Sometimes, you can’t write.
And I mean you REALLY can’t write. You know the feeling: the kind where it seems your soul is so parched and empty that your imagination has withered and gone. The kind where everything you managed to write before either looks incredibly stupid (and you made it public! The horror!) or, worse yet, was the product of some brief moment of genius which you shall ne’er taste again.
Yeah. That kind.
Today, I’m going to walk you through what to do during those times.
The Low Point
When we writers start out, we can’t imagine the devastation of finding ourselves unable to write. We may be frightened, but we have both passion and the inertia of that powerful decision to begin. For a while, that’s enough to carry us along.
Then life happens. Physical exhaustion or emotional strain, family challenges or difficulties at work, or even the dreaded bad responses from folks who were supposed to help, but instead ripped your brand-new story to pieces.
Whatever the reason, you remember the desire and need and drive to write, but when you sit down to do it, you can’t. You just can’t.
Everything in your head sounds stupid. Anything you type up looks inane. And you begin to wonder if this was really a good idea after all.
Here’s an important fact to hold in hand and heart: your favorite authors went through this, too.
Yes. They did. Even the Ray Bradburys of this world who “write a short story every week” felt like this (more on that in a moment).
All writers do. All creatives do. If you doubt, head on over to your favorite author’s website (assuming they’re still alive, ahem), and shoot off an email asking if they’ve ever felt like they couldn’t write anymore.
I bet you dollars to doughnuts you’ll get a response along these lines: “Yes, but keep writing.”
Everyone hits those times. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer, or that you won’t make it. Take that truth to heart; knowing you’re not alone can be a big help when you’re in that shadowed valley.
Writing Advice From Ray Bradbury
The good news is, since every writer hits those times, you’re following a well-worn path, and many great writers have left support and encouragement for you along the way.
Now, I know you know the name Ray Bradbury. One of the most influential writers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Bradbury reframed the short story, revamped both sci-fi and dark fantasy, and redefined what it meant to be a writer as part of a community.
This is a man who would put off hours of his own work just so he could show some young kid what it was like to be a writer. In fact, he’s one of the primary influences in the lives of such modern-day award-winning wonders as Neil Gaiman.
An isolated and miserable Hemingway, he was not. He was prolific; he was friendly and welcoming; and most importantly of all, he gave a ton of advice to up-and-coming writers.
Let’s look at four of Bradbury’s pieces of advice:
1. It’s Okay to Write Crap
For me, one of the most intimidating things Bradbury ever said was this:
Let me tell you, the first time I read that quote, I freaked out. I’m a slow writer; it’s never been in me to write quickly, and I’m often spooked by folks who are able to churn out masterpieces on a daily basis (I’m looking at you, Jeff Elkins).
Initially, when I saw this quote, I wanted to cry.
I can’t do it, I thought. I guess I’ll never be a writer.
That’s because I focused on the first part of what Bradbury said and not the latter. Re-read that part with me: not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.
Bad short stories. In a row, which meant there were bad ones in between the good ones.
That means Bradbury wrote bad short stories. Ray Freaking Bradbury wrote crap (sometimes).
That means the purpose of writing something every week isn’t about writing something good. It doesn’t mean churning out excellence; it means just writing something down.
(Psst: Do you have a little time? Watch this video in which he explains this in detail. His encouragement is unbelievably powerful.)
Ray Bradbury also said this:
Just type any old thing that comes into your head.
That includes crap. He’s not the only writers who says this, either:
It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.
—C. J. Cherryh
Seriously. Give yourself permission to write crap. Drivel. Blarney.
Before you freak out, read this next sentence: when you write crap, do it absolutely knowing that no one will ever see it but you.
If you write something knowing full well it will never make anyone’s eyes bleed other than your own, then it doesn’t matter so much if it sucks. You’re a lot more free to write the thing. (And that advice came directly from Jeff Elkins. Darn that writerly wisdom.)
Bradbury claimed that several walls in several rooms of his house were covered with rejections. Wow.
Write it with full permission to write crap because Bradbury did, so you know it’s allowed. Or, as Maureen Johnson puts it, dare to suck.
2. Practice Word Association
It might help your stalled brain if you don’t consider this step “writing.” Consider it just something you need to do, like taking vitamins or drinking water.
It was with great relief, then, that in my early twenties I floundered into a word-association process in which I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head. I would then take arms against the word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my own life. An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be finished and done. The surprise was total and lovely. I soon found that I would have to work this way for the rest of my life.
I’m not saying that if you’re starting from a cold-engine stop, you’ll come up with stories right off the bat. What I am saying is that if you have any kind of language in your head, if you’re able to read these words, if you’re able to communicate with words in any way, you can do this.
In the morning, just write down the first words that come into your head.
Maybe they’re tired, coffee, coffee, dog, cat vomited, baby crying, tired, tired, need a new job.
That’s fine. Write them down.
Maybe they’re kids, school, lunch, date, time off, babysitter, little romance, make reservations, sparkling wine.
Maybe they’re school, school, tests, school, exams, challenges, teachers-judges-aliens-gods, unseen masters, don’t find out you’re being tested until you graduate and then it’s too late.
Do you see what I’m doing?
I’m letting the words tell me where to go. If you just let the words go, they’ll take you someplace. That’s how the human brain works. Don’t just try it once and then stop; keep doing it, and I promise something good will happen.
3. You’re Not a Failure
One thing I know from my own stalled periods is that when I freeze, my inner critic turns into a vicious demon. He’s never pleasant, but when I’m not writing, he goes from critical to violent.
You’re a failure, he says.
You could never do this, he says.
You were fooling yourself all along, he says.
And if I let him keep going, he’ll get personal.
That inner critic is a [word I won’t put here, but you know the one I mean]. We have to fight him. And Ray Bradbury talks about that, too:
So we should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.
Or, to put it more succinctly:
As long as you’re struggling with this, you haven’t stopped.
Yes, you may not be writing right now. That is not the same thing as quitting.
You haven’t quit until you actually choose never to write again. And as long as you’re still trying, you are a writer. And if you’re a writer, then you are not a failure.
Take an imaginary club, carve those words into the club, and whale on your inner critic until the words show up on his ugly, tusk-laden face like tattoos.
Your inner critic is violent with you. You have permission to be violent back to him. (Yes, I am talking about a non-physical being. Please do not take a club to your relatives.)
If you haven’t quit, you aren’t a failure. And if you’re not a failure . . . then by gum, you can write!
4. Feed Your Soul
Okay, I say this a lot. I know I say this a lot. I can’t possibly ever say it enough: read a lot.
I’ve quoted Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, William Faulkner, and many others on this same point. Read a lot.
I will preach this until the day I die. You want to know how to craft beauty in syllables? Read. You want to know how to develop good characters? Read. You want to know what not to do? READ.
Ray Bradbury said this:
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.
He even suggested making the time to read one short story, one essay, and one classic poem every night for a thousand nights. (Huh! It’s almost like he didn’t spend his evenings vegging out in front of the TV. What madness be this?)
Read. To paraphrase Faulkner, read everything, good and bad; as a reader, you will be able to learn what’s good and bad by reading both, and that will make you a better writer.
To paraphrase Julia Cameron (whose book, The Artist’s Way, is one you need in your armory), your soul is like a well. If you just draw from it and don’t refill it, it’s going to go dry. When you take in creative things, it’s like rain and rivers refilling your well; it will give you your creativity back.
It doesn’t even have to cost you money. Join the library. Sign up at Overdrive.com (it’s free) and you can even get digital books from said library.
Read. It is going to provide fuel for your stalled writer-engine. You need it. You don’t even know how badly you do until you start doing it regularly, and then you just might end up wondering how you got through life without a good book in hand.
When You Can’t Write, Take Heart
This was one of those funny moments that made me realize I must be getting old: I told someone to take heart the other day, and they had no idea what I meant. Well, that’s okay. It just means I get to define it (and anyone who reads my articles knows I have a thing for definitions).
Take heart (verb, idiomatic)
- to be courageous;
- to regain one’s courage;
- to feel encouraged;
- to feel more hopeful and more confident;
- to be confident and brave, as in, “Take heart, we may still win this.”
Take heart. You can do this.
You are not alone. The greats went through it, too.
Give yourself permission to write crap and write it with freedom and a good sense of humor. Try regular word association every morning and see what happens. Read a LOT.
You are not a failure. Don’t quit.
When you can’t write, take heart. Ray Bradbury loved writers, as his advice shows. I love writers, too, and I’m telling you now: you can do this.
Have you hit the low point? What advice helped you overcome it? Let me know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes and try word association. Don’t think! Don’t plan. Write whatever words come into your head without hesitation, and when you’re through, see if you can see a story. Share your practice in the comments section, and don’t forget to give feedback to a few other practitioners. Take heart!
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.