Writers pour so much energy into their craft that sometimes we forget that creative pursuits other than writing can fill us up in other important ways. Here, we’ll look at what writers do when they aren’t writing, and how those pursuits affect the return to the page.
Writing is one of those things that both fills me up and empties me out. I think most writers need another creative outlet to recharge their passion/commitment/energy for a project. In this series, Writers on Not Writing, I want to know:
What do you do that fills you up creatively when you’re not writing? Most of us read, and if reading is your answer, what do you read? Is it way outside your genre or is it similar enough to your own work to be inspirational (or aspirational)?
What’s satisfying about your non-writing pursuits? And
How do these other pursuits inform your writing when you return to the page?
And finally, if you do something creative that results in a physical product (quilting, welding, sand sculpting, painting) or if you do something physical (snowboarding, community theatre, archery), you can include a picture if you’d like.
Reading certainly works incredibly well for me, although so often these days that reading is research for upcoming classes or in preparation for interacting with student work/interests, so I’ll talk instead about country music and martial arts. They’re not linked (except in the weird mountain town where I spent much of my life, which is both a redneck paradise and also boasted eight separate martial arts studios even before the MMA craze of the last few years), and they satisfy very different itches—good country music builds very clear, tightly controlled stories, and listening reminds me in three minutes what I’m over here spending thousands of words trying to capture; martial arts, alternately, rebuilds my sense of exploration, repetition creating muscle memory creating the opportunity for pure play in much the same way of sitting at the keyboard and wandering through complications about which I’ve delivered lectures for years. These three things, country music and martial arts and writing, are equally integral parts to my larger project of selfhood, and so they naturally bleed into each other as rejuvenation and inspiration.
Reading is one of my escapes, though sometimes it’s taken on the specter of work in recent years. Not that the work is not enjoyable or not something I’m grateful to do but when I’m burned out by working, it can be hard to look at more reading as something other than work. I have found, as is true with my writing, that reading early in the morning can be my most productive period. Now that I’m commuting via public transit (at least twice a week,), I’m able to carve those pockets out at the beginning and end of my day, and that’s one of the few things I’m grateful for about working in person. As I’d said in our What We Read in 2023 post earlier this year, my reading over the last year has been intentionally looking backward at things I’d read before, and I found myself rejuvenated and excited about what I was picking up that I’d missed or forgotten in previous reads.
When I look to reading as a way to recharge or reinvigorate my writing, I look either for things that are adjacent to what I’m working on, in style, in theme, in whatever, or I look for the exact opposite, with the express intent of finding something that sparks my curiosity, that catches my eye, that jiggles loose whatever it is that’s stuck in the story I’m working on. Sometimes this is successful, often not, but at the very least it gives me a bit of space from the story, some time apart. But, I also think of this process as part of my writing, so I think it’s a cheat answer to your questions in some ways.
Outside of reading, narrative video games—games that are experiential stories like Gone Home and Firewatch but also more action-oriented games that have a story, like, say The Last of Us—and watching films are two other outlets that engage that same creative part of my brain, but feel less like work. More and more in recent years I’ve been leaning on those outlets. (I watched 250 movies last year!)
And differently from everything: Snowboarding can be so relaxing for me, but because of where I live, I rarely get to go. It’s something I need to make more time for, absolutely. I don’t think I ever feel as zen as I do at the top of mountain or during a peak-to-valley run. Usually, I find myself zoning out and thinking about whatever project I’m in the midst of, and I always come back to the page with fresh ideas to try.
Reading is, and has always been, huge for me. When I was in my MFA program, I worried that the pleasure of reading was gone forever, that from now on, I would only ever see the craft of the story, that I would never again be able to disappear into another world. I’m happy to say that isn’t true. In fact, when I’m reading for TMR, I often have to tug myself out of the story to look at the framework (although I do that on the second read).
I also bake—a lot. So much, in fact, that one of my stepsons, when he was eleven or twelve, said in protest of being left with me, “But all she does is read and bake!” Which, fair point. What I love about baking is that, with very few exceptions, if you follow the instructions, the end result is delicious. And nearly immediate. And you can share it and get positive feedback right away. All of which is vastly different from my writing, for which there seems to be no map at all, has many crash-and-burn moments, and can go as long as five years with very few people seeing it and then, more often that I care to admit, is often met with mild enthusiasm, at best.
In addition to reading and baking, I’m also a serial hobbyist. I’ve taken classes in singing, cake decorating, ballroom dancing, belly dancing, stained glass, quilting, improv acting, wreath making, and I just signed up for pottery. I approach all of these pursuits knowing I won’t be very good at them, or at least knowing I’m not going to quit my day job for them, which is not how I always approach writing. Doing something fun for the sake of fun reminds me that writing is fun. These non-writing pursuits let me fail—sometimes epically—and survive. And then I come back to the page more willing to take chances and less afraid to make mistakes.
Curated by Jen Dupree