Can’t write? Join the club. When it comes to motivation, I’m sure we’ve all hit that point where we just don’t have it, can’t find it.
Sure, you want to write. Need to write, even. But actually doing it? Well, nobody’s house is cleaner than that of a writer with a deadline! If your muse is missing, there are some helpful tricks I’ve learned over the years that help me lasso mine back in. I hope they help you too!
Determine why you can’t write
The number one reason that people have given me for why they can’t write? Loss of inspiration. I understand it, I’ve had it happen. But it makes me think of this old TV show from when I was a kid. Husband can’t find his keys, wife finds them in the fridge. I can picture a horde of writers searching their houses for inspiration, checking under couches, patting down their pockets. It’s a funny thought, but it also makes me think: why did the husband put his keys in the fridge? He was super drunk, hungover the next morning. So that’s why the keys were lost!
So why aren’t you inspired to write? Maybe you start to, and your mind goes blank. This can often happen when you’re overly busy… and when you’re not busy enough. Because you get in the habit of circular thinking. Whether because you’ve got a million tasks you don’t want to forget, or because you’re trying to resolve your schedule to be more engaging. Either way, you think plenty. So when you turn that off to write, your mind may still be trying to return there.
There could be other factors involved. Are you overly tired? Your mind isn’t racing, so it wants to take time to rest. Maybe you’re physically tired or ill. Maybe your home is loud. Or you’re afraid that you’re not good enough, or afraid you’ll never finish. It’s important to know why you’re struggling so you can either work on solving the issues or find a way to write despite them.
Solutions and Workarounds
Finding a solution to why you can’t write is obviously ideal. For example, noise problem? Private space to work. Too much to think about? Set a time aside on your schedule for writing only. Drink more caffeine, get more sleep, exercise more, work on your confidence, etc.
But what if you can’t solve these issues? If you don’t have room for a private space, for example. That’s where workarounds come in! These are ways to mitigate the effects of the issues that don’t have any easy resolution, and it’s important to know that these are okay. After all, if you wait for the perfect writing environment, you may never write at all!
No space? Headphones. Can’t set aside a specific time? Keep it flexible – a half hour after dinner, wake up an hour early, cut your shower time in half. Heck, I’ve even downloaded Scrivener onto my phone – the app is pretty great, and it lets me write when I’m sitting in the waiting room at the doctor, or in bed when I’m not ready to sleep!
But what about your brain not checking in? Is there a workaround for that? I like to start any long writing session by making a list. I do this if I’m not writing that day too, because it helps. Write down every item on your mind.
“Work sucks. Buy cheese. Late on phone payment. Kid really needs to do her own laundry. Pick up pills.” This list can be anything on your mind, whatsoever. You probably know these things, but sometimes our minds like to repeat because maybe it missed something. Writing it down confirms what we have to do, and allows the ability to move on.
Still can’t write? Try music
A lot of people draw inspiration from what they listen to. If you’re “not in the creative mood”, listen to something that helps you get there. Suspenseful music might help you get in the right frame of mind for that scene in your thriller you’ve been avoiding. Video game music always helps me with action-packed scenes. It’s great for triggering emotions, and those can really help solidify what direction you want to go when writing.
Not just that, but music can act as a white noise filter of sorts. Ever start writing and suddenly you notice every issue in your house? The cat scratched at a door. The dryer is really loud. You should probably sweep. Oh, and why did that car backfire? Maybe it was something else… Music gives your brain something to focus on, and with your auditory processes engaged, you can tune out a lot of background noise and focus on what matters.
Try some flash fics
Yep, flash fics! When you’re stuck on a scene, or don’t know where to go with your story, taking a break and writing something short can be a great way to find new inspiration. I personally like to write flash fictions about my main characters in different situations, because I think characters are the most important part of any world. So maybe I don’t know how to write a battle-scene, and I’m just done with trying. I’ll take the POV character from there, and write a flash fic of them buying their first beer. Or maybe an argument needs settled, and I can’t make it happen. Take the POV, put them in the position to break up two elementary school children in a playground fight.
Why does this work? It can give you perspective. It can also get the water flowing, for lack of better words! Sometimes burn out is a thing, so trying to force a scene that you’ve been stuck on can feel like a pointless endeavor. You haven’t gotten in so far, so you go in like you’re doing a chore, pessimistic in advance. Starting with a flash fic instead? New, fresh, invigorating, and it gets you back into character.
A controversial suggestion? Delete the last three paragraphs you’re happy with
I’ve gotten a ton of arguments about this, but trust me, it’s helped me more times than I can count. You get stuck, can’t write. Next time that happens, go back to the last thing you’re satisfied with, read the section to remind yourself how good it is, then delete the ending part. Why? You know what happens, you’re fine with the plot, it’s solid. So you’re not writing something new that you’re stuck trying to figure out, you’re just redoing an already complete thing!
For me, it helps me get into the characters. If I can’t feel them, feel their emotion, I get stuck. Rewriting something that doesn’t require any thinking about plot or action, etc allows me to just focus on those characters. Then I’m in character, and moving forward is so much easier.
Can’t write because you suck? Reward yourself for sucking
First of all, let me clarify that according to the writer’s cycle, you probably don’t actually suck. But that doesn’t help when you’ve already decided that either you, or your story is The Worst. So what? My first story was really, really bad. But it taught me to type fast. It taught me how to transition. It gave me practice, in other words. Maybe this story is terrible, but at least you’re improving your grammar, structure, and quite likely, a dozen other skills too. Character voice? Tension? Worst case, this current project is your building blocks.
I was talking to my kid about something similar, and I asked her if her three year old sister could borrow her favorite book series. She laughed, and said no. Why not? Because she can’t read! True, so let’s teach her the alphabet. Can she borrow them now? No? She wouldn’t understand them? Skill, talent, all that is great, sure, but you still need the basics. If you’re not happy with the quality of a story or book, keep going. Worst case is, you’re learning the times table so you can move onto algebra!
Reward yourself for it. You finish 15 minutes, whether you’re happy with the result, or you think it’s garbage, and you get some candy. Or a coffee. Or get to binge-read reddit. Basically, gamification your writing until you get past the hump of suck.
When in doubt, read a book
None of this working? Go read a book. People loooove to say that if you want to write, you need to read. So maybe that’s what’s missing. Take a break, find something good, and indulge in a new story.
Spencer Reaves grew up in a small town and her best friends were horror novels and an old typewriter. She knew in elementary school that she enjoyed writing – it took her until almost 30 to realize that she NEEDS to write too, and not just marketing content like she’s used to.
She is a story teller, coffee-drinker, and weirdo who still believes that her best friends are books. Her keyboard is a close second. Her heroic fantasy isn’t for the faint of heart. Neither is her horror. You can visit her website at spencermccoy.com.