We don’t often think about this, but what do I write when I’m not writing? If you write short stories or novels, what should you write when you’re not writing a new story? What should you be writing if you’re a journalist or a content writer between assignments? Should you be writing?
The answer to the latter is yes. Writing is a skill that, like a car, needs to be tuned to run at peak performance. That means writing every day or nearly every day. Every day? Yeah, that can get tedious, and that often leads to burnout. So, what to write when you’re not writing is as key to professional development as gasoline in a car. Because to keep going from one project to the next, it’s important not to write the same thing every day. Remember what happened to Stephen King’s Jack Torrance in The Shining, “All work and no play made Jack a dull boy.”
Speaking of Stephen King, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, when he finishes a novel, there’s enough gas left in the tank to write a short story or a novella. This is what he’s writing when he’s not writing. That is, it’s what he’s writing when he’s not getting paid to write.
I’m not talking about overcoming writer’s block or generating creative ideas. I’ve already covered those subjects in earlier blogs. I’m talking about what to write when you are not working on a project and how to fill up your tank and continue driving to keep the analogy going.
There’s a hazard when writing professionally that I call the stripper’s entanglement. I was working on a TV show about secrets, and one of the segments covered exotic dancing, which involved me interviewing exotic dancers. One of the dancers told me she felt empowered by her work because she controlled the conditions of the male gaze. Conversely, when she was in public, she could not control it. She told me about a time she sunbathed at the beach and felt male eyes on her. Her annoyance was not that men were objectifying her but that they weren’t paying for the privilege.
Here’s the writer’s entanglement. When writing professionally, it’s hard to find the motivation to write when not getting paid. I know a lot of professional writers who are kicking out 100,000 to 300,000 words a month. When they aren’t writing on the clock, they want to be paddling a canoe on a lazy river, hiking in the woods, or listening to true crime podcasts. I felt the same way when I was at the top of my advertising career. I was exhausted, and the last thing I wanted to do on my day off was sit in front of the keyboard and do more writing. But my writing became lifeless and rote.
My first fiction work was borne from a desire to write something else.
When I was writing advertising copy, I produced scripts for twenty-two or more TV and radio commercials a month plus, email copy, website copy, and some social media copy. I needed to write something for myself, not the client. As I became more proficient at fiction writing, I noted how it affected my copywriting work. Ads followed more of a story arc, there was an increase in action verbs, and my use of adjectives dropped (the dreaded -ly words that contribute little to your prose).
The copywriting contributed to my fiction writing. Sentences were shorter and more declarative. I learned to avoid semi-colons or long, complex sentences except when I go off on flights of fanciful stream of consciousness. And I learned to get straight to the point. My short stories often had a lede, and I stuck to one big idea—a lesson I learned from writing 30-second TV commercials.
Then I turned to poetry. It’s easy to write a string of words that rhyme and easier still if you follow a simple pattern; ABBA, ABAB, AABB, et cetera. Try writing a sonnet or a villanelle and the challenge increases exponentially. Writing a poem is easy. Writing a good poem—that’s hard. Even here, there were lessons learned that I could apply elsewhere. Poetry taught me to pay attention to the rhythm of words. It taught me to write for the senses. It taught me the economy of metaphors.
All of it taught me to write for an audience.
Even when the tank is empty, journaling or writing down story ideas or phrases will trick out your writing. I keep a notepad nearby and write down when a term or bit of dialogue comes to mind. One of my notes came to me while driving back to Colorado Springs from Denver. I thought about an exchange at a bar:
“Scotch or Irish?”
“Irish. I need to kill a man.”
When I got home, I wrote down the exchange and later added, whom does the customer have to kill? How does the bartender react? What do they talk about after that? Eventually, this evolved into my short story, Charlie’s Bar.
The science fiction author Tony Peak, whom I interviewed last year, writes criticism for Medium, and Bob McGuill keeps a hand in the world of advertising to keep his fiction writing fresh.
Brainstorm titles or outlines. Write a review of the book you just finished reading (and post it on Goodreads and Amazon—help your fellow writer out). Write down a memory or a story your grandmother told you. Describe what you’re looking at, or go for a walk and write about your walk in all its glorious mundane details.
If you’re not sure what to write when you’re not writing, Grammarly has a nice selection of writing prompts. Another exercise is sitting and writing whatever comes into your mind for about 45 minutes. Set an alarm, and no editing. Just vomit words onto a page and see what you get.
Write. It can be one hundred words or ten thousand words but write and write something different from what your day-to-day writing is.
If this sounds like the advice given to people who want to write, it is. Because what motivates you to start writing becomes the impetus to continue writing and improve your writing.
What to write when you’re not writing becomes especially important if you’re a professional writer; if you feel like you’re less a craftsman and more an assembly line worker, which is always a danger when you write for a living. If you’re questioning your career choice or writing the same thing day after day leaves you depressed or burned out, if your writing is dull, then turbocharge your craft by writing something off-the-wall and out of your wheelhouse.
“Writers write” is the old saw, but what to write when you’re not writing is a serious part of your career development. In time, you find that what you write when you’re not writing is the part of your craft you look forward to the most. Free of the economic pressures of writing professionally, it becomes an empty highway for your imagination to wander. Here you learn new skills, find new interests, and keep the lust for writing alive.
So, what are you going to write about today?