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Writing When You’re Not Writing

This month for Fiction Therapy, I answer a question from a member of the WU community, Al Rutgers.

Al is 63 years old and has been writing in starts and stops for 15 years. He says:

I’ve studied the craft of writing by taking some university writing courses, some online courses, and reading books and blogs about writing. My favourite way of studying writing is to write, in longhand, chapters of novels, stories or essays by writers I admire: John Steinbeck, Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith.

I know I am able to write as evidenced by winning four writing contests, but I am unable to write every day. In fact, I often don’t write for months and then suddenly have a flurry of writing.

I realize that this defeats my ability to hone my skills and I tend to beat myself up about it. I live in a state of guilt thinking that I am cheating my life by not knuckling down and committing to the craft.

One could argue that with every new story a writer is once again a beginner, faced with the task of having to learn all over again how to write. Knowing this though does not bolster my confidence. Do you have any motivational strategies that would push me over this hump?

This is an issue that affects many writers: that feeling of lacking the commitment to sit down and get the work done, if not every day, then certainly more than you currently do.

For some extra context, Al also suffers from chronic pain, something that I know many others in WU community also suffer. He writes:

Many writers in writing groups I’m involved in suffer from chronic health issues, and this inevitably leads to delays in their work. Chronic health issues and depression are common in many writers—think Dostoyevsky and Hemmingway. Admittedly some writers use these obstacles as motivations in their writing, but others, such as me, find they are roadblocks.

Here’s my advice to Al and anyone else confronted with the same issue.


First, you could try to be kinder to yourself and not blame yourself when you don’t write. Remind yourself that you quite clearly can write. In Al’s case, he’s already won four writing contests and published several stories. It’s also a big achievement to be able to just sit down and actually write anything rather than do everything else on your undoubtedly long list of routine chores, family duties, work (if any) and other responsibilities. Even if you only write sporadically, you can be proud of yourself if you manage to make the time to get any writing done at all.

Remember, too, that writing is not all about tapping at a keyboard or scribbling with a pen. In the time when you’re not doing that, you’re still writing. As John Irving said, “Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

Those months, days, hours and moments of not writing is when you’re noticing. That’s why you can have those flurries of productivity; you’ve already worked out so much of the story in your head, even if that was done unconsciously.

Drifting thoughts

Accept this as your way of working, your way of honing those skills. And when your mind starts telling you to feel guilty, recognize that as nothing more than the thought it is, and let it pass on by without paying it too much attention. It’s dwelling on the thought that makes it a problem, not the thought itself.

Therapists call this diffusion, and it’s a common mindfulness technique. Many of you will have heard variations on this. A common one is to imagine your thoughts as clouds floating across a clear sky. Let those clouds float on by without concentrating too much on any one of them. Another idea on the same theme is to see your thoughts as leaves on a stream, floating away till the next one comes along.

But wait! You’re a writer. You need to hold on to at least some of those thoughts. You can’t let them all drift by or you’ll only be writing about floaty leaves and clouds.

The trick then is to recognize which thoughts are useful and which are not. It’s about flexibility. Make it your choice. You can hold onto the thought about the perfect murder—for writing purposes only, of course—but the one that says you should be getting all of this onto the page right now can just drift on by.

One technique for improving this kind of flexibility is to label those thoughts. Give them a name. The useful thoughts, like writing thoughts, can hang around a while. And then you can let go of those less useful ones (it’s generally not helpful to label them good and bad, to be so subjective). “There’s that guilty thought again,” you might say. “Goodbye guilty thought. Come back delicious murder thought.”

Meditation helps to improve this mental flexibility. There are many good guided meditations out there on exactly this theme. This one from Naomi Goodlet is a good place to start [1]. Find one that suits you and, with some practice, you’ll be able to pick and choose which thoughts are helpful for your writing—and maybe even elsewhere in your life—and which are not.

Do you ever feel guilty about not spending enough time on your writing? What techniques do you use to get over that guilt? In what other ways are you writing when you’re not actually getting words down onto a page?

 Thanks to Al Rutgers for being so open, frank and generous to share his thoughts. You can find his most recently published short story “Farming [2]” on the Canadian arts journal Jam & Sand [3].

If you have a specific concern about your novel or writing life, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com and I’ll do my best to help.

About Jim Dempsey [4]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [5]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [6] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [7]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [8] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [9].