Tuesday night I met with my favorite aunt’s book club. I knew it would be a great group when one of the special guests (a member’s 84 year-old mother) arrived with a hip flask of bourbon in one cardigan pocket and a can of 7-Up in the other. During the discussion, one of the women told me she’d recently read Driftless, by fellow Wisconsin author David Rhodes. Driftless is Mr. Rhodes’ first novel in thirty years, after a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed. My aunt’s friend proceeded to ask me if I’d ever taken a leave of absence from writing, and if not, if I even felt such a thing would be possible.
“Funny you should ask,” I replied. Because after my second novel crashed and burned, I did take a hiatus from writing. I had a crisis of confidence…it became nearly painful to write, and I even lost pleasure in reading fiction. I became terrified of the blank page. Several months passed, until a health scare shook me out of my paralysis. I didn’t feel ready to write fiction yet, but I could bake…I could garden…I could design the invitations to my sister’s wedding shower. Anything to reignite the creative spark I seemed to have lost.
The conventional wisdom is that if you are a writer, you will feel a near-physical compulsion to write; and if you are a novelist, to tell stories. However, what of Harper Lee, who never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird? Ralph Ellison…J.D. Salinger, who stopped writing for the public after The Catcher in the Rye? Well, if I never published again, I’d be in good company. But if I felt an actual aversion to writing, did that mean I was no longer a writer? Maybe I was just pouting.
I’d gone through this before, when self-doubt hamstrung me. But after some time hiding out and avoiding the blank page, I always came back to it. Because in the end, writing makes me happy—fleshing out characters, playing with language, structuring a scene. It's in my blood, and I'll probably keep writing even if I'm my only audience. The lovely thing I discovered along the way is that sometimes a break isn’t a bad thing, because it can inspire just the breakthrough you need.
What about you? Have you ever stopped writing for awhile? If so, how did you come back to it?
Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways (Ballantine Books, 2008). She's currently working on two novels and is no longer afraid of the blank page, rejection, or crummy reviews. She is, however, still afraid of heights.