On Not Writing


I’m about halfway through my inhale year  – twelve months with no writing outside of periodic blog posts and social media updates – and I thought I would let you know how it’s going.

Quick recap:  In January, I made the bold – and perhaps bizarre – decision to take a year away from writing so that I could concentrate on my writing workshops, private writing clients, submissions to my literary publication Thread, and other aspects of my professional life. (You can read my EBB & Flow post on the subject here.)

I can’t say I am recommending it just yet, but these past six months have been interesting, to say the least.

Right from the get-go I noticed that I had more available time. It was a bittersweet reminder of how lost I can get in a writing project, to be so full of concentration so as not to sense the hours passing was a confirmation of how much I love working in the form.

I wondered about the frequency of thoughts-that-become-stories. Would they slow to part time? Vanish completely? Neither. They are as active as they’ve always been. Which is very. I’ve since started a long and colorful list of ideas on my cell phone to address in my exhale year. My writerly approach to the world, even when I’m not writing, seemingly has stayed intact.

Third, and by far the most challenging during this year without writing, was that something was missing. That some essential part of me, something that separated me from others and made me feel unique,  was either in a deep sleep or … gone. I didn’t feel like I was fully present. Now that I’ve identified myself as a writer – which in itself took many decades (see my essay on this subject here) – I seem to very attached to the label, making me feel a bit anchorless without it.

Which strikes me as not such a good thing.

So I’m looking at the rest of this strange, self-imposed experiment as an opportunity to mull on two profound questions of artistic identity:

Who am I if I’m not writing?


Do I feel like a writer even when I’m not getting my work published or telling a story on stage?

At the end of the year, I promise to let you know how it all turns out.

Maybe I can help save you from squandering a perfectly good year. Or perhaps this hiatus, in combination with some personal discovery, will be well worth sharing.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.





My Inhale Year

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“The average human being has about 55,000 thoughts a day: some of them are about injustice; some of them are about ketchup.”  Ada Limon


Since January, as friends and colleagues have asked what I’m working on, I’ve responded by telling them that I am taking the year off from creative nonfiction. I’m still blogging and posting on social media, but I’m taking a kind of breather, what musician and writer Henry Rollins coined as “an inhale year.”

Rollins writes: “I’ll have inhale years and exhale years. In an inhale year, like last year, I will travel and get information so I can have something to say on stage while I spend a whole year exhaling. So an exhale year, I’m on the road touring and the material is derived from all the crazy stuff I did last year.”

For someone who has been writing since the 1980s and publishing without a break, my response has lifted some eyebrows and roused some quizzical expressions. If one is a writer, shouldn’t one be writing?

I keep an ongoing index of my published pieces and that count is somewhere around 500. In thirty-some years of writing, that’s an average of one published piece a month. That’s a lot of words.

While I’m not in making mode right now, I am sticking close to the process. I don’t like to be too far from it. I’m focusing, quite happily, on the work of others. My workshop students. My private writing clients. Writers who submit to Thread. I’m nose-deep in writers and their process, and it is very gratifying indeed. Few things make me happier than seeing a writer’s work expand, contract, shape-shift and then transmute into artful, articulated expression.

So why am I doing this? Why decide what kind of year I should have, creatively speaking? Why not let the juices flow as they will?

I’m doing it, in part, for a much-needed break, so I can concentrate on the writers in my life and, also, to work on publishing and business aspects related to Thread.

But I knew there were others reasons that I just hadn’t identified until a writer friend, Rebecca Talbot, passed this gem of an essay by Ada Limon along to me. It beautifully articulates what I had not yet been able to: that there is pleasure and value in not writing.

Limon, who is a poet, writes, “What I mean is, there are times poems do not come and life is too heavy to be placed on the page, or life is so deliciously light and joyful you must suck it down before anyone notices. That is okay. You are still the writer watching that train, doing laundry, getting lost in this massive mess of minutes. There is value in this silent observing.”

We are still writers even when we aren’t writing. I know this. I’ve told my students this. But I needed reminding.

While I may not be writing in the traditional sense of the word, I am taking notes. A steadily increasing list of ideas which, because of my inhale year, will have the luxury of percolating. Marinating.

So watch out because next year – my exhale year – may bring along a very big wind.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.