Goofing Off: Path to Disaster
. . . Or a Panacea for Success?

All writers know the warning against goofing off, but few appreciate that every story has two sides.

by Hyphenman on Oct 10, 2013

Say you’re a writer who’d rather waste time than write. Go ahead. Enjoy yourself in a guilt-free atmosphere. It might just be the antidote to what ails you.
goofing off05web

That’s the admittedly unconventional recommendation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford.

When a fellow author and close friend lamented about being depressed over not writing and feeling aimless, Ford advised: “Try turning on the TV. That always works for me. I forget about writing the second SportsCenter comes on.”

Ford, who won the Pulitzer for Independence Day, the second in a trilogy about a former sportswriter, practically brags about not writing. He takes breaks from it and makes no apologies.

goofing Ford_Richard-web-a“Most writers write too much,” he says. “Some writers write way too much, gauged by the quality of their accumulated oeuvre.”

Writing every day – or even six days a week – is not a good idea for many if not most of us. Why? Lots of reasons. For one thing, you get too close to the material; you lose perspective.

First and foremost, however, is that writing is about quality, not quantity.

That’s why it’s not a bad idea to step back – at least on occasion – and wait, as Ford puts it, for “the Muse to recharge.”

That may sound silly since the Muse is a mythological figure. But inspiration is no myth. And inspired writing will invariably produce higher quality than forced writing.

“I never imagined I was in this business to break the writers’ land speed record or to put up big numbers,” Ford says. “In any case, if I had written more and stopped less, not only would I have driven myself completely crazy, but almost certainly I would have proved myself less good at writing stories than I am. Anyway, it’s my business what I do.”

Ford is one of the few writers – perhaps the only writer – I’ve ever encountered who values the idea of stepping back, of putting distance between yourself and your writing.

When you do distance yourself, when you’re not obsessing over some trivial point that’s driving you bonkers, when you direct your mind into other channels, the results can be astounding. That’s when an epiphany can suddenly strike.

If you don’t experience those magical moments here and there, your manuscript is not in the shape it ought to be. For it’s through those treasured, unexpected insights that you see what you never saw before, that you know what it feels like, if only for an instant, to be a genius.

No writer can survive, of course, without writing, or without doing it for long stretches at a time.

But Ford’s time-out makes sense. He takes a break, sometimes an extended one, after completing a novel. I think he also takes breaks while he writes a novel.

It’s a tricky strategy to employ. Not everyone can master it. You could easily misuse it as an ongoing excuse not to write, thereby losing both your momentum and your focus.

On the other hand, you could also get inspired anew, like the freshness you feel after a good night’s sleep.

Ford especially recommends a break after a completed task.

“Time frittered away,” he says, “can also just seem like a nice reward for the grueling work you finished. Sometimes it’s the only reward you get.”

Hear! Hear!

Take a break. Retain your sanity. Let your writing simmer. But keep on cookin’.

LAST WORD: If your break is to be a short one, find a quiet spot of beauty outdoors. The Muse will be able to find you more easily. – HM

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Celeste DuMas Reinhard October 16, 2013 at 12:57 am

While I agree that a writer does need “downtime,” I would be wary about allowing too much downtime. Much of the writing or research I do would look like goofing off to someone else, and to be fair, I would not consider much of what I do as work. I think that allowing too much distraction from your current writing project is detrimental and would not serve a writer well.


2 Hyphenman October 16, 2013 at 3:37 am

I issued several cautions about it for the very reason you state. What I hope people will take away from it is the idea of stepping away, clearing your head, letting your writing get cold, and returning with a fresh, inspired, and objective look.


3 Leah Chamblee October 31, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Is there X amount of days a month recommended?


4 Hyphenman November 2, 2013 at 6:56 am

Very good question, but unfortunately, there’s neither a formula or one size fits all. The funny thing is it takes discipline to initiate a system of what appears to be no discipline. The break from writing could be an hour, a couple of days, perhaps even a week. You have to ask yourself: (1) What do I deserve? (2) What do I need? (3) What do I want? Mostly, and this is strictly my own interpretation of Mr. Ford’s approach, you have to feel what’s right for you.


5 Robert Hicks November 19, 2013 at 4:35 am

Well, better late than never. Truth is I could have used all this a long time ago, but like I said, better have it now than never.

Well thought out, by a fine fellow scribbler. We need more insights into what others are doing to make it work.

I struggle with trying to understand how long or short breaks from writing should be. I appreciate knowing I’m not alone in trying to figure this and so much more out.


6 Hyphenman November 19, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Thanks, Robert. Nice to hear from you again. It’s also reassuring to know that an author of your stature (New York Times bestseller The Widow of the South) still struggles with some of the same problems as the rest of us. Writing is always a struggle.


7 John Hopkins December 24, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Trudging onward may get one across the muddy field but it never led me to my best work. The brain is like a thirsty plant: It needs nourishment to do what it’s meant to do, and that need includes downtime. It’s as true for the editor as for the writer, in my experience.


8 Hyphenman December 25, 2013 at 1:09 am

Good points, John. Apparently that plant also needs an occasional change of scenery, like from the flat land of Florida to the rolling hills and peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


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