story and getting it right. I had just kept on rewriting, forgetting to take breaks when I couldn’t see the computer screen in front of me any longer.

I still need a real vacation. I’ll finish out this week without Bill, by doing as little as possible. Maybe I’ll go to a movie. I’ll start  reading a new book from the huge pile next to my bed, and perhaps sit in the garden in the evening, watching the night come on, listening as bird song is overtaken by the rattle of cicadas, crickets, and tree frogs. I’ll make myself some lucious rice pudding, and take long, lingering naps every afternoon.

Even the things we love doing, like writing, can become overwhelming if we don’t remember to provide ourselves with downtime.

As for perfection … there is no such thing. No matter how many time I rewrite my story, it will never be perfect. And it might actually begin to lose its sheen as I dab away at its yet unseen glow.

Yes, there will be at least one more rewrite, but before that happens, a little self-care is in order.

How do you know when you need downtime?


  1. Joan – For me, the secret is giving myself downtime BEFORE I need it (as a holistic health practitioner, I prefer prevention rather than cure).

    One of the ways I make certain this happens while writing is using a tea light (candle) on my desk. Once lit, I write and keep my behind in the chair writing until it goes out of its own volition. When it goes out, the jig is up! Even if I still feel “fresh” and want to keep writing, I stop.

    • Laurie,
      Prevention is always the very best medicine. But deadlines or just wanting to get a job done, too often drive me to ruining a good time. I like your idea of using a candle. Maybe next time I’ll use a birthday candle that won’t last more than a minute. I’m afraid though that some joker will come along and replace it with one that can’t be blow out.

  2. I certainly prefer prevention to burnout, and I’m sure you do also, Joan. I also know that the last rewrite was a real grind for me more than once. So I empathize. Glad you RECOGNIZE the signs and are taking action.

    I have several movies to recommend: One Hundred Yards (phooey on the NYTimes for not giving it two thumbs up) — and perfect for “feel good” therapy. Budapest Hotel was fun too, and I look forward to Boyhood and look backward on Belle. Any of these might be just what the doctor ordered.



    • Shirley,
      Thanks for the cinema suggestions. I took myself to the One Hundred Foot Journey, on Sunday afternoon and loved it. Afterwards I came home and just relaxed. I also enjoyed Budapest Hotel a while ago, and am looking forward to Boyhood. Belle has been here and gone. I’ll watch it on Play on Demand.

  3. Joan … how ironic that I read your blog before I started on mine .. the blog I should probably have done yesterday, but realized I needed change of scene more than I needed to get a blog out on schedule. I’m in there with you!

    • I think it’s the season, Mary. Have talked to several others with the same problem. I’m
      glad to know I’m in good company. Here is to letting ourselves relax!!

  4. Hi Joan, As you know, I wrote about this topic earlier in the week on the Women’s Writing Circle, although, for me, the slant was taking downtime when we know we want to produce work that is lasting in a day and age where the 24/7 news cycle is on endless loop and hackneyed plots and poorly written books pre-empt litertaure. Always good to take a break from the inner critic, be kind to ourselves and rejuvenate the inner spirit. Thank you for the lovely post.

    • Susan,
      Nothing we write, paint, or sculpt would be of lasting value if we didn’t take time out and let things “simmer” on our back burners. If we are to be good at what we do, we have to build in time to get off the carousel of life and honor our muses, by letting them laugh and play. Things like deadlines can get in the way of our well laid plans and we find ourselves grasping at straws to stay above the rising exhaustion. I’m resting on the surface now and my inner critic has been banned. Thanks for dropping by.

  5. Your other writer friends have such good suggestions. I guess I know what I’m in for as you vivid image suggests: “Overcooked, like a stingy pot roast, I simply attached the draft to an email and sent it off to Dave, too exhausted to give a %#$@ about it.”

    I am used to hard work – in the tomato patch as a girl (!) and as a professor writing for journals. Writing memoir is very different though, I suspect, and takes an emotional toll like no other genre of writing.

  6. Thanks, Marian, for your kind words. I don’t know that writing memoir is as hard for others as it has been for me. I think it depends on where you’re coming from and how emotional you are as a person. If you have happy things to remember and write about, then the job may not be difficult at all. It’s the reliving of unhappy memories that can make you feel bad.