During the past holidays I took a tiny break from writing. I spent two, maybe two and a half weeks without rummaging for topics inside my brain, or squeezing out a shitty first draft (in Anne Lamott’s immortal phrase) and deleting half of it before posting. How bad, I told myself, could a couple of weeks without writing be? For all I knew, it might even do me good, replenishing the well-springs of my craft, giving the Muse a well earned rest, and so on.
I went ahead and took the break, but at the back of my mind there hovered that saying dear to the hearts of fitness trainers, “use it or lose it.” I told myself that what applies to muscles and sinews does not necessarily apply to the brain, and that even serious athletes take breaks from training now and then (they do, don’t they?). But no sooner had I disposed of the trainer analogy than I was beset by memories of my years of violin playing, and how terrible I sounded if I skipped just a few days of practice. Even the great 20th century violinist, Fritz Kreisler, used to say that if he went one day without playing, he could tell the difference; if he went two days, his wife knew it; and if he skipped three days, the audience noticed.
I also recalled a saying by Leonardo da Vinci (or was it by the ancient Greek painter Apelles?): nulla dies sine linea, not a day without a line, which holds for writers as well as painters. Nevertheless, I remained in holiday mode, telling myself that my anxiety about not writing was a sign of neurotic insecurity, if not more serious OCD tendencies.
Now here I am, well into January, and guess what? The trainers, Fritz Kreisler, and da Vinci (or perhaps Apelles) were right: the brain is a muscle, and it grows flaccid and weak much faster than one would expect—or at least mine does. Where once possible writing topics jostled each other inside my head, yelling pick me! pick me!, now a deathly silence reigns, as in an empty classroom when students have left for the summer. And where once each sentence smoothly elicited its successor, now when I finish a sentence it lies there inert, unable or unwilling to generate the idea that should follow.
As for the words themselves, don’t get me started. Although I am not reluctant to use the dictionary to check on the correct meaning of a word, I long ago decided against using the thesaurus, since it was too convenient a crutch and I needed the mental workout of coming up with the right term on my own. But after my recent vacation nouns, verbs, and adjectives have left my brain en masse, like bats exiting a cave at dusk, leaving me with the vocabulary of a ten-year-old.
I don’t know when or if my writing muscle will get back in shape, but in the meantime let my bitter experience be a lesson to all who write, paint, or play: don’t let a single day go by without a sentence, a line, or a note, because if you do you’ll be sorry. The arts, for all their beauty and apparent simplicity, are jealous taskmasters, and they are more tolerant of imperfection than they are of absence.