but you don’t know what

“I want to write something but I don’t know what.”

I was browsing Joanna Penn’s How to Write a Novel and found that line in a list of “common reasons writers quit.”

I know that feeling. Very often it’s when I sit down to compose something for this web log. I made this commitment to post daily, and that commitment has — more often than I care to admit — been the only evidence on a given day that I fulfilled the basic requirement for being a writer, that is to say, that writers write.

The blank page calls to me, and I have an overwhelming urge to fill it. I want to write something but I don’t know what. The best advice to myself I have ever conjured is: Write anything until you write something. Frequently all that comes out, at first, is gibberish. On occasion, all I end up posting is gibberish; the handful of you who check in daily are well aware of that.

But more often than not, as I scratch away at the page filling it with gibberish, writing anything, all of a sudden I will write something. There’s a fine line between anything and something, and occasionally I will look back at a stretch where I was just writing anything, and a passage will lift out of the context, and I’ll mutter, “Huh. That’s something after all.”

And so, my suggestion to you and to me is simply: If you want to write something and you don’t know what, just start writing anything. There are always words bouncing around in your brain: “Dammit, I’m going to have to shovel snow this morning.” “I guess I’d better let the dog out, she seems a little anxious.” “What the heck are those stupid politicians thinking?” If you can’t think of anything else, just write those words down. It’s only paper, or pixels on a screen, and there’s a near-infinite supply of those. Just move your fingers and set words down.

What the heck, write “I want to write something but I don’t know what.” And then write the next thing, and the next. Write anything! Don’t stop! Don’t think! Just. Keep. Writing.

I do not guarantee that suddenly you’ll write, “Call me Ishmael,” or “To be or not to be, that is the question,” or “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” But you might.

You may look over what you’ve written and conclude that it’s meaningless gibberish and not worth keeping. Keep it anyway. In a day or two, or more, you may look it over and see something in the midst of the junk and say, “Whoa. I wrote something there.”

Or maybe not.

But you know what?

Writers write. And now you have proof that, for one morning at least, you wrote.

You can build on that.

So: The solution to when you’re feeling, “I want to write something but I don’t know what,” is to start writing. Write anything. And see where it goes.

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