The Drawer

Note: Today's post is by Kathy Crowley, who blogs at Beyond the Margins

“Thus, we notice after exercising our muscles or our brain in a new way, that we can do so no longer at that time; but after a day or two of rest, when we resume the discipline, our increase in skill not seldom surprises us. I have often noticed this in learning a tune; and it has led a German author to say that we learn to swim during the winter, and to skate during the summer.”

A long time ago I worked in a neurobiology lab. I was a few years out of college and trying to support myself while I completed my medical school requirements (having frittered away my college years on things like literature, and writing, and philosophy, and Comparative Slave Societies… I was very liberal with my liberal arts.)

My job involved unpacking live frogs (delivered by UPS in boxes filled with a damp man-made moss), developing photomicrographs, washing beakers, incubating "quicks" (chicks with a dash of quail) and collecting data. This is how I collected data: I would place a frog under a clear plastic dome specially outfitted (by me) with thumbnail shaped cups spaced at measured intervals around the outside. I would then drop a live, squirming meal worm into one of these cups and record how quickly and accurately a frog turned and jumped for the worm.

(A little dull for me, but imagine how frustrating for the frogs.)

When I left that job and headed for medical school, my boss gave me a gift – a first edition of William James’ Psychology: The Briefer Course. His inscription read: “One of the greatest neurobiologists – and wisest men – of our time.” The quote at the opening of this post is one of many that I love from this book, and I think of it often. Most recently, I have thought about it in terms of . . . The Drawer.

We all know about The Drawer. It is the place (physical or virtual) where our writing sits quietly while we try to figure out if it’s as bad as it seemed when we dropped it in there.

As in:

Kind and Patient Friend: “How’s your novel coming along?”

Writer: “Oh, I decided to put it in the drawer for a while. You know, get a little distance.”

The accepted wisdom on the drawer is that it allows us to return to our own writing with a more critical and editorial eye – the kind of eye we use when we read the work of others.

I don’t disagree, but I think it’s a little more than that. When we close the drawer and put the project out of mind – or THINK we are putting it out of mind – another kind of work begins. Previously dormant neurons yawn and stretch their little dendrites*. After tossing back cup or two of dopamine, they slip on their glial sheaths and get started -- making connections, clarifying ideas, strengthening characters, creating nuance. So that when we re-open the drawer and pull out the manuscript, we get not only distance and perspective, but also more depth and complexity.

Maybe it's time to rehabilitate the drawer, start thinking of it as an active rather than passive part of the process. Not a sign of stalling out or hitting a dead end, but instead its own stage -- a stage that happens to look very different from the writing/editing/revising stages.

There are writers who write something once and it’s done. (I know – it isn’t fair that they exist, but they do.) For me, though, and for most writers, it doesn’t work that way. When I start my next novel, I will pencil some drawer time into my writing calendar (which I don't have yet, but I might someday, after I finish alphabetizing my spices and reading all the emails my kids’ school sends out every week). When the time comes, I’ll drop my little tadpole of a book in, then wait patiently to see what hops out.

Any thoughts on the drawer out there?

*No real neurobiologist would ever describe neurons as "stretching their little dendrites" -- but you probably knew that.

[Note from Livia:  I'm going to start using the phrase "stretching their little dendrites".  If you enjoyed this post, check out Beyond the Margins.]


  1. Well done. Thanks for posting. Looking forward to more. Peace and all good,


  2. As part of my writing process, I usually drawer* my story for a week and then revise (for short stories anyway). Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't - when I already know what I want to revise beforehand. But either way, I think it's an important part of the process.

    * Yes, I'm verbing** drawer.
    ** That one too.

  3. My drawer gets a lot of use (especially for novels I've put away after a few rejections). I like the idea of thinking of it as part of the process.

  4. After my first major (novel) rejection, I read that you should put all your early work in a file box and stick it in the closet! (I did.) So, my drawer is a file box in the closet, a folder on my desktop, as well as (your words) the virtual one in my mind. And there's no question that I go back to my drawer again and again (even the one in the closet--because I've decided that advice didn't fit). In fact, one of the reasons I like blogging so much is that it gives me the opportunity to open the drawer on a regular basis. (p.s. Thanks to Kathy and Livia for providing another blog posting that made me think!)

  5. Thank you for that post - it has given me new hope. :)
    Everything I've read on the topic so far was 'don't stop, never put your WIP in the drawer, you'll never be able to revive it later if you do that.'
    And since I've put my WIP in the drawer two weeks ago (and still have hopes of being able to take it out and finish it in a few weeks time), this post told me just what I needed to hear right now.
    I think you are right about all those nice dormant neurons getting to work on 'drawer projects' - they do that for other problems, why not for a novel?


  6. Great post, Livia. I love your idea of the active drawer. My brain definitely works on my MS in the background, even when I'm not. I pencil in "sit" time for my work too, and I'll often think of something I should add or change while at a stoplight or while jogging.

    I take notes and after a couple of weeks when I pull my book back out, I have all sorts of edits to make, without even having looked at it.

  7. This is really fascinating.

    Drawer time between drafts is so important to me. I can NOT even begin to revise until I have a little time and distance.

    Must be those little dendrites.....

  8. Wow--this was such a different way of looking at giving space during the revision process. I loved it! And the active drawer thing is so spot on. Even when I'm sitting on a WIP to give myself perspective--that's HOW I get the perspective. But letting everything make connections in my mind, thinking about where my weak spots are, figuring out how to make everything stronger. I can't see that stuff, sometimes, when I'm actively revising. It's the space that allows that perspective. And now I'm talking in circles, lol.

  9. Ah... thank goodness. I thought I was just procrastinating all this time. I always used to say, if I can put away for a bit ideas start to spark again. Thank you.

    I'm new to your blog, just found it today. Nice to meet you. I love the scientific view, since I write Sci-Fi.

  10. I have several stories in my drawer. I'll choose one to work on for awhile until my brain needs a change or something sparks an a-ha moment on one of the drawer stories. Then I'll go yanking out the inspired one to scribble away on it.

    Though I generally use the analogy of cooking and say that I have several stories on the back burner. They simmer away while I work with whatever is in front. Then when I need to, I switch pots. Kind of a funny metaphor for me since I don't really enjoy cooking that much, but it does indicate that something is still happening with the ones I'm not actively working on. It's taking me a long time to finish anything this way, but switching stories even without specific inspiration often recharges my thinking.

  11. More than once, I've been frustrated about not completing a draft or a chapter that I thought I could get done before leaving on vacation. While away from the project for a week or two, I'll have so many good ideas about better ways to write the rest that I'm always relieved I didn't finish it the inferior way.

  12. I'll choose one to work on for awhile until my brain needs a change or something sparks an a-ha moment on one of the drawer stories. Then I'll go yanking out the inspired one to scribble away on it.