My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

I Just Can't Write (Mailbox)

Image description: Mailbox with a letter coming out of it.
What if I want to write, but I just can't seem to do so?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week. I have a LOT of backlogged questions right now, but I will try to eventually get to all of them.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I will redo old questions with fresh to death jokes if I think they're common writerly problems.] 

S asks: 

I'm 40, and a late-onset epileptic. Before that, I was a fairly prolific writer of fanfic & working my way into original fic. 8 years ago, I had a seizure driving home from work. I crashed into a guardrail at about 70, totalling my car. This was exactly one week after I found out I was pregnant (baby survived - I'm trying to get her to eat her dinner now, lol) and 4 months after I'd had major surgery. 

I've been on permanent disability since....and I thought that it was a great opportunity to write full-time, rather than as an amusing distraction between tasks. But in all these years, I've tried to devote to writing, and I find that I just can't. Not original fic, not even fan fiction. I don't think this is normal "writer's block", and I don't know how to shake it.

So many of your posts have gotten through that... fugue, I guess... and I was hoping you might know of a way that I can get away from that lassitude.

My reply:

Some of my most unproductive periods have been times I was blissfully unburdened with daily commitments. It's that idea that there's always more time to get started on something. Of course, some of my other most unproductive times have been when I was too busy to see straight with two year olds and cancer and barely time to squeeze an hour in here or there. That's why discipline is a writer's best friend whether they are squeezing in a session or making themselves sit down to work even though they've got a whole day ahead to get stuff done.

I answer this question or variations of it a lot (and if you want the pre-cancer, pre-toddler, full-throated version of what I'm saying, go there [and follow all THOSE links too] because that's where I've really laid it out.....plus Karate Kid clips!), but it's always good to get a fresh coat of paint on one of writers' most common frustrations and ubiquitous problems.

I do want to mention something before I start. I have zero knowledge of epilepsy beyond "very special episodes" of shitty eighties television, which I have my reasons for being skeptical of. I know it has to do with neural connections in the brain, and that is where even my layman's knowledge meets a wall like Wile E Coyote running into a picture of a tunnel he forgot he painted.

So what I'm wondering is: Is it possible that timing on your difficulties might not be coincidental. Could this be a problem with a physiological cause? Maybe medication with a side effect?

Now able bodied, cishet, white, Christian, males can make an awful lot of money getting on stage and telling people that they can do anything if they just try a little harder (which might make the critical thinker wonder where all the queer women of color motivational speakers are), but that advice is ALSO actually a little ableist.  For people with chronic illnesses (be it fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, anxiety, depression, or even cancer), sometimes trying harder or blithely ignoring your limitations can make things a lot worse. Powering through your arthritis flare up because "whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve" is a pretty good fucking way to end up in the hospital on a corticosteroid drip and unable to move without agony for a month. I think epilepsy is considered a disorder, not a disease, but if you don't know for sure that it can't mess with your ability to sit and write (especially on a computer?), you may want to check with your doctor.

If that's out of the way, here is my advice. It's not the only advice. Your affectation, your rituals, your "magic" might work better, but this is something I know works for many (most?) and has ended my writer's block completely for 25 years...

1- Take your work in progress, or your ideas about what you want to write someday or whatever you've got so far that you think you ought to be writing but can't seem to actually WRITE. Hold it in your hands or if it's not even a page yet, just imagine you're holding it in your hands. Give it a big hug and kiss, and tell it you are going to miss it terribly.

Now put it in a drawer.

(Don't worry; it's not forever.)

2- Start writing every morning when you wake up. Wake up early if you need to, but do your writing before you have a chance to interact linguistically with anyone or any book or Facebook or online articles or anything. You may have precious life giving essence of coffee, but don't do anything that would require talking or reading. The voice you write with after you've slept is the rawest, purist, most uninfluenced YOU voice of writing that you have.

Don't worry about what you write. Write anything. Write about cheese. Write about how it's too fucking early. Write about how your story is going to bury you in groupie threesomes. Write about how you can't write. Just get the words flowing onto the page.

You will probably notice that you start to slow down after ten to twenty minutes. Stop writing at this point, no matter how much you feel in the groove. You may get the urge to keep writing or to do another session later on. It's important (right now) not to listen to that part of you.

3- At some point, somewhere between a week and six weeks, you'll probably notice that your ability to write at speed "stretches." You might be able to write for more like thirty minutes to an hour before you are slowing down. Keep writing about anything, and keep ending your sessions as soon as you slow down no matter how much you feel like continuing. This is very important because you are training your muse (or creative lobe, or spark, or whatever the fuck you want to call it) that it answers to you, and not the other way around. This "stretching" is what you want. When you can easily write for about twice as long as you used to be able to, you're ready for the next step.

4- By now, it's probably been a month or more. Take a look at that old W.I.P. (work in progress). Give it a read. Think through your ideas. Let your mind play with it. Don't write anything yet. Just....think about it. Give it another hug, and put it back.


5- Next we're going to move your writing time around. Before you put it where you like it, though, we're going to put it in a bunch of places you really really don't. And yes, we're doing this JUST to fuck with you.

Well actually we're doing it to get you used to the feeling of the words coming as soon as you sit down, but in order for that to happen we have to fuck with you. You need to control your flow, not the other way around.  Skip your morning writing, but schedule 30 minutes sometime in the day.

Here's where this gets messy: You're going to try to fuck with this time. ("Oh what's the difference if I start at 3 or 3:30 as long as I do thirty minutes, right?") You WILL find excuses, you will try to change it. You will try to talk yourself out of it.


This is your muse trying to struggle against anything that feels like actual work. Consider this one of the most important exercises in artistic self-discipline: the ability to start working the minute you want to instead of being at your muse's capricious whim.

Do this for a couple of weeks, picking a new half-hour time slot each day all throughout the day, and unless you are fountaining blood or a family member has turned into an actual zombie (not just the coffee-less kind) that is the time you sit down and write whatever pops into your head...for thirty minutes.

This is going to be hard, but it's one of the most important parts.

You might feel like you're not writing enough during this period where you're only doing a half hour a day. This is a good feeling. That means the medicine is working. But resist the urge to do "side sessions" for now. It'll come.

6- By now you're probably noticing that you start to feel creative the minute you sit down to a session. This is what you've been working for these past couple of months. This is the money shot. You are in like Flinn. If you ever fall out of practice with writing, just repeat steps 1-5.

7- Take a break.  Three days. Any more and you risk falling back out of your good habits. Any less and you won't be properly primed. Think about your W.I.P. while you take your break but don't read it again. You want to be detached from the words themselves.

This might be the hardest part of this exercise--even harder than the floating half hour. Writers who don't write get a little messed up. But let your creative energies build.

8- Now, schedule a session of writing at any time you want and try to write a completely crap version of your W.I.P. If you haven't written much, start over–especially if what you've got is less than thirty or forty pages. That might seem like a lot to redo, but it's better to get free of your old work's confines. If you've written a LOT on your WIP, restart from the last chapter or last major section that you can go back to.

It's really important to feel like this is a clean slate. If you have a fresh project, you might pick that one instead.

Now write forth, but write crap. Write the most crapfully crap you can crap out. Should you include ACTUAL fecal matter, in your prose, I want the quality to be undiminished.

Don't worry about quality, spelling, punctuation, cohesive plot, believable characters....anything. Just write the worst shit that comes to mind and kick the story off. See how much you can just write before you slow down. You don't need to limit yourself in any way. Remember this isn't for anyone to read. This is just you kind of getting some stuff out on paper. Have fun. Enjoy.

9- The next day do the same thing at as close to the same time as you can. Keep writing from where you left off, and keep writing what you think of no matter how bad you think it might be with absolutely no expectation of publication or audience. Just let it all flow out. Have fun. If you get stuck, just see how bad you can make it. Let yourself be imperfect. In fact, make mistakes with the gleeful anticipation that some of them might lead you to a surprising moment of genius.

10- Keep doing this every day at the same time.

11- Oh look. You have a draft.

[With credit where it's due. This advice is heavily based on Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. A book I think literally every aspiring writer should own.]


  1. Ms. Brande's book is the best thing that ever happened to my career. I read "Becoming a Writer" during a Saturday trip to the library that my father took for us kids nearly every weekend that he had us following his divorce when I was around 14. I'd already been writing everyday since I learned how because writing was intrinsic to everything I was and did. But writing with purpose beyond "just" telling a story? Writing to become a writer rather than a slinger of words because what else could I do? Wow.

    But as with many other fine books, I forgot it. Then several years ago, you wrote your post about The One Book. Nod, yes, all sounds reasonable. Gosh, I should check it out. Here's a nearly free copy at Powell's in Portland. Holy Hannah! IT'S THAT ONE, IT'S THE ONE BOOK!

    I have a shelf next to my side of the bed. It holds my Kindle, Olivia Butler's "Kindred," and Dorothea Brande's "Becoming a Writer." Because that's where the books I use every day go. It's that important.

  2. I went back to your original post about Ms. Brande's book and clicked on the link to the free PDF. The link no longer works. However, I did a quick Google search and found this link.


    You're welcome. :)

    1. Thanks. Lots of old images and links are going stale, so I just update them as I can. I appreciate it!