Todd Richardson, Writing Consultant
“I have to get it done,” the student says. She sits across the long table from me in the university lounge where I hold office hours. I’m a writing professor at a small liberal arts school in Western Kentucky. Her hands hover over her laptop, shaking and white. Her mask pulses with her breath, the cloth sticking to her lips then puffing out like a balloon. Outside, the leaves are brilliant—gold, crimson, orange. The breeze is crisp, brisk, earthy. I suggest it’s time for a break, perhaps take a walk without our masks, peep some foliage.
“I have to get it done,” she says. I wait for her to ask questions, but she doesn’t speak. Instead, she stares at her screen. Her typing comes in bursts, first in words, then in rapid deletions. After a few minutes, she throws up her hands and sinks her face into her palms. “I can’t,” she says. She tells me she sleeps four hours a night. She wants to graduate in no more than four years, fewer if possible. That’s why she’s enrolled in seventeen hours for Fall of 2020. She wants to do well in college, like she did in high school. Even in the pandemic, she managed to keep her grades up through her senior year. Then, in college, where the institution decided to teach a hybrid in-person/asynchronous model to cope with covid, she floundered. “I work all the time,” she says. “I never get ahead.”
I look back out the window, watch the leaves sway in the air. They seem peaceful. They breathe and sway. I know that what I have to tell my student isn’t what she wants to hear. I know because it’s not what I wanted to hear when I lived through a similar experience in grad school. It’s the same advice I’m advocating for here, and it’s counterintuitive to everything on your syllabus, everything your guidance counselor told you, every shred of the individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture that you internalized from your parents or the news or however it made its way under your skin. Admittedly, it’s advice that I still struggle to follow to this day.
“Maybe you need a break,” I say to her. She shakes her head.
“You think you can keep writing?” She pauses, doesn’t answer. Then she shakes her head, rises, and shuffles out the door. I don’t know if my advice landed or if she’s just too tired to sit here anymore. As I watch her gather her things, a pang of empathy tightens in my stomach. I was just like her as a student. I wish I’d taken it easier on myself.
In graduate school, I worked at a similar pace to my student sitting across from me—always writing, reading, stressing, obsessing, striving for some academic, pie in the sky, attaboy. I kept articles and books stacked high on my nightstand and in piles next to my bed. I slept in fits—an hour and thirty minutes here, a toss and turn there. Eventually I gave up on the REM cycle and woke up to write the next term paper, the next prospectus, the next page or paragraph or chapter of my thesis. I managed—thrived actually—in the first year. I’m fine, I told people who commented on the dark circles under my eyes. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Then, as time passed, a mental sluggishness set in. It started as spacing out in class discussion. You’d find my body in its seat, but my mind had left orbit some time ago. I forgot what I was saying in the middle of a sentence. Then the fog spread to reading. My eyes would scan articles but would not absorb their meaning, as if my vision would bounce off the text. I became irritable with my friends, parents, and wife. Then the haze came for my writing. I stared at the blank, white snowdrift of my word processor, the cursor blinking on and off like a flickering synapse in my skull. Words would not come. Thoughts ran together in long, incomprehensible sentences. Quotes went without citations. Phrases repeated themselves without my awareness.
Eventually, panic set in. It started with feedback on an essay that read, “Todd, not your best work. Better luck next time.” After that, I entered every class with icy fingers and a tightening chest. It was all I could do to breathe, to lift my gaze to meet my instructors’. I felt the control over my own body seeping away and I was helpless to stop it. One night I got an email from my thesis advisor. The subject heading read: Todd—Chapter 3 Draft, Revision Needed. I didn’t get a chance to open the message. The edges of my vision darkened. I inhaled sharp sips of air. My knees buckled. I thought I was dying. My wife and my brother-in-law (he happened to be spending the night at our house) carried me to the bed. I regained consciousness in time to stop my wife from dialing 911. I had experienced my first full-fledged anxiety attack.
I wonder now what would have happened had I known the importance of taking a break. Not just because it’s good for your mental health—it’s good for your brain and productivity, too.
First, in order to be efficient, your brain needs time to be inefficient. What “inefficient” looks different depending on your personality, but a good suggestion for anyone in school—especially those of us in the middle of the second year of pandemical education—is to move around. Go for a walk. Dance. Kickbox. Or get all woo-woo and meditate, get a vinyasa flow in before hitting the draft again and take ten deep breaths. When you have more time, like right after you’ve submitted your paper or are just plain ol’ done for the night, do something that refills your mental gas tank. Video games, LARP, play a board game—whatever floats your raft down the river. Don’t take a break forever; we have deadlines and GPAs and life to keep up with. Set a timer for twenty minutes to write and twenty minutes of breaktime and stick to it. There will be times when you can’t take a break (life has a way of lobbing emergencies at us in the middle of finals), but make sure that you set aside time to let your mind wander wherever it needs to go.
Second, walking away from the keyboard is actually good for writing (and let’s go ahead and extend this to proofs, algorithms, presentations, and the like). Again, don’t walk away forever—I’m not saying that your term paper will write itself while you Fortnight the afternoon away. What I’m getting at is, let your writing simmer. Even if all you have is ten minutes, it’s good to set your draft aside and let it stew. Pounding your fingers against the keyboard until they bleed leads to a law of diminishing returns; over time, you will earn fewer rewards than the amount of energy you invest. Trust your subconscious to mull over your topic for a bit. You might find that your mind approaches your draft with fresh ideas, newfound energy, and a special zazz that makes your writing come to life.
Finally, taking a break is good for you. You have experienced what no other generation in the last one hundred years underwent; a global pandemic and one of the most prolonged disruptions to everyday life in recent American history. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to take a breath, to take time to feel the grass beneath your feet, to finding the peace in the reddening of the leaves. You are worth the decision to walk away.
This fall, you might hit a wall. That moment when your vision goes bleary and your eyes scan the article, you’re supposed to read but you can’t remember for the life of you what the words mean, when you’re staring at the blinking cursor on the blank page and your thought faucet feels clogged, take a break. Get woo-woo. Go for a walk. Let whatever you’re working on simmer on the back burner for as long as you can. Your brain will thank you for it.