What To Do When the Words Don’t Show Up

We’ve all been there. You run the errands, you walk the dogs. You deal with your boss’s needs, your family’s needs. You take care of business so that you have a few precious hours of Sacred Writing Time, all to yourself.

You feed yourself, you bring your mug of tea with. You get yourself in position at your desk. The door is closed. The laptop is open. Nothing can stop you now. Time to be brilliant, to weave magic onto the page, to create!

frustrationYou poise your fingers over the keys, you look at that blinking cursor, eager to chew its way through evil blank space…

And it blinks.

And blinks.

You shake your head, tell yourself to snap out of it, and start hammering out some words. Alright. I’m wordmaking. Making some words, baby. This is good, things are flowing…

You read it back and it’s utter garbage. Just putrid. Grrr.

Select and delete.

You try again. Hammer, hammer, hammer. Words, words, words.

But it’s the same deal. It’s trite. It’s boring. It’s dead. Who cares?


You look at the clock. Holy snuzzballs, an hour and twenty minutes in already? And you have nothing to show for it yet. NOTHING. You start to get a little squirmy. A mild sweat breaks out. What’s the matter with you? You drink some of your now cold tea. Time to buckle down, soldier.

Twenty minutes and several brain-dead YouTubes later, you come to consciousness again. Your heart leaps.

What’s going on? This is YOUR TIME. And you’re squandering it! You showed up to work GDI, now where are the words??

You try again. Same result. More deletes. More sweating. Pacing, now.

Plus, now you have to pee. And you’re getting a little sleepy. And you’d love a snack. But if you go do any of those things you will have to open the Sacred Writing Door and deal with the Outside World again, and once it gets it’s claws into you there’s no telling if you’ll make it back alive.

What you need is more Discipline. You’re Weak. You should be stronger. Stop being so lazy and be more productive. You sit down again, armed with a host of self-flagellatory thoughts…

…and produce absolutely squat.

Your writing window closes and you open the door and slink back out, in shame and defeat.
Later, over dinner perhaps, your loved one says, with genuine, loving enthusiasm: “Did you get some good work done today?” And you cringe. You think back over those three or four excruciating hours. You showed up. You sweated. You paced. You tried, dammit. You were there, but the words weren’t. And, feeling about as tall as your baby toe, you say: “Yeah, a little.”

And your inner conscience makes a tsking sound. “Give it up, already,” it says. “Go apply for a part-time job at the Krusty Burger and stop wasting everyone’s time.” And, hurt as you feel, you’re inclined to agree.

So what’s going on here?

We could talk about what causes writer’s block, identifying inner conflicts, right-brain/left-brain, conscious/subconscious, productivity hacks, etc., and that’s all fine and dandy, but we’d basically be discussing psychology. Psychological discussions have their place, and lord knows if we could get a better grip on the organ between our ears we’d all be better, happier, more productive writers.

But here’s the trap of psychology: when we psychologize, we tend to come up with justifications for our behavior. We produce tidy explanations, perhaps even a nice flaw or character trait that we can parade around and share with our friends, like “Oh, I’m too much of a Perfectionist,” or “It’s hard for me to work unless I feel inspired,” or “I must have my coffee/muffin/eastern foot massage or I am just brain dead!” But honestly, aren’t justifications the last thing we’re interested in? We’re smarter than that, right?

(Also, here’s a hint: nobody cares.)

We don’t want to justify our behavior, we want to change it. The title of the current post is not “Why Aren’t the Words Showing Up?” We don’t care why. They’re not, simple as that.

We only want to know one thing: What to DO.

But First… What Not to Do

Writers have a tendency to beat themselves up. We are worthless. We have no business in this business. Who do we think we are, Hemingway? The fact that all famous writers beat themselves up (including Hemingway) is no deterrent. We convince ourselves that they were mistaken about their inadequacies, but we, obviously, are right. We are as surprised as anyone else when something good finds its way from our brain to our fingers to the page. It must be a fluke. A million monkeys, and so forth.

In the scene above, what we are doing, primarily, is beating ourselves up. Focusing on our own inadequacies. Proving ourselves right, with passing moment, as our sacred Writing Time dwindles away to nothing.

Here’s a question: what has all that beating yourself up ever gotten you?

Made you feel even worse than you already feel? Check.

Added new and spectacular levels of stress to your life? Check.

Robbed you of hours of sleep, leaving you foggy the next day and unable to produce anything worth a damn? Check.

It’s a self-defeating spiral. The crappier we make ourselves feel, the less able we are able to write. The less quality writing we produce, the crappier we feel.

Here’s an alternate suggestion: get curious.

What to Do

The brain is a devoted slave when it comes to answering our questions. It’s kind of like Google: no matter what we enter into that little search field, it’ll come up with something—truth or falsity, quality vs. crap, be damned. The brain works the same way: it doesn’t distinguish the good questions from the bad. No matter what we ask of it, it just tries its darndest to come up with an answer.

When we ask questions that are self-defeating, like: “Brain, why am I such a lazy, good-for-nothing, no-talent hack?” the brain looks for an answer. It tries to come up with a reason, any reason, such as: “I guess I was just born that way,” or “I guess other people are just smarter than me,” or “I guess my parents didn’t love me enough.”

But when we get curious, we start to ask better questions, and, lo and behold, we get answers to those questions, too. For example, instead of asking “Why am I so x (stupid/worthless/lazy, etc.) suppose I asked something like: “What can I do to boost my mental alertness and get back on track, right now?”

Better question, right? Pay particular attention to the switch in verbs. Just by changing our focus from Being (why am I x?) to Doing (what can I do?), we grant ourselves sudden power over our lives. Isn’t language tricksy and wonderful?

Already, just by asking this newer question, probably two or three things popped into your head. Things that you habitually do to get back on track. Maybe it’s get up and stretch, maybe it’s do a few pushups, maybe it’s go get a coffee, or take a power nap, or take a stroll in the sunshine. Things that you know, without knowing why, that your brain needs to do when it has hit a wall.

Almost invariably, those things involve taking a break from the writing.

In other words, on some level we know that berating ourselves and trying to continue at what we’re doing will only result in more wall-hitting. We know, without knowing why, that in those moments we need to walk away from the words for a while, give our brains what they need, and hopefully, when we return, the words will show up.

My suggestion is to stop hoping and get conscious about what makes the words show up.

We spend a lot of time, as writers, discussing the craft and the process itself. How about spending a little time discussing the not-writing? The times in-between?

The in-betweens deserve our attention, and there is some research to back it up. In studies of sports psychology, for example, researchers have found that performance is strongly tied to the ritualistic behavior of the athlete in the “in-between” moments. For example, tennis players who have highly ritualized behaviors in between each serve (they spin the racket the same way, they bounce the ball a set number of times, they touch the ball to the racket in the same spot) tend to perform better overall. This makes intuitive sense. The players who are ritualized about their in-between moments are in greater mental control—they’re not focusing on their own inadequacies, they are not focused on their opponent, or the line judge or referee, or engaging in victim-like thinking. They are eliminating negative self-talk and focusing on familiar actions which they know will get them in state. They are establishing mental control, and they are that much more ready to perform when it comes time for their up-time.

Can we apply the lesson to writing? Perhaps the quality of our actions in the in-between moments affects the quality of the up-time, when we are expecting the words to flow. Makes sense, right?

So, forget the work process and craft, for a second.

Let’s talk about how we slack off.

Become a Scientist… of Slacking

Look at it as a fun experiment. Over the next few weeks you’re going to take a lot of breaks from writing, during which you are going to become a scientist at observing your own behavior. Pretend you are Jane Goodall, but instead of chimpanzees you are living in the habitat of the much more interesting (and infinitely stranger) creature known as the Writer.

What does the Writer do? Start recording a few things about the Writer’s behavior. Not evaluating, not judging—just observing.

Now, what differentiates a scientist from a mere observer is measurement. Start measuring the writing, i.e., the quantity and quality produced, and what happens in-between writing, i.e., the breaks. Did the break result in a burst of creative energy afterwards, with the Writer grinning maniacally and butt-dancing happily in their chair while words gushed forth from their flying fingertips? Or was the break a dud, producing more hair-pulling, pacing, nervous sweats, laziness, distraction, YouTube watching, and sleepiness?

Don’t judge, just record.

You can already see what will happen, can’t you? Over time, you will start to form a picture of what works for you, and what doesn’t. You will start to take what is unconscious and habitual and make it conscious and deliberate.

For example, I might discover that going to get a coffee refill gives me a short burst of energy, but one that quickly fades once the initial buzz wears off, leaving me confused, dull, and lethargic. And since, as a scientist, I took the time to measure this over several weeks, I began to observe a pattern: this happened not just once, but seven or eight times—every time I used that as my break. Hmm! Clearly, coffee is not my ideal writing break.

I might discover, on the other hand, that going for a brisk fifteen-minute walk around the block, which I did three or four times, always resulted in a mammoth burst of afternoon production afterwards. Interesting.

Some other breaks, I might discover, gave me mixed results.

What works for me may not work for you. What works on Monday may not work on Thursday. That’s okay. Just record it. There are patterns to our behavior, whether we‘re aware of them or not. Our mistake, in ordinary life, is being aware of our behavior only in the moment. When we expand our view to a larger stretch of time, we take on clarity. Do this for thirty days, for example, and I guarantee you will see a picture forming.

Find Out What Works For You

This’ll be fun. Go ahead and make a list right now of things you could do on a writing break. It could be anything. Remember: don’t judge. You’re just going to run the experiment to see what works and what doesn’t.

Maybe your writing break will consist of:

  • Taking a quick walk down to the park and back
  • Reading a chapter of a book you are currently enjoying
  • Watching a sitcom episode or a funny YouTube
  • Doing some pushups, or even a full workout
  • Eating a snack
  • Taking a shower
  • Cleaning the kitchen (Believe it or not, some people find household chores relaxing and therapeutic.)
  • Mowing the lawn (I don’t have a lawn anymore, but this used to be one of my favorites – thoughtlessly pushing a loud machine in straight lines up and down the grass, my brain disappears into some wonderful, weird, creative space. Don’t ask me why.)
  • Listening to some energizing piece of music and air-drumming your way through it
  • Playing an (actual) instrument for thirty minutes
  • Listening to an inspiring audio program, or an infuriating political podcast
  • Playing with your pets for fifteen minutes
  • Running an errand or knocking something else off the to-do list
  • Answering some emails or posting something on your Twitter feed
  • Taking a dip in the pool
  • Laying on your back and watching the clouds
  • Working on a completely unrelated writing project for an hour
  • Switching to a new locale to work, like the library or the park

Whatever. Obviously, the possibilities are endless. Get creative. Whatever conceivable thing you might do that means a “break” to you. Do the break. Do it without reservations or guilt. If it doesn’t work, so be it—you have learned something. You are just observing, remember. Record what you did, and record how the writing went afterwards.

And let the picture form itself over the coming weeks.

Also, when you are recording your breaks, be sure to record how long of a break you took, and whether time was a critical factor for you. Maybe going for a twenty-minute walk juiced you, but going for a three-hour hike left you drained and exhausted. Or maybe you came back from that hike bursting with ideas and banged out three chapters in one afternoon. Maybe you’ve been struggling for months on those chapters and the three hour hike is just what you’ve needed, all along.

Also record the number and periodicity of the breaks. Maybe a five minute break every hour gives you the best results. Maybe a six-hour chunk interrupted by a nice one-hour break in the middle works best. Who knows?

You will, if you start becoming a scientist of your own behavior.

Simple, right? And fun. Suddenly, writing doesn’t seem like something you have to do in a prison cell for hours at a time (unless that is where you’re actually writing—sorry, inmates.) Instead, it’s something you love doing that frequently gets punctuated by something else you love doing, which also happens to get you writing even harder and faster when you return from it.

Of course, some writers will be aghast at this suggestion. “Figuring out how to slack off? This does not produce more words! What matters is Ass in Chair and hammering your fingers until they’re bleeding stumps, even if you don’t feel like it! Slacking is just laziness!!”

I know. Listen, sometimes it’s true. Sometimes we make excuses not to write, and we just need to snap out of it and get to work. But this is about those times when you’ve hit a wall and more “discipline” will only result in more frustration and self-loathing. To me, in that case, the question becomes: how do we direct our behavior consciously, over long periods of time, so that we are functioning at our best without having to engage in all that mental warfare with ourselves?

In those times, we ought to get curious. Frustration is actually a pretty clear, and valuable, signal, if you think about it: it says we need to change how we’re doing things. We need to engage in a process of experiment and discovery, rather than just a blind adherence to things which don’t serve us, and which, over time, lead to stress, worry and even more frustration.

It’s a no-brainer, really. What would you rather have to show for your next writing session? Three hours of fretting and sweating and a handful of words that you could care less about, but which at least you had the “discipline” to stay in your chair and bang out? Or only two-and-a-half hours work, an invigorating half-hour break, and returning to write something that flowed easily and that you are really jazzed about?

By becoming conscious of what puts you in that state, of what works for you, next time you hit a wall with your writing, you won’t spend one second beating yourself up, or sweating or pacing or stressing or cataloging your own inadequacies. You’ll simply look up and say: “Woot, it’s break time!”


What about you? What are some of the ways you get yourself back on track when the words aren’t showing up? Share your wacky break ideas in the comments and as always, Dream Weirdly!


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