Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Writing Habits

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I have writing slumps that can last for weeks because I can't think of anything interesting to write about. How do I avoid this?

Most writers face periods of inactivity at some point. Sometimes you simply need time to restock your creativity shelves. And that is important work. You can collect observations, mull over ideas, and imagine possibilities. Still, maintaining a regular routine can help you stay connected to the habit of writing and even reinvigorate your creative energy. There are plenty of ways to get that pen moving across the page. Here are some I have found useful:

Writing Exercises: Whether you are a beginning or seasoned writer, exercises help you focus on a specific task, which can get you started. Exercises can also crack open your imagination by presenting a detail, situation, or nugget of information that comes from outside your own thought process. Sometimes that is enough to summon a world of possibilities and put you the midst of writing, rather than wondering what to write about.

Freewriting: This is the practice of writing without stopping for a set amount of time. You might start with ten minutes and build from there. Begin with anything that comes to mind, such as describing the view from your window, and see where you go from there. It might take a week of consistent freewriting sessions or just three little minutes into the first session, but if you keep at it you will eventually gravitate toward a compelling topic. Another approach is to indulge in wordplay. For example, you might scribble a list of nonsensical phrases or word pairs: “whittled wash,” “gummed hope,” “locked coins.” Experimenting with words can create connections and associations that thrust your thoughts in unexpected directions. You’re bound to find yourself in the midst of an interesting scene or intriguing idea when the timer sounds.

Move: Take a walk. Go for a bike ride. Mow the lawn. A simple activity that doesn't take much thought and can be done alone leaves your mind free to invent and imagine. Don’t think of your "to do" list, or the fact that the checkbook needs balancing. Instead, experiment with characters and dream up complex scenarios. If you keep your thoughts away from responsibilities, you free yourself up to more creative thought.

Create a writing ritual: Setting the table and preparing a meal signal that dinner is approaching and that puts us in the mood to eat. Similarly, we can train ourselves to anticipate writing. It’s no coincidence that writers who prepare for the arrival of writing time often find themselves ready to write. This is one reason many writers find it useful to write at the same time every day. A ritual may be very small, such as listening to a specific kind of music, preparing a cup of tea, or acknowledging a certain talisman. The writer who writes outside the home may find ritual in simply gathering together the supplies—a laptop or a pen and notebook—and walking to a favorite place. You might actually have a ritual you already enact.

Writing is an act of creation and, as a result, can feel very mysterious. But writing isn’t something that happens to us; it’s something we do. So find ways to free up your imagination and to situate yourself in front of your notebook or computer long enough for the words to come.