Active rest is a fitness term. When most people work out they do a set of exercises then rest before doing another set. For a good number of people that means more time is spent standing around resting than exercising. When one of these people starts to work with a good trainer they are often distraught when the trainer cuts their rest time drastically or even gives them no rest at all. Maybe lunges for a minute followed immediately by push-ups for a minute then a set of fifteen barbell curls. In this example the curls would be active rest; you’re working at a lighter intensity than the main routine and so your ‘rest’ periods are actually getting some work done.
So what? I’d been working on a long project (a novel) and progress, which had been pretty steady, was slowing down. It’s not writer’s block it’s more like fatigue. Word counts went down, harder to really get that ‘flow’ of a good session, and just general malaise.
A fellow writer suggested that maybe it was just time to take a break, put it in the drawer. Good advice probably but advice I didn’t really want to take because the end just felt so close. Another few slog sessions made it pretty obvious a rest was needed but you don’t want to just abandon it. You want to keep up the writing habit and that’s where active rest comes in. There’s plenty of stuff you can do to stay in the writing mindset without necessarily doing the heavy lifting.
Writing exercises. These exercises are rarely fully formed stories but they have value. Especially if you work on something specific. If you have problems with dialog work on that. Write a piece that’s nothing but dialog. Two people talking with no dialog attribution at all. Try to create the characters and tell the story with nothing but those lines of dialog.
Back-story. I play Dungeons & Dragons. I know, awesome, right? Our DM just had us write back-stories for our characters and, you know, it was pretty fun. You should probably already have back-stories for your main characters but what about smaller characters? A little work on back-story might make ’em pop a little and keep you engaged in the work while easing off the hard stuff.
Old business. If you have some pieces laying around, say a first draft of a short story or one of those word exercises you did and then forgot about; pull ’em out and take a look. Some of it will suck, no doubt, but there might be some gems. Maybe something that needs just a little attention. I put a quick polish on an old short story and submitted it to a contest. I didn’t win but sometimes just freakin finishing something feels good.
The main thing is you’re still writing. Keep up the habits and you can cut yourself a little slack for ignoring the ‘big work’. Just don’t let ‘active rest’ turn into a year of two-page vignettes. In fitness they say “growth happens outside the gym” but that’s assuming you were in the gym at some point. Eventually you’re gonna have to get back to work.