Creativity / Writing / December 4, 2012

Writing When There’s Nothing to Write

What is a writer to do when the ideas aren’t there, when the mind is a wasteland of shriveled thought and emptiness? It can be downright scary and depressing because it is so much out of our control what ideas we have. When the mind is sputtering all sorts of questions arise to rattle the fragile writing mind. What’s wrong with me? Have I used up my quota of creativity? Will I ever have another good idea? The answers to these questions, in order: nothing (probably), no (almost definitely), and yes (probably).

There isn’t a single way to overcome the empty writing mind, and that’s a good thing. If there was a single method and it quit working, well, we’d all be up a creek without a paddle. Thankfully there are a few different helpful methods or habits one can use to find that next worthwhile idea. As you’ll see, some of these are in opposition to the others; that’s because some circumstances stand opposed to others as well, and we must use the right method for whatever particular circumstance we face. 

Just Quit

Well, at least for a little while any way. Sometimes the best thing for the mind is to give it a break. If your body needs rest and rejuvenation so too does the brain part of your body. The mind is a muscle, and even the strongest and most agile muscles need breaks between heavy uses. This kind of rest is the kind of total vegetation – movies, TV, naps, yard work, jogging, playing with your kids – anything to get your hyperactive brain to quit for a bit. Former poet laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, refers to this “waiting,” the time between ideas. At some undetermined point your mind will re-awake with an idea and you’ll be ready to go again.


Cars need fuel to run. So do minds. When the creative mind craps out, it might simply need to be refueled. This is when you close the laptop and pick up a book, pop in the earbuds, or play a movie. Whatever it is that fills you with creative energy and sparks ideas is what you should do here. It can be hard to know whether the mind needs a break or needs more fuel. Often the answer is both, so start with rest and move to refilling.

Keep Writing

I heard recently, and I cannot remember from whom, the idea that the only way to get rid of the bad ideas, is to write them out. I would add “and not publish them.” It’s a little bit like weeding. We do the work of pulling the ideas that don’t have a place to make more space and leave more nourishment for the ones we do want there. The important thing is to treat these ideas like weeds – some can be discarded and some can be mulched, but none have value in the vase or the pantry. Two other benefits of this are practice and creative conscience. The more your write the better you get, even if the process produces unpublishable material. And by creative conscience I mean that once you have worked through an idea you no longer have it nagging at your mind as something you “should” or “ought to” develop; in a sense your conscience is cleared of a bad idea.

It’s not always easy to know which of these to do, but thankfully it’s easy to slide from one to the next. It might be a combo platter of all three that ends up doing the trick. It ends up taking patience and perspective to rediscover creativity, or for creativity to rediscover you. So don’t freak out. Just rest, refill, and keep writing. 

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