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Writing Life Advice

Writing Life Advice

What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Write

Katherine Yeh's photo

By Katherine Yeh

Instructor

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GrubStreet Instructor Katherine Yeh shares how to get writing when the blank page is daunting. You can learn more in Katherine's upcoming multi-week class, Jumpstart Your Writing, starting October 11th in-person at our Seaport location.

The blank page is daunting. Not because of what it contains (nothing, it’s blank), but because of the countless possibilities that could exist. Your ideas, once plentiful, shrivel like your overwatered plant at the sight of the open document (or notebook).

But how is that possible?


The blank page...taunts you to mar it. It wants to accept those half-formed thoughts and sentences.


Sometimes the ideas form so freely and quickly when you’re not staring at the page. It’s clear that your imagination isn’t the issue—it’s the page itself. Consider it performance anxiety. Compounding that anxiety is your mind pushing yourself to write the words. At this point, any words will do. People who might not understand this predicament will say, “How hard can it be?” They don’t understand. The blank page is the cleanest abyss you can ever gaze into, and unlike black cats, it doesn’t stare back. It taunts you to mar it. It wants to accept those half-formed thoughts and sentences. Then when you finally put something on that page, you hate it.

And you know what? It’s okay.

We hear about how to form ideas but talk less about how difficult it is to face the blank page. I wish someone had told me the act of writing would be a struggle some days and that it’s okay to be unable to write. So if, for whatever reason, you can’t bring yourself to write anything down, it’s okay to take a break.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important.

It’s okay to take a break.

But as is commonly mentioned in gym class, if you don’t work those muscles, they atrophy. Your writing muscles, the place where the creativity comes from, where the words come together in a coherent way, can also atrophy. The more often you write, the better you maintain your writing muscles.

So instead, take a break by working on something else. Maybe something you’d never usually write about.

I’ve found when I’m running into a “wall” (metaphorically), or, if I don’t have the creative juices to write for my main project, but I still want to do something creative, low stakes writing prompts are great for keeping my writing muscles engaged. I set a timer for approximately fifteen minutes of uninterrupted writing time. This is just long enough to start writing something concrete enough to be considered a “story,” but also short enough that when time’s up, I don’t feel the need to do more with the prompt. In those fifteen minutes, I can interpret the prompt however I want and write whatever comes to mind. This openness frees up whatever writing stress I have about the blank page. At the end of the fifteen minutes, if I like what I’ve written, I can go back to it at a later date. If I don’t like it, then at least I’ve done a little writing, but I don’t need to ever look at it again.

Start compiling a list of writing prompts to keep at your disposal for these writing breaks. A quick Google search can easily get you a short list to start with.


The key with writing prompts is to treat it as an exercise or a battery. Think of it as something to energize your writing, rather than something that is restrictive.


The key with writing prompts is to treat it as an exercise or a battery. Think of it as something to energize your writing, rather than something that is restrictive. Have fun with it. Be wacky. Write about that one hairdresser’s nephew with the coconut tattoo. Here’s one to get you started: “Write a list of your 10 favorite doors. Where do they lead?”* At the end, you’ll have written something new, and maybe even something that you can mine for a future story. And best of all, that page isn’t blank anymore.

*from 712 More Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers Grotto

Sign up for Katherine's upcoming multi-week class, Jumpstart Your Writing, starting October 11th in-person at our Seaport location!

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