How to Use the Holidays to Recharge and Find Inspiration
I’ve always been a bit of a Grinch. The more people want me to be excited about the holidays, the more hostile I tend to become, which has led to a steep decline in party invitations in my life. As it turns out, being the Grinchy curmudgeon who likes to make 10-minute speeches about the commercialization of the holidays does not make you popular, which is information I could have used twenty years ago.
My lack of enthusiasm for the holidays has nothing to do with the holidays themselves and everything to do with the logistics surrounding them. I’m a writer who measures the success of his days by how much work he gets done, both freelance and fiction—and the holidays are tough on productivity. Between the travel, the social obligations, being away from your usual workspace, and the noise level all around you, writing can actually become pretty stressful (and apparently spending all your time scribbling in a notebook while everyone else socializes is “rude”).
If you’re like most writers, you’ve been going at it pretty hard all year. You’ve carved out writing time, you’ve stayed up late and gotten up early in order to get some words on the page or screen. You’ve sweated bullets to come up with freelance pitches or story ideas, you’ve laid in bed staring up at the ceiling trying to cut through a particularly knotty plot problem. You’ve done the work for nearly 12 months now—probably while also doing other work to make a living, not to mention tending your relationships and doing a dozen other things.
The real danger is viewing the holidays as a deadline of sorts. Trying to make the last two weeks of the year super productive is similarly likely to backfire and cause stress. And stress isn’t conducive to good work. While I sympathize with the urge to use the holidays to get some work done (and certainly some of us might have paying writing gigs with deadlines that require us to work over the holidays), there’s a better use for this time of year: Recharging your creative batteries and letting some inspiration find you.
The science is pretty clear: We all need time off. Many employers insist that their workers take their allotted vacation not out of altruism, but because time off has been shown to increase productivity.
As a writer, you might be in the position of fighting for every moment you get to work on your novel or article or poem, so it’s understandable that you might resist any suggestion that you slack off and let the works-in-progress go for a day or three. But if you’re going to use the holidays to recharge you have to let yourself step back and not work. That’s not to say you can’t whip open your laptop on the plane if you have one of those lightning-bolt moments of inspiration—it means that if you’re not inspired, don’t force it.
A few days of snacking, sipping adult beverages, eating nice dinners, and hanging out with loved ones while not thinking about your book at all will let you return to it refreshed and with renewed energy. Also, your subconscious will continue to chew over that story or article, and I’ve personally experienced an explosion of new ideas after I’ve stopped thinking about a project for a few days.
If you need a little help, here are a few suggestions on how to force yourself to disengage from your writing process for a little while:
- Leave the laptop. Whether traveling to visit folks for the holidays or staying home to celebrate locally, don’t even bring (or power up) your laptop or whatever you write with. Not having your implements with you may not stop you from working, but it will at least provide a barrier to just giving in to your urge to be productive.
- Work longhand. If you can’t stop yourself from working, try forcing yourself to use a pen and paper. It will be a change from a keyboard, which will force you to slow down a bit—and it will be a new vector for working, which will nudge your brain to work differently. I find that writing things out longhand forces my brain to stop running at 100MPH simply because my hands can’t keep up. That results in better writing because by the time my hands do catch up my brain has discarded three bad ideas that otherwise would have made it to the page.
- Make a public pledge. Tell someone you’re not going to work. Sometimes that’s all you need—accountability. Telling your spouse, kids, or relatives that you’re not going to spend the whole holiday sitting alone in the spare bedroom tapping at a keyboard is a promise, so every time you have the urge to do so shame will at least make you think twice.
- Pivot. Make up a game wherein every time you want to go work on that story, you do something else—strike up a conversation with a distant cousin you don’t know well, offer to help prepare dinner, take a walk, check out the hotel bar. The key is to make your pivot something fun and not a chore—though from personal experience pivoting to “having a cocktail” is fun but not advisable.
I’ve often made the point that writing a book is really just 20 percent actually putting words together; the rest of it is research, and reading other people’s books, and thinking, and daydreaming, and playing video games, and napping, and working on some story for a few hours or days or weeks. That rule of thumb—that everything we do is 80 percent under the water line—applies to most of our lives. That’s what makes getting organized so powerful: You’re not writing, no—you’re shredding old paperwork and cleaning out closets, you’re filing statements and taking care of To-Do lists from six months ago.
Getting organized can be incredibly energizing because you’re literally taking control of your life in a physical, tangible way. Taking action is always inspiring, and science tells us that being organized actually helps you think better, which means that your writing will be better if you take some time over the holidays to clean up your work area and handle some of the little chores you’ve been putting off for months.
Review Your Work
The holidays offer more than the chance to look forward and make plans for the future. They also represent an ideal chance to look back on the work you’ve done. This could be revising a first draft you finished but never polished, or evaluating stories or essays in terms of their publishing potential. Looking back on your work will offer you concrete evidence of your accomplishments, which can be a great confidence boost. Too often writers enter tunnel-vision where all we think about is our current WIP, so getting the reminder that you’ve actually created a lot of terrific writing this year will send you into the next with a fresh sense of enthusiasm.
If you’ve spent the last few months manically tapping at keyboards and racking up word counts, the holidays offer something else that’s kind of crucial: Perspective. The concept of a New Year might be an artificial construct, but it’s powerful in its way as a natural moment to reflect on what you’ve achieved in the last year—and make some plans for the coming year. Using the holidays to set some concrete goals for yourself and your writing can be a powerful experience. Goals act as challenges, for one thing, invoking your competitive nature and stoking your work ethic and enthusiasm.
But setting up goals is also plain old exciting, because it offers you a glimpse of what could be. The key to using goals as inspiration is to diversify: Some of your goals—maybe even most of them—should be pragmatic and attainable: Finish that novel, sell that story, increase your freelance income. But also include stretch goals. Win that contest, write that experiment, sign up for that seminar. Setting goals is a glimpse of what your future could be, and the act of doing so can give you a jolt of energy and inspiration.
One of the biggest challenges for writers is finding the time to do things—the time to write, certainly, but also the time to read. Reading for pleasure—not for research or professional development or in order to write a review—is one of the greatest pleasures in a word nerd’s life, and sadly also one of the first things we push off to make room for paying work and other duties. Want to recharge over the holidays? Read some of the books you’ve been dying to get to all year. Long trips are great opportunities to read, and giving yourself permission to just get lost in a good book is an excellent way to return from your holiday season refreshed and with renewed purpose.
Enjoy an Old Hobby
It’s certainly true that you need to approach your writing seriously and treat it in some ways like a job. Writing every day, hitting deadlines and personal goals, and finishing projects and assignments are all crucial aspects to a successful writing career. But you can lean too hard into the “job” aspect of writing, which can transform something you love into a grind that crowds out everything else, including hobbies that once brought you joy. This holiday season, dust off an old obsession and get back into it, at least for a while. Whatever your interests are, putting some time and energy into something other than your work will stretch your brain and allow other parts of you to relax and recharge.
Recharging is necessary and a great use of your time over the holidays—but this time of year is also a great opportunity to find new ideas. This is especially true because we spend so much of our holidays engaged in passive experiences like being strapped into airline seats and sitting at the Kids’ Table and pretending it’s not at all humiliating and irritating. Here are some suggestions on how you can use your holidays to find inspiration.
Listen and Observe
There’s a scene in the film Young Adult where writer Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) overhears some teenagers in a fast food restaurant and makes a note of some new slang she can use for her characters. Writers do this all the time, snatching moments from our lives and engineering them into ideas for stories—and the holidays offer an ideal moment for this sort of thing. Sure, your family may exhaust you, airports and hotels may be depressing, and your old school friends may have traveled very different roads than you have—but simply observing everyone around you during this time will give you endless ideas for character traits, story concepts, and world-building details.
Personally, observing my family during those lengthy holiday gatherings often gives me plenty of ideas for stories. Sure, family stuff during the holidays can be stressful, but there’s a reason so many great books and films are about family drama—it’s powerful stuff. Keep your eyes and ears open and use this time to see your family for what they are—a collection of characters.
Use an Unusual Prompt
The holidays are many things—stressful, delightful, depressing, comforting, and reliably crazy. While using the time to recharge means avoiding doing actual writing work, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let your mind wander creatively. One great way to do that is to ponder some prompts related to your holiday experience. Ask yourself a few “what would happen?”-style questions—what would happen if you skipped church? What would happen if you got snowed in with your family? If aliens invaded while you’re opening presents? Have a little fun, and don’t put pressure on yourself to come out of this with a story—just enjoy letting the creative juices bubble a bit. And if you do come out of this with a story idea, that’s a great way to kick off the new year.
Conceptualize a Holiday Special
Every year the classic BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who delivers a Christmas episode where the ancient Time Lord for some reason has a wacky Christmasy adventure (occasionally even interacting with Santa Claus). If you have a recurring character or series of stories (published or not), think about doing something similar. Conceiving a story where your 23rd-century robot assassin has to fight off angry elves when they accidentally kill Santa, or one where your determined government agent’s biggest challenge isn’t a terrorist plot but the office holiday party is a fun way to stretch the boundaries of the fictional universes you’ve developed. Also: It’s just fun.
Blogging all the Way
Sure, a personal blog is sooo 2010, but it’s also a great way to do some relaxed, unstructured writing. Is this a bit of a cheat if you’re supposed to be recharging (and not writing)? Maybe, but these are more like guidelines than actual rules. Blogging your holiday adventures is a fun, low-key way to clear out the pipes and rediscover how much fun it is to just tell stories without worrying about character development, pacing, and whether or not you’re selling your world-building. Plus, this is a fun way to stay connected with the family you leave behind every time the holidays come around—your friends, neighbors, and office spouses. And most importantly, riffing on what’s going on around you will also mill your otherwise ordinary holidays into inspiration, because you never know when a funny story about how your mother reacted to a particular gift works its way into a novel someday.
If there’s ever a time to turn off your phone and shut the laptop, it’s the holidays. Think about it: You’re probably with anyone who might need to contact you. You don’t want to hear from work, and most other social obligations can wait. It’s easy to lose track of how disruptive social media and constant email checking is to our thought processes, so while you’re doing the holiday thing this year try turning off your phone for a few hours and be present in whatever moment you find yourself in. That’s it. No other instructions. Just soak in the atmosphere—especially if it’s cozy and warm—and let it stimulate your mind. Pro tip: Something nice to drink always helps with this process, so charge up the hot cocoa or a nice holiday-themed cocktail and … relax.
The holidays come at the end of the year, which means you have roughly 360 days of experiences to look back on. Take a moment to think back on what you’ve achieved, the challenges you’ve met, and the losses you may have suffered. This isn’t just for nostalgia or to pass the time—some of a writer’s greatest inspirations come from their own life and their own struggles. Think about how you would turn something that happened to you this year into a story, or a novel, or maybe an insightful essay. Turning your own experience into fiction (or creative non-fiction) requires transformation, of course, but it all starts by thinking back.
Writing is often a solitary, isolated vocation—so much of it takes place in your mind, and so much of the work is done alone, in a room (possibly with a cat sitting on your head). The holidays offer a chance to decompress, clear your mind, and marshal your resources for the next round—take advantage! And come back in the New Year ready to put words on the page. Happy holidays!