Three Things I Do When I Have Nothing To Write About
Plus, Three Things I Try Not To Do
In 2007, I stopped writing. I was sixteen, on my way to college, and I had three half-finished journals filled with ideas, prayers, and doodles. I flipped through my nine older journals for a spark, for recognition, for nostalgia’s sake. I laughed at a few spots, but I mostly cringed. There’s more than a few reasons why most people don’t write memoirs in our twenties, but a huge element must be the inevitable cringing that comes from 20/20 hindsight at our childhood. As a child, I didn’t know what to write about but me.
During college, I went through my first major depressive episode which zapped my energy for almost everything but writing. I finished a 200 pg. novel that was complete crap and started then abandoned three more. Writing 5 academic articles, papers, or essays simultaneously were the norm. Different ideas on topics were constantly floating into my head, and I couldn’t get them on paper fast enough. Sure, most were edgy only to my home-schooled, Christian, naive self, but they were ideas. I wrote for catharsis, survival, and I wrote the most I’ve ever written. In college, I didn’t know what to write about but pain.
At twenty-one, leaving college, I was determined to make a fresh start. My writing was not going to be on mental health or faith, two topics I felt I wrote about all the time. I was only going to write about serious topics and maybe start a children’s series on the side. I threw out all my old journals and deleted most of my writing from the internet. For three years, I wrote sporadically and mostly rehashed my old ideas. For three years, I didn’t know what to write about.
Most tips for writer’s block are geared toward finding people/places to pitch your style of writing or an endless list of unoriginal, motivational articles that make me want to roll my eyes at the screen until they fall out. If you have multiple ideas, this is probably not the article for you. This is for the stop-and-start writers like me. The writers who itch to write but sit in front of their paper/screen for hours then give up and watch a movie. The writers who write consistently for three months then forget their password or fall in love with a newer, shinier platform or notebook.
Currently, I’m in a healthy marriage. I have my depression mostly under control. I’m working through my faith. I have a great job and great friendships. I have a beautiful house and dog. My parents are celebrating 30+ years of marriage in November, and my family is healthy. My life has followed a pretty steady, enjoyable path with a few speed bumps. Most of my personal writing wasn’t built to contain me when I’m happy. I’m most drawn to writers who show the raw, vulnerable parts of themselves and the seedy, gritty side of all of us. We appreciate the people who can show us the mundane in a new or humorous way and those who can show us the unbelievable depravity without flinching. We want #relatable content or unbelievable stories, and I’m realizing my life experiences are neither.
There’s a phenomenon in psychology known as negativity bias or negativity effect. Psych studies done by John Cacioppo, Ph.D., then at Ohio State University, now at the University of Chicago. The brain, Cacioppo demonstrated, reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Our brains are more sensitive to negative events than positive. We can see this effect at play everywhere from moms on Instagram venting about exhaustion and undone laundry to our tendency to complain about bad service vs. praise good service to the 24/7 cynical news cycle.
What do I do when I have writer’s block?
I explore writing in a different genre.
I write mostly slice-of-life narratives with a moral and/or science fiction stories. Think a modern mashup of Little Women and Firefly or Les Miserable and comic books. Sure, there’s romance and adventure, but it’s mostly new angles on the same societal problems. Lately, I’ve been writing Owl and Bear. Owl and Bear is a children’s book complete with illustrations in the vein of Winnie the Pooh. It’s completely different than my usual fare, and it stretches my creativity muscles to imagine writing for a completely separate audience. Change the genre/type of story you’re trying to write and see if you get a unique idea.
I research various topics.
I wrote a fictional story of a once-suicidal girl who’s addicted to whiskey. (Find it here.) While I’ve definitely been depressed in the past, I’ve never personally struggled with addiction. In the least-offensive way possible, I’m fascinated with the steps that lead a person to an ever-present need, whether that be for a substance, another person, pornography, etc…. I read multiple articles and a few personal memoirs that dealt with addiction and blended my experiences with depression into the story. Right now, I’m reading about the experiences of Holocaust survivors, an “ex-gay” Christian woman, Scientology’s former members, and a Japanese man who lived through internment camps in America. Reading and exploring will only help you as a writer. If you feel stuck in your writing, maybe it’s time to look into different writing styles/topics through the work of other writers.
A No-Holds-Barred Free-Thought Ramble
I determined to write more consistently last December, and I’ve written more original work in the past two months than in that whole three-year break. In fact, about a week ago, I was sick at home and couldn’t decide what to write. I ended up riffing for a good six minutes on topics, ideas, people, and concepts I’d want to write about. The next day, I wrote a slightly cynical yet humorous take on the rush towards productivity, one of the ideas on my list. (Find here.) It may not be as coherent as other articles/authors, but not being the best writer shouldn’t stop you from writing. If you sat down for five minutes each day and just let yourself riff a list of any idea that pops in your head, you’d soon have a long list of things you:
- Are curious about
- Want to research
- Have a question about
- Have strong positive feelings towards (a rave)
- Have strong negative feelings towards (a rant)
- Have musings about in the shower (“shower thoughts”)
- Want to include in a story
- Want to give someone as advice
- Want to ask everyone on earth
- Want to ask a specific person you know
Guess what? People have written novels, articles, essays, blogs, tweets, stories, captions, and everything under the sun because of a random thought. Write about what fascinates you. Write about what repulses you. Write to learn about a topic. Write to understand another person. You don’t have to have a complete book series in your head to start writing.
So, what do I try not to do when I’m experiencing writer’s block?
I Don’t Write A Title
Look, titles are important. They can signal what your work is about, foreshadow a story plot, give significance to small details, and more often than not, they’re what hooks the reader in to your work. For all of those reasons, I don’t title my work until I’m halfway done or completely finished with it. Maybe you can work from an existing title. Me? My writer’s block will convince me that wording the title the exact right way is the most important thing I can be doing. Before I know it, a whole week has gone by with only three words in the title. Personally, my titles tend to be revealed as I write the story, forcing me to get to work.
I Don’t Make A Deadline
Unless I’m working for another person, deadlines don’t work for me. Telling myself to write 10,000 words by this date just makes me bury my head in the sand and give up. I’ve learned not to pressure myself, but I take whatever extra time I have during the day and write. I write for fun. I write about serious ethical issues. I write letters and listicles and humor articles and guest blog posts. Whatever I do, I don’t make myself feel pressured without an actual commitment. If self-imposed deadlines work for you, that’s great! Keep using them! I’ve just accepted that the only thing they do for me is make my anxiety sky-rocket.
I Can Always Edit
Telling myself this lets me get my perfectionism out of the way. “You can edit later; just get it on the paper” was my old refrain. If I want everything I write to be absolutely groundbreaking and perfect, I’d never write anything for the rest of my life. Neither would you. I loved learning that most of the authors I grew up admiring didn’t know which of their works would be “the one” or actively thought their most well-known and beloved classics were maybe just going to pay the bills. Look it up. So much of our archetypal literature was made because someone wrote dozens upon hundreds of things and eventually wrote a classic. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make a pretty darn good writer.
Happy writing, friends!