11 things for when you don’t know what to write

  1. Be quiet.

    This is a practice. It’s a practice that brings me to consider the difference between quiet and censored. There is a big difference between not writing because I’m silencing myself, and not writing because I’m letting it be ok to be quiet. In the book I’m reading, the author talks about nothingness, and how it is actually deeply generative. We need periods of rest in order to replenish ourselves. So sometimes, choosing to let not writing be ok, choosing to be in the quiet, to really trust it, is the way to go.

  2. Take a walk.

    Last week, I dropped Pearl off at his piano lesson. I’d been sitting all day and felt a little draggy. But the sun was shining and the fall colors enticed me to take a walk down the country road where his teacher lives. I have never regretted taking a walk. It didn’t get the words flowing, but it did reconnect me to the natural beauty all around us, especially this time of year in New England. I took lots of photos and shared some of them on Instagram and Facebook, others via text with friends. I felt grateful and restored.

  3. Let a little be enough.

    Over the weekend, I began writing about “coming back,” a concept I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Its origins are related to the moment in meditation, when you realize your thoughts have gone off the rails, and you gently redirect your attention to the breath. This might only last for a moment, an inhale, an exhale. But it is that moment, the one of coming back, that over time changes our brains. I’ve been meditating, so to speak, on this as it applies to other areas of life. I am letting the writing come in small bits, a paragraph or two at a time, without predetermining where it’s going or what it will become. This feels good, to allow myself space to write into something without rushing or pushing.

  4. Write anyway.

    One of the easiest things to do when I don’t know what I feel like saying is to wait. Waiting can look like a lot of things, but when it takes on a quality of passivity, like I’m a sitting duck waiting for lightning to strike (poor duck!), I know it’s probably a good call to sit down and just write anyway. Writing about not writing is something many of you might relate to; it can feel like a colossal closed loop, but if you keep going, sometimes you’ll lose the self-consciousness and eventually find yourself somewhere you hadn’t expected to go.

  5. Change things up.

    Speaking of places you hadn’t expected to go, if I feel stuck, it almost always helps to get out of my usual routes and routines. Now, I am a Capricorn. I love my routes and routines; they anchor me in my days and give me my bearings, without which sometimes I start to spin off into outer space and get lost in existential questions. Coming back to earth and changing something can be just the trick to nudging my creativity awake. Something as simple as walking home a different way, or sitting in a coffee shop I don’t normally frequent (which I’m doing right now!).

  6. Find a prompt.

    The woman at the next table over is eating chips and drinking an iced coffee. A bumper sticker on her laptop says, “FULL TANK.” This immediately makes me think of the phrase, “running on empty,” and I could tell you about how I got in bed last night at 7:00pm with a book, or how I always wait until the gas light is blinking before I refill the tank, or the time Mani and I rolled into the gas station when the gauge on her car said we had one mile left. I glance around the cafe and see other words, “Order Here” and “Feel Good” and “Local Roots” and “Coming Soon” and any one of these could be a springboard to freewriting.

  7. "What's your story?"

    I'm people watching. A person I'm imagining is female, maybe early 20s, drinking a chocolate milk and wearing wool socks under strappy sandals, jean shorts, and a wool sweater the color of pink cotton candy. She’s smiling to herself, like she’s in on something, and she keeps glancing over at the counter. She looks lonely to me, and I wonder what her story is. it’s funny, isn’t it, how we say “what’s your story,” as if there is just one? What do we mean when we ask that. “What’s his story?” I think we are really saying, tell me where you are in your life. The woman behind the counter just called her name and she looked quite pleased as she went to get her bagel. We all have not a single story but so many stories. If someone asked you in this moment, “What’s your story?” what would you tell them? What would you write?

  8. Rhyme.

    Seriously, rhyming is so much fun and it’s a fun way to play with words, to get playful, especially when you’re feeling stuck. Stuck! Fuck! Sitting duck! See? I bet you’re smiling. I’m smiling. One of Mani’s kids, when she was really little, couldn’t say “truck.” It came out “fuck.” She loved her toy trucks so much she even slept with them and pretended to nurse them like babies, and she called them “fire fucks.” How great is that? Shit outta luck. Hockey puck. See? This doesn’t suck.

  9. Where are you coming from? Where are you going?

    In services yesterday, the rabbi said these are the two essential questions. I’d add that there is a third one, which God asked Abraham: Where are you? This last one always intrigues me, since if God was/is omniscient, God would not have to ask such a thing. So really God was/is asking, do you know where you are? Where are you really? If you’re looking for something to write, start with any one of these questions and you’ll be off to the races. Except — blessedly — it’s not a race. It’s just you and your own practice, your own process, your own pace. Are there things in your past that need a little extra attention before you’re ready to move on? Write about that. Do you want to bring your attention to what you’ve moving towards? Tell me more.

  10. Write a love letter to yourself.

    I have a client who told me during our Discovery Session that she frequently writes letters to her children, both teenagers. She tells them the things she may not say but holds in her heart. She acknowledges their efforts and appreciates their quirks; she mentions little moments they may not know she noticed. I found this to be such a lovely thing. And what really struck me was that this woman was so hard on herself. So I suggested she write herself a letter, one where she really took the time to say, “I see you.” She teared up at the idea. If you tend to be a giver, writing yourself a love letter is a beautiful way to offer yourself some of the goods you share so freely with others.

  11. Begin again.

    When the writing isn’t flowing, when you feel the urge to write but the subject matter is being shy for whatever reason, it’s easy to fly wildly in two directions. The first is catastrophizing. That one goes something like this: “This is it. I’m never going to have any new ideas again. My writing days are over.” The other is comparing. That one might go like this: “Look at so-and-so. They are so prolific. How do they come up with so much new material? I’ll never be able to write like that.” Both of these lines of thought tend to have the same result: You throwing in the towel and giving up on yourself.

    Well, I am here to say: Don’t do it! Come on back from that ledge. Get on all fours if you have to. Take it slow. But do come back. We need you over here. There is only one you, and the lifetime of stories you carry in your bones. It doesn’t much matter where you start, only that you do. Take a deep breath. Set a timer if that helps, or ditch the timer if you hate timers. And then? Begin again.