Not Dead Just Frozen II – What to Write When You Don’t Know What to Write About

Welcome to Ask The Escapery. Got a writing question? Write us! Maybe we can’t fix it, but promise to have fun with the question. Comments are open.  

And if you want a place to try these experiments in good company, check out our monthly drop-ins, coming your way SOON SOON!

Earlier this week, I shared my darkest secr- one of my darkest secrets (Shhhhh….) as a writer: the feeling of freeze or writer’s abyss, of not knowing what to write about, or how to write, or anything. I shared what hasn’t worked for me – but what does work?

Lynda Barry teaches us that only one thing helps in the face of nothing – not intellectualizing, not forcing, but doing the thing, or at least pretending to do the thing.


It takes a step of faith.

Indiana Jones Abyss

Like an Indiana Jones-level step of faith.

Here are a few writing experiments that have helped us launch projects.

They’re from books, from friends, from teachers, from thin air.

And they work. Sometimes. Most of the time. Not because it took some genius to come up with them, but because they are good at keeping your busy mind occupied so the deeper stuff can come out.

No promises that they will work TODAY, RIGHT NOW, but this is a guarantee: If you splash around in your writerly water long enough, something big and strong and important will come and grab you. And this thing will be all yours.




For all of these, try this: WRITE BY HAND. Set a timer. Try five minutes at first. Then ten. An hour. Don’t check facebook. Leave your computer behind. Leave your leatherbound journal to the side and write on a notepad or a composition book: something that costs less than $3. Put a second notebook to the side. Once you set your timer, you WILL NOT stop writing. You will NOT go backwards. You will NOT cross anything out. If you absolutely CANNOT find a word at all, switch to your second notebook and draw spirals until you can. (this last trick, with forever gratitude, from Lynda Barry). 

Here’s a sample spiral. Yours will probably look different. Mine look like seasick donuts. It doesn’t matter. Promise. 

sample spiral

Now go! The times below are suggested.

You know when you turn on an old tap and at first it sputters, and then nothing comes out, and then what comes out is orange and undrinkable? It might be that way for you at first. Don’t lose hope. Keep writing. 

I. Story Places (15 Minutes)

  1. Write a list of places that have STORY VALUE for you. Places you remember. Places you wish you could forget. Places you know so well, you know too well. A place you remember for any reason at all. A place could be a country, a city, a town, a kitchen table, a crawl space. Fill a page with these places. Pick one
  2. Imagine yourself in that place. Write about it. What do you hear? Smell? Feel? What’s out of place? What is messy about that place? Write about it’s beauty. Write about its ugliness. Write about what the place tastes like.

II. Story People (15 Minutes)

  1. Write a list of people you miss. People you don’t understand. People you can’t stand. Choose one.
  2. Put this person in the place you miss. Take something away from them.

III. I Don’t Know Why I Remember/ I Remember

  1. A listing exercise. Start each line “I don’t know why I remember” and go. Doesn’t matter what comes out. Write to the end, start a new line. You can skip the “I don’t know why I remember” part. Just keep listing.
  2. After Lynda Barry – list things you do remember. Make a list of cars. A list of dogs. A list of dates. A list of meals. Each time you make a list, choose one. Dive into that memory. What does it smell like? What’s on the radio? What’s behind you? In front of you? Around you? What’s spilling? Who’s voice do you overhear? What are they saying?

IV. After Pam Houston: Five Things That Interest You

  1. Carry a notebook around for a week. Note things that are interesting to you, things that you see, song lyrics you overhear. Give each 2-3 lines.
  2. At the end of the week, line them up together. Does this make a story? Could it? What patterns emerge?
  3. Keep doing this. Is it a novel?

V. Something You Will Never Live Down

Try this, supposedly the inspiration for Amy Hempel’s magnificent story: “Write about something you will never live down.”

VI. Field Trip
Go to a museum, a cafe, a bar. Bring your notebook. Collect what interests you: images, overheard dialogue, names.
Pro Tip, from the brilliant Nancy Au: take your glasses off. What do you think you see?
Actually, every writing experiment Nancy Au suggests is brilliant. Check out her posts here.

VII. Don’t Write

Go buy a coloring book. Not a Sudoku book. Not a crosswords book A coloring book. Buy a set of pencils. Put away your pens except one. Shut down your computer. Shut EVERYTHING off for two hours. You are going to sit somewhere and color for two hours. That’s what you are going to do. Don’t listen to the news. Don’t listen to NPR. Get someone to enforce your silence. Make a big pot of tea. If you choose music, you don’t get to change your music. The first time you want to reach for the pen, don’t. The second time you want to reach for the pen, don’t. The third time, grab your pen. But keep writing for the next 15 minutes.

VIII. Write A List of Things You Don’t Understand

We’re getting into forbidden consciousness territory here, but try this: Write a list of things you don’t understand or things you don’t know about something that interests you. Start small. Maybe it’s a moment in history. Maybe it’s the French Revolution. Maybe it’s a relationship you’ve glimpsed. Maybe it’s zombies. What don’t you know about zombies?
Keep enlarging the question until you stumble on something that you can’t answer. Surely that’s something worth writing about.

Of course, there’s TONS of these experiments. You can find them in A Writer’s Book of Days, in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing, and in my favorite, Alice Laplante’s The Making of A Story. Maybe they won’t generate the great american novel. But more often than not, something happens. A formless hunch. A ripple in the water. A shape. Follow that shape. Could be just a duck, a branch, a rock…

Loch Ness 1


Loch Ness 2

Good Luck!

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” — Maya Angelou


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