Five Things: Reasons to Leave Your Writing Desk

Notebook with pencil and camera
Category: Writing

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” 
― Henry David Thoreau

I am a terrible sufferer of writer’s block. Unless I have an idea that causes a feverish burst of words, I find it hard to do a daily shift at the keyboard. That might sound like laziness or a lack of motivation, but the honest truth is if I force myself to sit write without one of those ideas, it will result in a day staring at the page, listening to the radio silence in my head.

Perhaps I have to train myself harder to slog it out. Maybe it’ll get easier in time. However, I’d argue that if the words aren’t coming and you feel like slamming your head on the keyboard, it is always better to get up and leave the desk instead of wrestling on.

So here are five reasons why getting out of the writer’s seat can be more constructive for your brain, your body and your writing.


Your mind will work better

Just like in any other workplace, you’re entitled to a half-hour break

Your mind can only work for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs a rest. It’s why employees and students need breaks throughout the day to keep performing at their best. There comes a point when your brain can’t process any more information without having some down time. No matter how much you’re enjoying it, when you write, your brain is working just as it would at work or studying. So just like in any other workplace, you’re entitled to a half-hour break.


You need to get out of the chair

You literally need to get out of your chair. Sitting in the same position for a prolonged period of time is bad for your physical health as much as your mental health. Have you checked your posture recently? I bet all that hunching over a keyboard hasn’t worked any wonders on it. And if you’re like me, reaching for my latte is sometimes the only bit of exercise I get in a day.

Remember to get up and walk about, even if it’s just around the sitting room. Or if you're hell-bent on staying near the laptop, why not look up some YouTube videos of 20-minute exercises you can do while you’re at the desk.


Let your subconscious take over

You know those “eureka” moments that seemingly strike out of nowhere? You’re just walking along or in the shower or washing the dishes and BOOM, a bolt of inspiration hits. This is “passive thinking”. When you leave a problem to go do something else, your brain will still be picking at it and may eventually throw up the solution when you were least expecting it.

So instead of bringing on a headache thinking about that scene you can’t nail down or where to go next, you’re better off giving your mind some breathing space to let it filter out what you need.


Family matters

Taking a few hours out to be with others is never a bad thing

When I worked as a subtitler, I had headphones on for eight hours and spoke to no one, leaving after a long day to go back to the flat where I lived alone. While I like a bit of alone time, I sometimes found the constant lack of conversation and company to break up the day isolating and depressing.

Time not spent writing may feel like wasted time, but taking a few hours out to be with others is never a bad thing. It’s good to have people who support and encourage you to keep writing around, especially when you’re going through a hard slog.

Let yourself socialize and find out it’s needed downtime for your brain - you never know who might provide a bit of inspiration…


Go on an adventure

Nearly seven years ago, back in my bookselling days, we had an author visit from Lari Don for her new children’s book. She asked the kids who were there if any of them wanted to be a writer. The kids were shy and no one spoke up, until my manager, thinking it would be funny, announced that I wanted to be a writer. The kids all giggled and I was mortified. Lari didn’t laugh though. She looked me right in the eye and gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten.

'Go and sky dive. Travel the world. Meet a new person every day. Have experiences. Because the only way you can write is if you’ve lived.'

The outside world is full of triggers for your imagination. The person you strike up conversation with at the bus stop is your next character. That sensation you had through your entire body when you jumped out of the plane will help you describe how your protagonist felt when he fell in love for the first time. You want your character to run through the streets of Venice? Go do it too! Or if you can’t afford this bit of the research, go sit by a canal on a sunny day and daydream to your heart’s content.

Just remember the next time you’re ready to throw the computer out the window or set the desk on fire, perhaps you should try leaving the desk for fifteen minutes instead.

Karyn Dougan

Born in Falkirk, Karyn Dougan has performed her work across the UK, sharing the stage with some of her literary heroes (such as Janice Galloway and Liz Lochhead) and has taken her work to Europe, performing in Greece and Italy. She has written for The List, The Skinny and The Bear, and has worked in almost every section of the book industry as a proofreader, editor, reviewer and bookseller. In 2016, she received the Callan Gordon Award. A graduate of Stirling University, she now lives in Glasgow and is known for being "the cheerleader of Scottish literature." She is a writer of prose, poetry and all things wordy.