Daily Archives: March 7, 2013

What to Write When You Can’t Write

This morning, over breakfast, I asked my quietly ruminating husband for a suggestion as to what today’s blog post could be about. I was feeling pretty low on inspiration, and I needed a bit of help. He thought for a few minutes, quietly crunching his morning muesli. Then, his eyes lit up. Swallowing hurriedly, he announced ‘I know! Write about cruise liners that didn’t sink on their maiden voyage!’ His eyes sparkled. Then he said ‘No – wait! Better again! Write about new ways to skin a cat. That’s better.’ He resumed chewing, nodding in satisfaction at how helpful he’d been.

Of course, he was joking. At least, I seriously hope he was joking, or PETA are going to be all over me. Rest assured, I don’t wish to write about ways to divest any sort of feline from its fur, and the vagaries of international shipping have never really interested me either. But the point of my question this morning remains: ‘What will today’s blog post be about?’

Don't ask me - I just work here.Image: shadeofashes.blogspot.com

Don’t ask me – I just work here.
Image: shadeofashes.blogspot.com

I have a confession to make. I still don’t know what today’s blog post will be about, and I’m already halfway through it. But maybe that’s the point. Writing is not always straightforward, or not always easy; I’m finally beginning to think of it as a job, and – like any job – sometimes you’d rather scrub the toilet with a toothbrush than get stuck into the work. Sometimes you wonder why you bother – you’ve no talent anyway, and nobody cares, and nobody even reads this stuff, and and and… In a mental climate like that, is it any wonder that inspiration can be hard to come by?

Yesterday, I had a mini-panic attack. I used to have them regularly until a few years ago, but thankfully they’ve left me in peace for a long time. However, I allowed myself to get stuck into a cycle of negative thinking yesterday, where I got scared by the choices I’d made. I began to doubt if I’d done the right things in life, and I imagined all my wrong choices collapsing on top of my head, and then I felt I’d let my whole family down, and the next thing I knew I was gasping for breath, my head spinning with horrible images. My panic attacks take the form of ‘mental movies’, where I see something awful happening to me. What makes it more scary is that the awful scenarios are always plausible – there’s a hint of possibility in the things I ‘see’, which makes them feel more real, and hence more frightening. Luckily, I know what to do now when an attack strikes, and I was completely fine; it was frightening, though. I hope it’s a while before I have another one.

The panic might have had something to do with an experience I had yesterday morning. I sat down to write a story for a particular submission I want to make, but I found I had nothing. There were no words. It was like drawing on an empty fuel tank. I looked at the blank screen for several long minutes, tentatively tapping out a sentence, deleting it and starting another, deleting it and starting another, before my fingers stilled on the keys. In desperation, I eventually let my eye fall on the first random word I saw, which was ‘tattoo’. I sat with the word for a while, leaving the computer to one side, and tried to encourage the little word to take a root in my imagination. I took a walk. I shopped for my dinner ingredients. I spoke to a friend. Eventually – thankfully – my prompt word began to flower in my mind, and I wrote a story. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.

I often have times when I try to write something, and find that I can’t. I’m not sure if it’s a blockage in my inspiration, or a temporary loss of enthusiasm for words, but either way it’s not a nice experience. I have to remind myself that I have never given up – not so far, anyway – and that I have always prevailed. I have to remind myself that sometimes what we need when the words aren’t flowing is not to heap more pressure on our own heads by forcing them to come, but a more gentle approach. It’s like, sometimes, the inspiration is a shy young thing, afraid to make an appearance if she thinks she’s being looked at. Busy yourself with other tasks, and she might peep her head around the corner. If you still find yourself unable to put pen to paper, or pixels on the screen, then it’s helpful to remember that the words are not going anywhere. They’ll still be there tomorrow, and you can always try again.

Inspiration needs to be fed. If you can’t write, then cook. Or take a walk. Or read a book. Or talk to someone about the weather. When you can’t write, don’t write, and don’t worry about it. Having said that, don’t leave it too long before you pick up your pen once more, either.

But then, if you’re a writer, picking up your pen again probably won’t be a problem.