Ways to Keep Writing When You Can’t

american starlet
This fat-ass novel started life as a free-write I did when I couldn’t find the groove writing vampires. 

Sometimes real life gets in the way. Sometimes there’s just no physical way to walk away from the house fire that is your mundane domestic life and get to your desk or your laptop or Starbucks or the picnic table behind the Circle K or wherever it is you do your writing. I’m not talking about that; in that case, take care of your business and get back to it when you can. You officially have my permission as a fully-vested badge-carrying member of the Writer Police.

I’m talking about the times when you’re staring at the blank page or screen with an outline or an idea already in mind and the time and will to make stuff up, but the words just don’t want to come. Writer’s block, yes, but that’s too big a word for it and way too scary. Writer’s block is something novelists in novels get that makes them hear voices and axe murder the neighbor’s cat. Say it with me: I do not have writer’s block. What you have is a momentary numbness of the crazy brain. It’s not gone for good; don’t panic. It happens to everybody. It happens to me all the time. And when it does, these are some of the ways I’ve found to deal with it.

1 – Write Shit Anyway

Just keep writing or typing down words even if you know they suck, even if they make no sense, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with your work in progress. Even if they don’t belong to you. Many is the time I’ve resorted to transcribing song lyrics I remember from high school—I can write out the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album if you ever require that service.* And sometimes just the physical act of writing words wakes up that sense memory and makes my own story float back to the top. (FYI, writing fan fiction totally works.)

Think about it this way. Writing is an art and a calling and a mystic practice, but it’s also a job. And when you have a job, you do it because you’ve promised to do it whether you feel like you’re doing it well or not. If you owned a doughnut shop, you’d go in every morning and make the doughnuts. You’d follow the recipe, go through the motions, and at the end of the process, you’d have doughnuts. They wouldn’t always be the best doughnuts, but you’d have something to sell. Writing is different; the personal stakes for the individual product are higher, and the recipe is always changing. But sometimes just going through the motions is enough to put you back on track.  Just remember, just because you write it doesn’t mean you have to keep it. And many, many times, you have to write your way through that shit draft to find the golden one behind it.

2 – Absorb Somebody Else’s Art

If I’ve been banging away at #1 for a while and still nothing’s clicking, I stop trying to be a creator and give myself permission to be the audience. I spend the time I would have spent writing reading somebody else’s book or watching a movie or a TV show or listening to music. I give it my full attention, guilt free, because I know sometimes this is as much a part of my process as the actual writing. Sometimes I try to find something that’s sort of in line with what I’m trying to do, something specifically inspiring. But honestly, what usually works best for me is to dive into something completely different that has nothing whatsoever to do with my story’s genre or action or mood. I will say, reading or watching other fiction works better than something like the Food Network if I’m trying to jumpstart my brain. But I will totally jump-start a gothic romance by watching Rick & Morty. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories almost always get me rocking and rolling again, regardless of what I’m working on. But sometimes I do better with something completely new.

One very important note: My hubs the gamer gets this kind of juice playing RPGs with complex stories, but Candy Crush won’t work. That’s not stimulating your brain, that’s sedating it. I love phone games, too, but if what you’re after is a brain that makes story, they won’t ever get you there.

3 – Give Up And Play Candy Crush

Some days, it just ain’t gonna happen. And that’s okay. No, really, it is; I swear it is. If I’ve tried and tried and still feel like every word on the page is a drudgery that I’m just going to have to throw out, I give up. I give myself permission to give the f*ck up. Because I know it’s temporary. I know that story is still perking away in my subconscious; I know it won’t ever let me go completely until I get it told. But sometimes it needs to grow and evolve without me watching it. I know that sounds crazy. (I promise my neighbor’s cat is safe.) But almost every time I throw up my hands and just let myself not be a writer for a day, by the next day whatever story problem I was having solves itself. That plot knot comes undone. That character snaps into focus. Because I’ve been writing for a really  long time and because I do try to write something pretty much every day, I know when I can’t, there’s a reason. I know it’s going to be okay.

So say it with me, kittens. It’s going to be okay.

*The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves./Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

2 thoughts on “Ways to Keep Writing When You Can’t

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