Anywhere that talks about writing and being a writer will agree on at least one point — write every day. Every day, no matter what. Maybe you get Christmas and Easter off (or Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or whatever). But otherwise, words on paper every day. And that’s all well and good when you’ve got a project you’re involved with, or a notebook full of ideas to flesh out, but every writer is eventually going to hit the day when there’s nothing to put on the page. Even the grocery list’s already done for the week. And those days can get to feeling like the dreaded writers’ block long before they should (as previously discussed on this blog). So how do you chase it off, and get through the day with no good inspiration to fuel your writing?
First off, relax. In fact, take a moment to congratulate yourself — frustration with not getting words on the page means you’ve internalized the “write every day” work ethic. That’s one of the hardest battles in the writing life already won, so remember that the current bad feelings are symptomatic of an overall good trait. Then start worrying about what to write, and here is where I strongly advocate listening to your gut feelings — if you’re not feeling good about your works in progress, set them aside for a day. Forcing yourself to write bad, frustrating prose will just sour you toward what might otherwise be a fun and profitable piece of writing, and it isn’t going to produce much that you’ll keep through all the edits anyway. Instead, find another excuse to put words on the page:
Write Essays You Already Know
My advice tends toward the mercenary side, and short non-fiction that you don’t have an existing contract for is notoriously hard to sell, but we’re just talking about reasons to write here. Setting aside all the ongoing projects and writing a short piece on some unrelated subject that you already know not only gets words on paper, it fills you with the confidence of someone who Knows What He’s Talking About (or she, as the case may be). Give the world your “Essay on Kissing Like Clark Gable,” if that’s what you’ve got a solid handle on. Day jobs can be fantastic creative fodder for these; mine them shamelessly for short, informative topics. Fifteen hundred words on “What Really Happens to Your Netflix Envelope” probably isn’t going to win any Pulitzers, but it’s words on paper, and if you spend a lot of time dealing with Netflix envelopes it’ll probably be pretty good words on paper.
And since I am mercenary about these things — put the essay to use, if it comes out any good. Stick it up on your blog, if you have one that vaguely fits the subject, or find a forum for people interested in the topic and post it there (with a link to your website/blog at the bottom). I keep my own drafts and random, off-topic essays on Google Knol, which is a sort of clearing-house and critical community for short, informative pieces. If you’re not on it yet, it’s probably worth your checking out and at least getting a profile on; you don’t need anything except a Gmail account. And you can get some exposure for yourself and your writing for free, just by posting your frustration-cleansing essays. Pretty cool, no?
Write Personal Letters
Alternatively, if essays aren’t coming to mind, write a friend or a relative with the news from home. It’s easy, quick, and has the added benefit of reminding acquaintances that you’re a writer who does strange, writerly things like compose actual letters. E-mail works just as well, but a handwritten letter in its envelope has a nice, tangible heft that gives a better sense of having accomplished something — valuable positive reinforcement when you’re struggling to write.
You can’t put personal letters online for added exposure the way you can an essay, but you can still get some extra milage out of them if you find a friend who’s willing to do some back-and-forth writing. Slipping a few pages of a work in progress for editing and commentary gives you an excuse for sending the letter (and adds some impressive heft to the envelope), or if you’re lucky, you can get someone to play some sort of back-and-forth letter game with you — trade letters adding one line at a time to a poem, or even write letters from the point of view of different characters that you’re trying to flesh out. Whatever comes to mind and you can convince someone to join you in — it’s all writing, and that’s the goal here.
If you’re having a day where even a letter to Mom (and she’d appreciate one, by the way) seems like too much creative energy, take the time-honored, last-ditch solution of writers everywhere and start writing gibberish. Just put a word on the page — your name, or the first object you see; anything at all — and then follow it with another word, whatever seems to fit best. Don’t stop writing until you’ve hit your daily quota, whatever it may be. If punctuation or line breaks seem called for, use them. As long as the pen is moving, you’re doing your job.
Realistically, the end product of free-association isn’t going to be useful as much beyond fire-starter, so save it for the absolute direst of straits. But it’s still a tangible output, and you may surprise yourself — often, after a page or two of gibberish, the writing starts to improve in its own nonsensical way. Even gibberish can be clearer or murkier, and most people’s seems to improve as they go along, shake out the kinks, and in general get their brain back into the writing groove by the simple expedient of using it to write. And that’s really the final goal here.
Got your own strategies for writing when there’s nothing to write? Know a letter game I should be mentioning? Friends are too lame to play letter games with you and you want my address? You know where the “Comments” button is…