Ever had one of those weeks? The kind of week where life boils over, and even if you have time to sit down and write, you don't have a lot of writing to give?
We all have weeks like that—I know I do—and so today, I'm going to give you three steps to work through those troubled times when you can't write at all.
Sometimes, Life Boils Over
Sometimes, life goes nuts; when it does, it's harder to write.
I even found visual aids to demonstrate.
When your life does this:
It usually leaves you and your writing skills like this:
It doesn't feel good. It smells worse.
Good news, fellow writers: there is a solution, and it can be boiled down (see what I did there?) to three steps.
Three Steps to Writing When You Can't Write
So there you are: your week's boiled over, and you're finally sitting in front of your computer/notebook/voice recorder, with a dearly-paid-for hour of time to write . . . and you can't.
There's nothing. No characters talking, no plot points singing. Your story seems dumb, your twist ending feels predictable, and you suddenly wish you'd never told anybody you were going to write because it's gonna be humiliating when you fail.
Every writer has been there. I've certainly been there. That's why I can tell you the first step; I've had to do it myself more times than I can count.
Step 1: Believe You're Still a Writer
Step number one to writing when you can't write is believing you're still a writer.
See, we all have a nasty inner critic. That inner critic loves days when we're burned out and can't write. It pounces, and in the back of our minds, whispers things.
It whispers, This is it. You'll never find the story again.
It whispers, You never finish anything.
It whispers, You're too old (too young, too inexperienced, too ignorant, too whatever) to become a writer now.
It whispers all kinds of horrible things, and all of them center on one nightmare thought: that this burned-out place you find yourself—this empty, sticky, awful spot—is where you'll be for the rest of your life.
Have I mentioned the inner critic is kind of a jerk?
It lies to you. That voice is a lie. All those you never and you're fooling yourself statements are lies.
And you may know that, or think you know that, anyway; but on those days when you're burned out, that fear rings in the back of your mind like a fire alarm going off in the house next door.
Step number one is shutting that liar down.
You need to believe this. Look in the mirror and tell yourself this. Write that down on a sheet of paper if you need to, in big, bold letters, and pin it to your corkboard.
You're a writer even on those days you can't write.
Step 2: Remember Your Passion
Step number two to writing when you can't write is remembering your passion.
Let me put that another way: do you remember the reason you got into writing in the first place?
Maybe it was something awesome you read—something that granted you escape, or opened your eyes, or changed your life.
Maybe it was because a story idea just latched onto your head and your heart, filling you so completely that you couldn't even imagine life without that story inside you, begging to be written.
Heck, maybe it was just seeing a need and knowing that your own personal experience or wisdom could fill it.
Whatever that reason was, it's time for you to remember it.
Maybe it means picking up a book that inspired you. Maybe it means clicking Google news and checking out that issue that got you so fired up in the first place. It means recalling to mind just how badly you need to write and why. Whatever it is, remember it. Take it to mind; remember how it felt in your heart and your head. Remember the heady, joyful feeling of knowing that you could—no, should—write that book.
Then write that reason down.
This can go on a 3×5 card. And yes, I know that when your personal pot is burned and empty, no matter what you write down, it'll feel stupid. That's your inner critic again. Ignore the jerk. This is about you, not it.
Write down that reason and put it on your corkboard next to your declaration that you're still a writer. (What, you don't have a corkboard? Then just put it where you can see it when you go to write.)
This reason is still real. Even if you can't feel it right now, it's just as valid as it was when it first spurred you to write.
So that's step one and step two. Ready for step three? It's a doozy.
Step 3: Write the Wrong Stuff
Step number three to writing when you can't write is writing the wrong stuff.
Don't freak out. I know your inner critic declares that you'll somehow be practicing writing badly, or wasting your time, or a dozen other excuses. But hear me: your inner critic says that because it will tell you absolutely anything to keep you from writing.
Any excuse is another lie.
Write the wrong stuff. Go into it knowing it'll be all wrong.
There are two reasons for this. Here's the first one:
1. Writing the wrong stuff calms down your high expectations.
In your burned-out state, those expectations can do more harm than good, so it's important to deliberately squash them.
In other words, there's no pressure.
You don't even have to write the story you were working on when life boiled over. You can write something else, or take your characters and put them in an alternate storyline, or switch the bad guys with the good guys.
Non-fiction writers? You can write intentionally bad advice.
Heck, if you do it full-bore, writing bad advice can be funny. And that's actually the key to this. Because here's reason number two for writing the wrong stuff:
2. Writing the wrong stuff gives you permission to play.
When was the last time you played when you wrote? Probably not in a while; life boiling over tends to sap the fun out of things, as I know too well. But it all goes back to that amazing little quote from Robert Frost, doesn't it?
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
No matter how serious the story, no matter how important the information imparted, there must be life in it for it to be readable. In other words, if you want readers to enjoy what you write, you need to enjoy it while you're writing it.
Don't freak out. (Yes, I'm repeating that.) I'm not saying this to put pressure on you. I'm saying this to remove the pressure by reminding you that sometimes, you've got to play.
Go on: give bad advice.
Go ahead: write a terrible chapter including every ridiculous literary trope and pitfall you know.
Write intentionally silly dialogue.
Write literal deus ex machina swooping out of the sky for no reason to fix the ending.
Write as terribly as you possibly can . . . and then laugh at it.
When you do this, you're actually becoming a better writer. There's something strange about the act of crystallizing terribly written things that helps you not to do them when you're writing for real.
When you do this, you're socking your inner critic in the eye.
Play. And just maybe, at the close of that terrible writing day, you can end it with a smile.
When You Can't Write, You're Still a Writer
I know how hard this can be. I know that sometimes the bad things keep happening, leaving you empty. But here's the thing, fellow writers: you're still a writer.
Yes. You are.
Let yourself have these off-days, and use them to practice your skills in unexpected directions. Take advantage of these empty days to fill yourself with the memory of why you started this to begin with.
And don't listen to your inner critic. That guy is a serious jerk.
How do you handle days when you can't write? Let me know in the comments.
Have you had one of those days when you can't write lately? I know you have in the past, if not right now. So here's your homework assignment: take fifteen minutes and practice at least two of the three steps we talked about in this lesson:
- State that you are a writer even when you can't write.
- Remember your passion, why you started this in the first place, and write that down. If you're having that kind of day, you may need to allow yourself to write that reason badly, ineloquently, or clumsily. That's okay. Still write it down.
- Write something deliberately terrible. Take your characters and place them in a random situation, or start something new and purposely bizarre. Enjoy the process of writing with no expectations.
When you’re done, share your writing in the comments below, and don’t forget to leave comments for your fellow writers.
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.