Input and Output: Sara Zarr, Me, & You

(Note: WordPress does not like me today. It is not letting me put in paragraph breaks. And Cinderella (AKA me!) has to get to the ball and doesn’t have time to argue with the blog!)
In her post today, Sara Zarr talks about the times she needs to switch from output mode to input mode. This rang a real bell with me–it’s something I ran into for the first time as I was finishing up and revising The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. This was the first time that I remember feeling so drained from focusing on getting words out, that I needed to take solid breaks and put some words in.
When I was working full-time, I think I experienced a variation of this. I would spend my requisite six to eight hours behind my desk, writing explanations and instructions for technical manuals, and then I would come home and try to write fiction. Usually, I’d get a little bit in, but often, the evening would revolve around a long bath, a cup of tea, and reading a good book. Day: Output; Evening: Input. Let me just say, I admire beyond boundaries people who do manage to put in those long work hours and still produce full-length manuscripts, whether those manuscripts are ready for publication or not.
On those days, my brain felt like a sponge. Even the most boring academic “Let me prove my point to you over and over” books felt good in my hands, in front of my eyes. Because they were putting words into my head, instead of asking me to pour them out.
When I stopped working full-time, I was still very busy–I had a bright, active toddler to take care of and, of course, the house/life stuff that fell onto my plate. But…less of that was output. It was in those days that I really started concentrating on my fiction, on getting stacks of pages written, on digging into the feedback from my critique group, on revising. I didn’t just have a bit more output energy; there were days my brain was begging for an hour or two of output mode.
As I was writing the critique book for Writer’s Digest, I was—for the first time in quite a while—writing under deadline. This meant developing an even tighter focus and really spending “school hours” as writing hours—output hours. I was and am determined to keep making progress on my own fiction, so I was doing output to get word-count and revision down on those projects. Which added up to…days that shrieked STOP! Days where I’d lay on the couch, snuggled up with a winter blanket, and pull out a research book for my historical YA WIP.
The last couple of weeks have been divided between wrapping up the school year, socializing with friends and relations (which for an introvert also = output!), and moving on my WIP’s first draft. Today, in between a morning celebration for a friend and an evening party, guess where I found myself? Yep, on the couch. I thought I’d nap, but instead, I stayed awake, eyes front, brain imbibing this:
Did you know that:
  • The first cable car was invented in San Francisco, California? Think about it–all those hills. As my son says, horses have a lot of shins to get shin splints on!
  • Cable cars didn’t work so well in Chicago. The cables had to be deeper in the ground, to run below the frostline. That meant the grip had to be longer, which meant more break-downs. Plus, you know, all the frozen horse poop (lots of horses still around on the streets) kept falling into the cracks and gunking up the cable.
  • Chicago switched to electric streetcars, which were first developed in Richmond, Virginia. There’s a question for your next trivia game!

I know. Little stuff. But input, input, input. Not to mention, it gets me much more immersed in the world about which I’m writing, which translates into inspiration and motivation to get back to…output!

Sara says for her, input is “Books, music, poetry, movies, and Gabriel Byrne.” 🙂 For me, it’s mostly books, your blogs, and a bit of serious “quiet time.” What about you? How do you recognize when you’re drained of output power? What input helps you recharge?


  1. Shawna says:

    You’ve had some very good posts on this subject that have helped me recognize the signs of writer burn out. So thank you.

    I watch a movie or read a book or clean house or play in my garden, or with my kids… I guess I do something that does not involve the computer.


    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, stop it before it’s burn out! Luckily, most of us love it so much that it doesn’t take too much to recharge!

      Every now and then, cleaning house is a recharge. Friday, it was ironing for me. That’s when I know I’m pretty far gone. 🙂


  2. Linda Covella says:

    My stories are always floating around my brain, whether in front when writing or in the back when doing other things. I’m sure that’s the case with all writers. New ideas, solutions to plot problems, etc., seem to come when I’m doing something other than focusing on the writing. Gardening, cooking, walking…So I guess the input of everyday things recharges me. 🙂 In other words, give yourself a break. It’s amazing what a relaxed brain will take in.


    • beckylevine says:

      It is amazing, Linda. And it’s amazing how wound up we can get doing something we love so much. Guess that’s because it matters to us. 🙂


  3. Jeanie W says:

    My daughter graduated from high school last week. The house was full of relatives and the days full of activities. I had planned that, as soon as they all left, I would dive back into my revisions. I did not. Instead I futzed around on Facebook and Twitter, cleaned the house, and read. Now I’m back into revisions again, and things are progressing well. In retrospect, I think I needed that 3-day break. I’m sure I would have butchered my WIP if I hadn’t given my brain time to breathe.


    • beckylevine says:

      You DID need that break. I’d forgotten to talk about transitions. We get so excited waiting for the time we can get back to it, that we don’t realize it’s not just an on/off switch.

      Congrats on your daughter’s graduation. That’s a biggie!


  4. ajwriters - Jenn says:

    Love this post. It’s always great to know you’re not the only one that gets this way.

    Music and relaxing away from the computer and kids helps me recharge. Unfortunately, it is when I am at work and cannot write that I *want* to the most. It would seem that I am as much of a pain in my own rear-end as my characters.


    • beckylevine says:

      I remember that feeling. The boring work just makes you want to get creative with your own stuff, at the same time as you know it’s tiring out your brain.

      I know writers who at least let their brains wander a bit, during day-work, and jot down notes for later. But you didn’t hear ME say that, if your boss asks!


  5. Mim Caldwell says:

    I think I’m currently extremely drained. I can tell on those days that I stare at the screen and nothings helps, nothing comes to mind. I just want to bang my head against the wall.

    However, I have been doing my input of reading, and reading and reading. As well as long hot baths at night. Very helpful.

    Writing just a bit for me actually does help me get past the whole drained things as well.

    I may give myself another day off, and then really get back to work again. I may also start the new project that I want to write, and leave my current WIP to rest awhile.


    • beckylevine says:

      On those days, lately, I’m trying to actually get myself up and away from the computer. I find if I stay there & keep hitting my head against the brick wall, the next day isn’t much better. If I find something else I want/need to do and get it out of the way, somehow I feel more fresh coming back.

      And, yes, if you can get a few words out, sometimes everything feels better. 🙂


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