Practice Writing: How to Write When You Don't Know What to Write About

This morning, I reached the end of a notebook. Filled it up with my scribbly, hard-to-read writing (Who says doctors are the only ones who write in chicken-scratch?). I've filled notebooks before, three pages at a time as I did daily brain dumps to train myself to listen to the thoughts beneath my thoughts. Those truths that get covered up by all our ideas about what we should do, or have to do, or really ought to feel. But this morning was different.

I filled those pages while uncovering a novel. It's a story about a little girl and her mother and the grandfather who died and the Minnesota wolf hunt. I don't fully know what it's about because I'm still writing my discovery draft--I'm exploring the story.

It's an exercise in patience and trust, but it's also thrilling. For the moment at least, I know what I'm writing about.


LAST YEAR AT THIS TIME, I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WANTED TO WRITE ABOUT. I had only rough ideas. A story about climbing. A story about a lost dog. Topics that grew out of moments in my daily life. Small events that made me wonder... Could that be a story?

-5And since I didn't know what else to write about, and since I feel better about life when I write, I gave them a go. I wrote a lot of pages that may never amount to more than practice writing.

That gives a lot of writers heartburn, but I've come to think that practice writing—writing even when we have no clue what to write about—as essential to the writing process.

First, it's an energetic thing. I believe that we need to send the universe signals. It's not enough to hope and want for something deep inside in a hidden place. If we want to be writers and want to have something worth saying, we have to demonstrate that by writing. It's when we put action behind our dreams that the the world begins to respond.

Second, we have to be ready. Ideas come at random times. My novel came to me as I was researching Minnesota's wolf hunt for a freelance client. I felt so much emotion over it that I started writing about it. Lula was born. Author Barbara K. Richardson (last week's writer interview) says her novel, Tributary, came to her in a dream.

When ideas strike we need to be capable of writing. Able to sit down and prioritize writing, not procrastinate. We need to be wise enough to let the story unfold in unexpected ways. We need to write from our hearts and not our egos. All of that takes practice.



Cut yourself a break. Remember that you're not your last project, which may have felt polished and close to perfect. Practice writing is messy. It's more about ideas than perfect words or imagery. (And if your last project was less than perfect, don't sit down expecting to repeat the past. This is you, looking for a new beginning).

Fill up notebooks. When I write as a way of exploration, I write in spiral bound notebooks. Blue lines and flimsy paper remind my ego that this writing doesn't have to be good.

Freewrite. Do brain dumps. Try timed exercises with prompts. Anything that connects your hand to the page and your identity to that of writer. Even if it's 20 minutes at a time, send that signal to the universe that your intentions are true. And when you discover a topic worth exploring, give it a go.

Take time off. Only write on week days. Only write on weekends. Time to play replenishes your creativity, and you might be like author Elizabeth Cohen, who is a self-proclaimed procrastinator, waiting until she might burst before writing a story down.

Read. Many times, I've read an essay and thought, "Huh, if I wrote an essay in the form of a letter to my mother, what would I write?" This is not cheating. This is being open to inspiration. We're all writing the same themes over and over again, and by the time you get to a final draft, I promise your story will be different than the story that inspired you.

Give yourself permission to be tight-lipped. Keep mum when people ask waht you write about. Tell them about your last project. Or that you're exploring new ideas. Only discuss your lack of focus with people who understand. For real. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine had a bum knee and she couldn't run or ski like she used to. Every time she ran into an acquaintance, she launched into a story about her knee. It resulted in a bunch of advice that was well-intended but not all that helpful, and it kept her focused on the things that bummed her out instead of on discovering a new normal. Once she reigned herself in, she started to find peace.

Safeguard your writing. Be choosy when it comes to letting people into your inner circle.

Most important, be open, be patient, and don't beat yourself up. Your story will come.


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