Writer’s Block: How to move beyond “I don’t know what to write.”

Journal open to a blank page with pen ready to writeI don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write. This is how my writing sessions usually begin, unless I am already in the middle of a project. It’s how this started. Usually, I go back and take that out once I’ve picked up a little steam. This time, though, I left it in because it’s appropriate and it’s a little meta, which is where all the action is.

When I teach composition, I often have students do free writing in class, and this is one of my suggestions for getting started. They say, “I don’t know what to write about.” So, I tell them to write that, and sometimes we go back and forth for a bit about whether I mean to write literally that or I literally mean to write that, and the question is sometimes followed by, “The whole time?” or “But….” What I find when I read them later is that very few students will spend ten minutes writing “I don’t know what to write.” The more persistent ones might make it through four or five before they move on. Those who feel like they need to make a point will quickly transition to, “This is so stupid. Why is he making us write in class? This is like the biggest waste of time ever.”

To be honest, I would consider it a success if they managed to stick with that for ten minutes. That is free writing, or at least this particular version. It has no restrictions or qualifications for content. It just requires that you keep going for a specific amount of time. What I often find, however, is that even the writers who most want to show me how useless the exercise is, those who write about the exercise itself to prove a point, even they don’t stay stuck there for long. They transition from “This is so stupid.” to “It’s like that time….” And, then, by George, they’ve stumbled into a narrative. (This excludes those who simply do not write at all. They manage to prove their point and also not get credit for the exercise.)

What surprises me is how often I forget the effectiveness of this simple strategy. When I am staring at a blank page, thinking, “Oh god, I don’t have anything to write about. Solomon was right! There is nothing new under the sun.” etc., etc., I don’t remember that getting my fingers moving is important. It is not the same to think, “What should I write about?” You have to actually write it. It is a small difference, but it is essential. When you are facing writer’s block, the simple act of writing is often enough to move you past it. While you’re sitting there mentally bemoaning your inability to write, your fingers are actually writing. And that action gets your neurons firing; it gets the brain into writing mode.

It also moves you beyond the blank page. You might be thinking you have nothing to write about, but right there on the screen, or on the page, you have managed to put some words together. It didn’t even take that much effort, and there they are. You must have something to write about because you’re writing. I am not certain if this is the exact process that your brain goes through, but I think it is something like that.

As always, the big question is, “But does it work?” It works for me. Sometimes what immediately follows the, “I don’t know what to write.” stage is not very good. The first thoughts that come are often jumbled and not actually to the point, but they often provide the spark for something I can work with. So, if you feel like you have writer’s block, try writing. Hopefully, that won’t sound so facetious at the end of this.

Seriously, try writing, “I don’t know what to write.” or “What should I write about?” or “I have nothing to write.” over and over. Let me know how far you can get before you move on. And no, copy and paste will not get you anywhere.

Happy writing.

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