A lot happens between the lines.

I’ve been spending a lot of time “between the lines” the last month. I escaped to my parents’ house in the woods to scramble through the rest of my dissertation—and it was going to be a scramble. To finish it in time to graduate this semester, I’d have had to analyze the data and bang out the last two massive chapters in two months. Not a problem, I thought. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s write. And two months is an awful lot of time when you’re not doing anything else with your life.

Best laid plans.

A few weeks into my mad dash, my professors met and decided they wanted me to collect more data. This meant waiting for their okay on my plan to proceed with this extra data collection, and then waiting for the okay from the university research integrity review board, and then waiting on my study participants to—hopefully—grant me a bit more of their time.

There’s an awful lot of waiting in dissertation writing. A lot of waiting, and dashing, and waiting. But mostly waiting. And thinking. And standing in the yard watching crows bully the neighborhood hawk, if you’re as lucky and as foolish as I am to put your life on hold until you’re done with your doctoral degree.

I’m hanging between chapter breaks here, waiting to finish up this dissertation so I can move on with my life. I’ve got a big, shiny adventure waiting for me when this is all over. But after thinking about it (I’ve had lots of time to think about it), I’m glad my professors asked me to hold off and collect more data. Because the truth is, I don’t think I could have dashed out my dissertation. I could have written the words, certainly. But they would have lacked a layer of meaning and depth, a dimension I couldn’t have achieved by pushing through in a couple of months. There’s more to the process than chewing up your data and spitting them back out. There’s rumination, and digestion. And um, not a good metaphor. But maybe you get where I’m going with this—or rather, where I’m trying not to go.

What I mean is, ideas need time. I don’t just mean at the beginning of the creative process, but all throughout it. They need time to sit in your brain while you sleep, and shower, and eat your toast, and chat with the old man next door after chasing his dogs around your yard, and watch the lovebugs have an orgy on your front porch. Basically, they need to ride shotgun while you live your life. Now and then you strike up a conversation with them or you take them out to a nice dinner, but mostly they just sit there, and sometimes they sleep, and you forget they’re there.

But all the while, they’re changing. They’re picking up bits of conversation and stray thoughts, and they’re making something out of them. They’re getting bigger. And when you do sit down to give them some attention, you’ve discovered something amazing: They’ve evolved.

I needed this excuse to take extra time on my final dissertation chapters—not because the activity of writing itself needs time, but because I need more time for the activities between writing. I need quiet moments and busy moments. My ideas about the meaning of my data are changing in ways I never expected—and I need them to have that time to stretch.

Taking a pause from writing at a spring in North Florida

Fiction happens the same way for me. The initial inspiration for a story can be a rush as ideas click into place like falling dominoes. Scenes bubble up out of nowhere, fully formed, like complex life forms out of primordial soup. Characters, dialogue. Then comes the task of sweeping all those bits together and bending them into some kind of sense, which can bring its own kind of inspiring rush. And then comes the writing, the sit-your-butt-in-a-chair slogs. And all of that is really important to the process, especially the slogging. But the key ingredient—and does anyone ever talk about this?—is time.

For me, it’s just as necessary as all the other steps in the writing process. Some people can pop out fully-fleshed stories at a rate so astounding, I wonder if they’re creating or if they’re channeling some divine voice. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I can’t write more than a thousand words on a single story in a day. Let me rephrase that. I can write more than one thousand words on a manuscript in a day, but not without endangering the integrity of the story. Because just as important as the time I spend writing is the time I don’t spend writing—teasing the dog, taking a walk and smelling the sun-warmed pine needles, frying eggs, catching up on my nonfiction TBR pile.

My stories need to sleep, just like I do. Then they wake up refreshed and ready to do amazing, unexpected things. I think we’re all so busy running around trying to do things, we forget the value of the not-doing. The pausing, the breathing. The place between lines.

That is where the magic happens.