My nephew is three years old—that’s him in the picture, taking after his aunt a year and a half ago—and if you’ve spent time with a three-year-old, you know that they often say things that are simultaneously hilarious and brilliant.
The last time I saw the Boy Genius, I heard him tell a friend that he had to put his book on the shelf to charge. The book in question plays “The Wheels on the Bus” through a little speaker which only occasionally works, so apparently he thinks that putting it on the shelf long enough will “charge” it up so he can play it (and drive everyone else crazy with it, but I digress!).
It got me thinking about how we think about reading and writing and what “charges” them. Maybe our books really do charge on the shelves so that when we take them down to read them, we can absorb all the energy they have to offer. Certainly, they don’t lose any of their power while they sit on the shelves, though like a battery or any other energy source, we have to use them to benefit.
And what about writing? Does writing charge if it sits on the shelf? Conventional wisdom would say no—that Writing Must Happen All the Time If It Is Really Writing. Wow. No pressure there!
Writing can actually gain more energy if it sits for a while. Not always, certainly. But while books contain a certain energy no matter what, because they are constantly ready for us to take them in, writing is a different beast. Writing comes from us. It pulls our energy onto the page for someone to take in later. Through the miracle of print, many readers can absorb that energy—that experience—with no additional cost to the writer. But that doesn’t mean that the writer doesn’t occasionally need to take a break, to absorb new ideas, to gain some distance from the work.
When we spend too much time on one project we can become immune to it. It’s old hat. It’s so familiar that we don’t see what’s really going on with it anymore—where the words are flat, where we’ve fallen down a tangential rabbit hole, where the magic shines through. It becomes This Project. Even if we love it, we can reach a point where we’re blind to what’s really going on on the page.
The cure for that blindness is to stop. Take a breath. Put it on the shelf for a while. How long? That’s up to you. You’ll know whether it needs to sit for a week, a month, a year… it’s a question of how long it takes for it to feel new to you again, to see it with new eyes. When I let The Silver Child sit for a year after I thought I was finished revising it, I was stunned not only by how many annoying little typos I’d missed in my final proof, but also by just how much I’d forgotten—and by how much I enjoyed re-reading a book that I thought I knew inside out, upside down, and backwards. (A year may be more than you need, so adjust accordingly!)
Don’t be afraid to use your magical charging shelf when you need it. It’s your friend. When you take that work back and look at it again, with a new perspective, you’ll be glad you did.
Also published on Medium.