Mar 14, 2016, 06:43AM

How to Write When You’re Not Writing

Get your face out of that laptop.

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Sometimes, I teach writing classes, and lecture at writing conferences. What this means is that I have to get my eyebrows waxed and get my hair cut, because I can’t wear baseball caps and yoga pants like I do the other 364 days of my life as a reclusive writer type/beach bum. Actually, I enjoy teaching. This weekend I taught a session on “How to write when you’re not writing.” Here are the points I went over in my Power Point slideshow.

—Do your other thing. We all have lives outside writing. Kids, jobs, families, and maybe a hobby. Whatever that is, whether it’s fishing or knitting or paddleboarding, often writing ideas can come from this place. For me, it happens to be kayaking. Story ideas do not come for me when I am sitting in front of a keyboard. Ever. Writers are better taking time off from “WRITING” and doing something they enjoy. An idea for a story will creep in when you least expect it.

Find a way to record story ideas and always have it ready. Whether the story idea or character motivation or exciting plot twist revelation comes when you’re at the movies, driving across town, grocery shopping or walking your dog, you won’t remember it later. If you’re a technology person, use the “notes” feature on your phone to simply record the title of a story idea or phrase that will remind you later what you thought of. If you’re not a technology person, have a pen and paper with you everywhere you go. Keep a journal beside your bed in case you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for the great American novel.

Unplug for the weekend. Stop watching so much TV. If you skip a weekend, your brain might reset and finally let you get that short story idea that hasn’t been able to bubble to the surface, or that article pitch you’ve been meaning to turn in when you get back to your laptop on Monday.

Experience something different. Writing inspiration comes from being around different groups of people, visiting new places, trying new things. Volunteer for something. Take a day trip to a museum you heard about one time with someone you haven’t seen in awhile. Do something crazy. These are the things you write about when you go sit down to do it. Henry David Thoreau said, "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."

Forbid yourself from writing for a week or a month. If you’re in a slump, walk away. Don’t even look at a pad of paper or a computer. You can do anything but write. Of course, you can write down an idea for a story, but that’s it. My guess is that your story idea list will grow. After your punishment phase, maybe you’ll come back with a new appreciation for the writing lifestyle you’re so allegedly bored with. Now sit down and write 1000 words a day just like Stephen King says in his memoir On Writing. (Haven't read it? Read it.)

Watch people. People are where stories are born, fiction or non-fiction. No writers are “people” people, we hate people. But we have to write about them, so one way or another you’re going to have to find some to hang around. Go sit in a mall or a coffee shop or join a damn science fiction movie club. Talk to strangers. You have to be around characters so you can create some, even if it means going into the same bookstore every Tuesday at the same time so you can get the mannerisms of that one redhead down who’s inadvertently being fictionalized just right.

Create something else. Writers are generally creative people, so if the dreaded “writer’s block” comes along either in a short-term or longer-term way, it can help to go do another creative thing, even if the outcome is kind of sad-looking. Painting (a canvas, a room, whatever), sculpture, mosaic, choose your medium, but the creation of another thing besides words can often do the trick when it comes to clearing your mind.

Take a writing class. At a local writer’s center or university near you, or simply online.

Read. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write, simple as that.” –Stephen King. I already to you to read On Writing, and also this one is just so painfully obvious, I mean, really.

Think your story through from start to finish. Before you sit down at the computer, do you know what happens in your story, article, poem? The process will be a lot easier for you if you do. Don’t sit down and write a “what I did on my summer vacation” thing where you have an opening sentence, three detail paragraphs, and a closing summary. Why? Because it’s not third grade, and as editors, that type of piece drives us insane. But think enough about what you’re going to write that by the time you sit down, the words flow more naturally.

-Follow Mary McCarthy on Twitter or Facebook.


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