Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Turning "Off"

I’m the kind of person who when faced with nothing to do, a long stretch of interrupted peace, finds something to do.  I’m not good at relaxing.  Mr. Maggie often refers to it as my “on/off switch.”  He says that if I’m not “on,” I’m “off,” which usually means that I’m asleep.  I have a hard time turning off my mind and my body, which is why doing yoga has proven spectacularly unsuccessful for me.

The last few weeks, however, have forced me to do just that—turn off while awake.  I have just finished a day job project that required me to get twenty books revised and to the printer—all in India, no less—by the middle of June for a mid-July collective pub date.  To say that the project nearly did me in is not an understatement.  (For proof, you can ask either the northern half of Evelyn David or Susan.  They have heard enough whining to last a lifetime.)  I had to deal with the first round of edits on my next book (PHYSICAL EDUCATION, out in November) and then the copyedits.  I have a number of other projects for work in various stages of readiness, and with varying degrees of author compliance.  By say the twentieth of June, my brain was fried.

So, I decided to play against type and take a few days off.  At first, it was an unsuccessful experiment, with me going deep into the bowels of the Barbieri basement (you remember, the one with the vermin) and beginning to clean.  Three giant black plastic bags later and I was only mildly sated in my quest to bring order to the house.  Suffice it to say, we still have a long way to go, but we’re getting there. Then there was the issue of packing child #2 for camp.  That took all of two hours.  I still had a lot of energy and not a lot of things to do.

I decided to read a book.  And then another.  I took long, meandering walks down by the river, through town, and even through the woods.  I spent a lot of time at the Laundromat while waiting for the delivery of our new washer.  I bought a notebook and started outlining chapters for a new book I’m working on.  I wrote down a few ideas for yet another book.  I wrote the beginning of the new Alison Bergeron book.  And I started to see the benefit of this relaxing thing, this turning off of the mind.  By turning off the mind, I discovered, you are actually turning it back on, and are able to think.  And for a writer, that feeling is priceless.

I guess I’m finding that there is a lot competing for space in my over-packed brain so I’m going to have to think of ways to carve out time to get some thinking done, as sad as that sounds.  When do your best ideas come?  When you’re busy?  Or when you’re “off”? 

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Maggie, we are the same person! Ed always says to me, "You have two speeds, hyper and asleep." I'm so not good at relaxing. That's why we rarely take vacations. Although we used to try to do three-day weekends at B&Bs occasionally, which was nice. We might have to start doing that, next year, after this year's two deadlines are met. I am yearning for a week to do "nothing"--which, I'm thinking means reading a lot, watching "Bones" DVDs, and doing some gardening (aka, weeding). When I need to clear my brain, I think a walk/the treadmill, a shower, or sleep are the best medicine. In fact, I wish I got more sleep. I'll bet that would be mighty helpful (I'm not really good at that either). :-)

  2. Best (and most) ideas come:

    1) while in the shower (I know I'm not alone in this)
    2) while driving/stopped at intersections (probably have company here, too)
    3) while cooking
    4) while biking, jogging, swimming (any exercise that means I' away from work space and requiring me to have very little in the way of writing tools on hand--coincidence? I think NOT!)

    Really, plenty of times when it's very difficult to make hard note of the idea or work with it. Is there a connection? My brain says "unable, physically and practically, to write now, so writing mind is in low-gear" which is then exactly why good story ideas generate? Hmmm.

    Good luck with that basement--I started cleaning up mine in January, got really far in two afternoons and now it's like a shrine to half-assed cleaning. Haven't touched it since.

  3. Susan, truly we were separated at birth. Sleep is good for working out plot kinks, I have noticed. And exercising definitely gets the mind moving.

    Vicky, our basement is nearly a thing of beauty. We have gotten rid of so much stuff and we finally have a new washer, which looks shiny and lovely down there after the 18-year-old one that left yesterday. And you're right about your mind being most active when you have nothing to write on. Sometimes, I send myself text messages that have what I thought was a brilliant idea only to read them later and go, "Huh?"


  4. I know, Mags! I've called my home number while out (very carefully if I'm in the car, of course) and left myself voice mails for later; have used a little voice recorder/voice memo tool on my phone or iPod; I've yelled to Mark from the shower a sentence to write down for me (he enjoys helping because it makes him laugh hard).

    Here's one to consider: I've often thought and told people that if some idea you had is "lost", truly GONE, and it never surfaces in any form in your brain again, maybe it wasn't very good or worth the saving. Maybe it was important only as a step or marker on your way to the better idea that does come at the right time?

    Wow. Even to me that sounds like a way to rationalize missing out on something I fear was really, really good!

  5. H'mmm, interesting stuff. I must write down any idea I get, or it's gone. Remember, I'm over-the-hill. I keep a pen and cards on my bed just in case that perfect idea hits in the night. Happens once in a blue moon.

    I break up my writing morning with chores, it's how I've always done it.

    Love hearing how different the process is for others.


  6. The days are so noisy that I often get my best ideas in the middle of the night. I wake up with an idea and then write it down and only then can I get back to sleep.