Thinking About Nothing

Sometimes there is so much stuff in my head—the two TV shows I keep up with, the three books I’m usually reading, the plots of my own books, marketing strategies, ideas for new stories, the classes I teach, when we’re going to move all the boxes of books I’ve packed for the library—and I really just want to think about nothing for a while.

I have tried meditation. The nearest success I had was about twenty-five years ago, during a yoga class. After leading us through a series of postures designed to constrict and then release the blood flow through vital glands, our instructor would wait for us to settle into shavasana—our gently exercised bodies covered with a light blanket—and lead us through a ten to fifteen-minute meditation.

Usually, we would start by tensing various muscles and letting them go, moving from the feet all the way up to our heads. Then our instructor might talk us through a visual landscape or encourage us to build one ourselves. Then we’d do some finger wriggling and blinking, roll over, and sit up, apparently refreshed.

Shavasana (otherwise known as “corpse pose”) can be very refreshing. I’m a huge fan of lying down and being covered by a blanket. But I always had a lot of trouble following the meditation part. My mind tended to wander. The one time I did manage to stay with the instructor’s voice was actually kind of frightening. I “woke up” up suddenly with a memory of a black and yellow place and with the feeling of having been suspended between the known and unknown.

I’ve always thought of the incident as a pretty good illustration of my struggle to let go. I’m not very good at letting go. At the beginning of a yoga class, when we’re encouraged to empty our minds, I’m usually going over my to-do list. When we’re lying down, letting the thoughts that snag pull free, I’m usually plotting the next chapter I want to write. Or the next book. Or thinking about my characters. Or wondering what’s for lunch.

Often, at night, I’ll wake up sometime after midnight and lie there for two to four hours, thinking. I try to think about nothing or to tell myself some sort of bedtime story. To let my mind wander, snagging sometimes, but pulling free, and it’s so danged hard. I’ll think about the movie I just saw, a character type I’d like to explore, about the fact my daughter plans to go away to college next year. I’ll wonder if I remembered to close the oven at the bagel shop (where I work afternoons) and if the cats have food and water. Did I forget to put a muffin in that last customer’s bag? Do I have everything I need for the Teen Writers’ group I’m teaching tomorrow night? Oh, and you know what would work for that scene I was struggling with this morning…?

Sometimes I just get up and read for a while. Filling my head with someone else’s words is usually a good way to quiet my own thoughts for long enough for me to fall asleep. But all these thoughts are still there in the morning.

I’ve tried morning pages and I’ve had some success with them—in that they do serve as a good way to get all this stuff out of my head and onto paper at least. I often find solutions to problems that nag at me by writing them down, including my feelings about an issue and questions to myself about what I can do about it. I also do a lot of plotting and planning in my morning pages.

I try to go for a walk every day and usually listen to an audiobook as I circle the neighborhood. It’s about the closest I get to thinking about nothing on a day-to-day basis, but not always successful. Sometimes my mind will wander and I’ll have to restart a chapter and listen to it again. It’s amazing how much I can miss, too. It will be as though I’ve never heard the words before.

Interestingly enough, however, I cannot sit and listen to an audiobook. I have to be doing something or in motion. I can be driving, traveling as a passenger, walking, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the house. I cannot do a jigsaw puzzle and listen. I can color and listen.

But, back to my quest for nothingness—when I sat down to write this, I planned to share the one thing that worked, but when I got to this part of the ramble, I realized there are two things, but only one I can do year round. The first is for summer only: lying on the beach. I usually take a book to the beach with me, but my favorite thing to do (aside from riding the waves) is to lie in the sun and listen to the sounds of people playing in the water. The vague crunch of bare feet against the sand. The sigh of the wind over the sea, and the roll and hiss of the waves. People talking. All the different music. I find all that listening extremely restful.

The thing that works year-round is going hiking. While I often listen to audio books on my daily walks, I leave my headphones behind when I’m on the trail. Instead, I do the same thing I do on the beach: I listen. To the leaves crunching under my feet and the wind through the trees. The skitter and chitter of forest animals. The rush and trickle of water. Other hikers talking to each other, or their dogs. The sound of the world taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I look at the color of the bark on the trees and the different shapes of the leaves. I make note of the mushrooms growing alongside the trail. I look for flowers, especially in the spring, and interesting patterns in the fallen leaves during the fall. I’ve hiked through snow, counting the different sets of tracks crossing my path. I’ve hiked in the summer when it’s ninety degrees and all I want to do is take off my shoes so I can stick my toes in the creek.

But I especially love hiking when the air is cold and the sun is warm. Just last week I hiked to the top of Mount Tammany in New Jersey. It was thirty-seven degrees when I started out and pretty chilly. But when I got to the top of the mountain, the sun broke properly through the clouds and bathed my face in this incredible warmth. It felt almost unreal. It also felt joyous. The only way I can think to describe it is… okay, you know that scene in The Sound of Music where Maria is up in the hills spinning around and swinging her arms out? Of course you do. There are a million gifs of it on Twitter. I felt like that. I’d climbed a mountain, the sun was shining on my face, and I felt amazing! Happy, light, purposeful, refreshed. And guess what was going through my mind?

Absolutely nothing.

So you can see why the idea of meditation fascinates me. I’ve heard that successfully meditating for ten minutes can be like an hour of sleep. That being able to empty your mind and relax like that will add years to your life. It seems like the perfect way to combat stress. But all that sitting … I just can’t.

Maybe not all meditation is about sitting still or necessarily traveling somewhere in your mind. Maybe for some of us, thinking about nothing requires a little more something. For me, it seems either my body or someone else’s has to be in motion. For me to clear my mind, I have to listen to something—either the sound of someone else’s story, the world moving on without me, or that not-quiet quiet of the forest.

I don’t have to climb a mountain every time, but the view is so often worth it. And then, on the way back down the other side, when I’m drawing close to the parking lot and thoughts of what I need to do for the rest of the day start to filter through, I can think about posts like this where I can at least talk about thinking about nothing for a little while.

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The view from the top of Mount Tammany.

To view more of my hiking photos, visit my Flickr gallery.

Trying Not to Write

I’ve been writing nearly every day for about six years. Before then, I wrote every few days, reviewing books and PC games for various publications, and occasionally writing travel reviews and editorials. Then I discovered fan fiction and wrote what I fondly refer to as “my first novel,” a 93k word epic entitled The Hero of Ferelden.

The endless road…

I’d written fiction before, but never seriously. Never anything long. Never anything that consumed me in quite the same way as writing about my Warden and his allies did. I went on to write a chapter a day for eight months, producing another 500k words—two more novels, several novellas and a lot of short stories.

Then I wrote something of my own and got it published. Then I wrote something else. Meanwhile, I’d been role playing with an active forum for about three years, writing sometimes up to 9k a day in posts. Oh, and Jenn and I wrote a book together somewhere in there, a dark fantasy that topped 120k.

Together, Jenn and I wrote the Chaos Station series in about fifteen months. That’s another 360k. During that time I also wrote two other novels, five novellas and a handful of short stories. This year alone I’ve written another two novels (one of which we tossed at 55k), both with Jenn.

I’m not going to add up all these words. It’s a lot and I don’t need to see the tally to understand that. I’ve felt the load. There have been days where my brain refuses to produce the right word for anything other than tea and toast.

The first time I burned out, I took a weekend off and then got back to work. I fretted the entire time. WHAT IF I LOST MY WORDS? The second time I had to take a break, it was because my arms hurt too much to use the keyboard. And I’d lost sensation in one of my shoulders. And I couldn’t turn my neck.

Seriously.

After several months of physical therapy we traced the original injury—a pinched nerve in my neck—to a bad fall during karate class. I’d forgotten to stiffen my neck and gave myself a good dose of whiplash. I got up and tried the takedown again. Because I’m a stubborn fool. Then I ignored the pain in my neck and shoulders for five months until I literally couldn’t move.

The words, man. THE WORDS.

I took a break—or I tried to. I limited myself to 1000 words a day, in addition to all the “extras” that go along with being published. The blog posts, the newsletters, the website, the social media presence. I started taking weekends off and that worked for a while. But what I really needed (aside from weekly PT appointments where a lovely massage therapist does cruel and unusual things to my neck and shoulders) was to take a break. Something longer than four days. A break where I didn’t think or write. Where my life revolved around something other than words.

If you’re a writer, you know how hard it is not to write. It’s like…impossible. The stories are RIGHT there. The voices are LOUD. You have to write. If I took a break, I’d lose my place. I’d be stuck on a raft in the middle of a boundless ocean, floating away from the only island I knew existed.

With a trip to Australia coming up this summer, I decided to try and use my vacation as, um, vacation. I didn’t manage it last year. I spent a week in Cape May working on edits and writing blog posts. The summer before I took my laptop to New Orleans and wrote every morning in the hotel room. The summer before that…

You get the idea.

This summer I decided to actually go for it. In preparation, I worked stupid hours for a couple of weeks writing sixteen blog posts for an upcoming tour as well as revising two projects for submission, putting together synopses and query letters, and outlining another project. Oh, and I was writing a book with Jenn as the same time, one we finished a few days before I stepped on the plane. By the time I got to Australia, I was due a break.

Beer!
Beer!

The first week I fretted. I pulled my laptop out the first day and opened a file. I had a novella to outline and a proposal to write. After staring at a blank document for about five minutes, I flipped over to Facebook and watched cat videos. I was jetlagged and tired. The next day my laptop remained closed. The day after that I fretted aloud: “I really should be writing!”

The unanimous response was: “Kick back and have a beer!”

(It’s the Aussie cure for what ails you.)

Four days into my vacation, I started vacationing. I ate, drank, socialised, saw the sights and slept past 4am in the morning. I continued to worry, quietly, that my words were fading like tear stains on a pillow. For two weeks, I didn’t write a single word. I did pull out my phone to jot down the occasional idea and I spent many enjoyable a morning talking books and stories with my dad. But I did NO WORK. I didn’t write a single blog post. I didn’t craft a single promotional tweet.

This is the part where I tell you how amazing it was. Imagine me tipping my head from side to side. I don’t know if it was amazing or not. I don’t know if I’m going to sit down soon and start writing the BEST BOOK ever. What I do know is that I needed the break, mentally and physically. Regardless of what you do for a living, you cannot do it all day, every day, and not suffer the consequences. Our brains require variety. Colours and sensations and experiences. I can’t write good stories if I’m not out there living a good life. Not the kind of stories I want to tell, anyway.

What I have taken from this experience is that I’m not a shark. I can stop swimming. I’d like to write every day, but I know it’s not sustainable. I’ve discovered that I can ignore the voices for a while—if I really try—and they’ll wait for me. New ideas will crop up while I’m not writing. New characters will continue to whisper somewhere between my ears. So long as I make a note of this and that, I’ll never lose these potential words. They’ll always be with me, no matter how much time I take off.

Also, when I’m not writing, there are a heck of a lot of hours left over in the day. Like… what do regular folk do with all this time???

Cake is also good for what ails you.
Cake is also good for what ails you.

I’m five days back and I’ve spent the morning writing blog posts. I actually plan to take the rest of this week off (quelle horreur) because I have two new books releasing next week and that’s WORK right there. What I do hope is that when I finally get back to it, I love writing just as much as before.

Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I will! Otherwise I wouldn’t still be hearing those whispers. 😀

For more pictures of my vacation, connect with me on Instagram! (Scroll down past the cats and Pokémon) For info about my two new releases, check out my Coming Soon page or stay tuned. I’ll be posting about them! Oh, and if you do check out my fan fiction, remember they were written well before I understood what editing was. 😉 (My heart was totally in it!)