Wouldn't stop picking at it

What I (re)learned about writing on sabbatical

Clouds, Folignano, Marches, Italy, October 2015My sabbatical has been more subdued than the photos would suggest.

Yes, there have been adventures. Feeling the full bluster of the North Sea, climbing to the top of Delft cathedral, jumping into the Aegean, visiting a monastery at the top of the world, participating in a grape harvest and standing in the ruins of ancient Etruscan tombs. There has been food, most of it locally grown and lovingly prepared, like fluffy hot poffertjes, Greek yogurt with fig jam, arrosticini, roasted chestnuts, grilled boar, fish fresh from the Adriatic, buttery cookies with Sicilian almonds and apricot marmalade, and a fizzy red wine that tastes exactly like strawberries.

All the things that make a trip unforgettable.

But most of my sabbatical has consisted of writing and refilling the creative well. That is, listening to podcasts, reading an Italian novel with a dictionary, light yoga while watching US reality shows dubbed into Italian, sitting on a bench overlooking an olive grove while a giant German shepherd tries to crawl into my lap, writing postcards, having boozy lunches with my uncle, taking photos of clouds.

Seemingly nothing, but actually quite productive.

Now with three completed short stories and a fourth underway, here are five things that I (re)learned about writing:

1) Writer and Critic are two separate identities. Although they play equally crucial roles, the Writer and the Critic work with different intentions, and have little respect for what the other needs. So while writing, limit how much editing and rewriting you do. Just get words on the page. And when you edit, limit how much fresh writing you do. If you cross these two streams, there’s a risk of (a) the Critic breaking your confidence and flow or (b) the Writer playing it safe and writing sentences that don’t speak to your unique voice.

Clouds, Folignano, Marches, Italy, October 20152) Stress can be a creativity killer. At least for me it is. The creative process is far more efficient when your attention is not constantly being pulled in a million directions. Cut off from the fast-paced routine that I usually (merrily) barrel through life with, my intuition has gained a stronger voice. Now when I look at dialogue, I can more clearly say “Yes” or “No”, I can more patiently rework sentences that aren’t working and I have a more acute sense of when a piece is finished.

3) A lot of writing happens when you’re not writing. The brain processes thoughts and ideas the entire time you’re awake, so that when you do sit down to write, actual writing takes no time at all. I was amazed on more than one occasion to spend an entire day thinking about the motivations and reactions of characters during a specific exchange, only to sit down and realize the entire matter could be resolved with one additional sentence.

4) Writing does not happen in a vacuum and is fed by more than words. You have to talk about what you’re working on with other artists or even just friends. You must read, but you must also look at museum art, trees swaying in the breeze and how people behave on the metro. You must ask loved ones to read what you’re writing and have them share their impressions. Living your writing practice in this way cuts the stress that could kill your creativity. Also, insight and inspiration often come from unexpected places, so don’t cut yourself off from the world for too long.

5) Coffee should only be consumed during a mid-morning lull (10PM-ish) OR following an afternoon nap (3PM-ish). And since you’re only having one a day, make it a good one. No filter stuff. Basta un caffé normale.

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To read all the blog posts from my Fall 2015 sabbatical, follow the 63days category.

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