The Not-Writing Phase of Writing

By Nicole Stump

Confession: I haven’t been writing much lately. I’ve prioritized other things–a half-hearted exercise stint, daily I-survived-my-day-job nap time, staring slack-jawed into the abyss. I’m feeling the shame of not producing words, too–the shame of lacking the routine and determination to sit and create. While I do enjoy wallowing in self-loathing, I’ve been trying to look at my current stagnation more hopefully.

These two ideas are sustaining my mental health:

1. It’s totally normal to go through phases of not generating words on the page.

Life happens. With a finite amount of energy and time every day, it’s inevitable that there will be times when other things have to be prioritized. It feels like there’s a lack of transparency in the writing community about the struggle and effort it takes to do this work–to frequently set aside periods of time for the isolation of writing, for developing the habit of finding a mental space that can accommodate generating words.   

One of my poet idols, R.J. Gibson, has shared some posts on social media about his recent phase of generating less work. He describes “a year’s worth of scribbles and drafts” that he was convinced was “all garbage.”

“Pretty bleak creatively” sounds about right for my experiences too. It’s so easy to pretend that all other writers are doing this thing better and more easily than you are. Our reading lives are generally full of revised, edited, published pieces, and the polished words hide the effort of the process–the starts and stops, the rearranging, and the life experiences that shape each word. Part of writing is struggling to write. It’s universal.

2. Consuming is part of the writing cycle.

As we trudge through our daily lives, we’re brushing past character inspiration, plotlines, and settings that may be useful for future work. Absorb the world. Listen to people interact. Pay attention to details. Question motives and circumstances. Live your life with your eyes open for details that will help you fill the pages.

Luckily, consuming is (usually) fun. We know that reading is a way to become a better writer. Consuming books, podcasts, TV shows, poetry, news articles, user manuals, parking tickets, and/or the weather forecast are beneficial for immersing in a world of text, becoming familiar with features and qualities of various genres, and internalizing patterns of language to develop prosody. To be productive when you’re not feeling productive, devour written work, binge listen to podcasts, and upgrade your commute with an audiobook.

As a tribute to consuming, I’ve gathered some of my recent favorites.  


Podcasts: Up and Vanished, My Favorite Murder, In the Dark

Long read from the New York Times: “The Lonely Death of George Bell” by N.R. Kleinfield

Poetry:  Appetite by Aaron Smith, Boneshaker by Jan Beatty, Scavenge by R.J. Gibson, The Dirt Riddles by Michael Walsh

Short fiction: Flying Leap by Judy Budnitz, “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood

Fiction: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, Girls by Emma Cline, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Young Adult: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Evidence of Things Not Seen by Lindsey Lane
Feel free to generate some words in the comment section to add reading/listening recommendations. Best of luck writing/not writing/consuming!

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