I read a book recently. I couldn’t for the life of me quote the exact line, but the gist was this:
There’s a difference between pausing and quitting.
They can look the same at first: you start a task. It gets really hard. You don’t feel like you can do it. Strength spent, you stop.
If you never come back, if that’s the end of it, you quit.
But if you come back the next day, or the next month, or the next year, and do it again, you just paused.
Last fall, I started a fantasy project. About 40k words in, I got completely stuck. The story ran out of steam.
Okay, okay, it’s fine, don’t panic, I told myself. I reasoned that not all my drafts had to come together in a month (like my previous three projects had), and that I was just facing an exciting new challenge.
In subsequent weeks, I hunkered down and did what I knew how to do: I plotted. I mapped out a progression of events with multi-colored sticky notes on a massive section of my bedroom wall. I went back and rewrote a main motivation and followed its trail all the way through, hoping the story would surge ahead (it didn’t). I brainstormed. I scrapped, I rewrote. I read blog posts about how to deal with story blockages and found lots of great advice. I took long hot showers, a place where plot tangles have traditionally come unwound.
Still, the novel was stuck.
Discipline, I told myself. Discipline is the secret. This is where the rubber hits the road. You can’t always feel high when you write. You have to learn to write from a low place too. If you want to make a career out of this, you need to learn to butt-in-chair, push-push-push, take the muse by the roots of her hair and yank her back into her place.
It didn’t work.
In my non-writing life, I can be quite disciplined (or maybe I should say stubborn). I’m the kind of person who is sometimes a little too determined to succeed. This streak kept me at a job for three years that I should have quit as soon as I realized that my boss was a narcissistic megalomaniac and most certainly a psychopath. But no–I had to succeed. I stuck it out, through emotional abuse and tirades and general misery.
I wish I’d clung less to my misguided vision of success–but that’s another story for another time. The point here is, I can be dang stubborn. I can stick to things through difficulties, tears, and beyond. Certainly I should be able to apply my fingers to a keyboard and bang out a dang novel.
Why am I failing at writing? I asked myself over and over.
But see, already I’d made a big mistake: equating stopping with failing.
Stopping doesn’t have to be a failure. Stopping can be pausing. Stopping can be natural, and healthy, and sometimes even necessary.
What I saw as a massive creative failure was just a big old pause button.
By the way, the pause button on that particular project is still deeply pressed. I sense it’s not done forever, that it would be nice to take up in the future and see if I can make something of it (I really do love the setting and the main character) but I’m not planning on picking it up for at least another year.
As the sun comes back, my seasonal sadness is lifting, and life seems all-around a happier place than it did in bleak January, I’m working on a new project birthed from an old idea in a voice completely different than anything else I’ve written.
Will I see it through?
I don’t know. We’ll see. But I certainly don’t plan on freaking out at each pause like I did with the last project.
Writing friends, there’s something to be said for butt-in-chair discipline.
BUT. Don’t recriminate yourself for pausing either.
Pausing is a necessary rhythm in the long race of life. Without pauses and rests and breaks, you will burn out.
The creative side of me, I’ve been learning, has surges and lulls that don’t seem to be entirely in my control. So my goal for this year: learning to work with them. Learning to pause without letting my self-doubt fill my head with shouts of “quitter!”
I’m not a quitter.
I’m a pauser.
And I think that will enable me to run longer and get further in the end.